Offseason Transactions Deep Dive: 2014 Entry Draft Retrospective

If it feels like it has been quite some time since the frenzy of moves the Vancouver Canucks made in that hectic stretch bridging the end of June and beginning of July, it’s because it has been. With the summer now officially having been put in the rearview mirror as training camps are set to begin across the league, we’re running a 5-part series reviewing what the Canucks did this summer, and what it means for them moving forward.

This deep dive was executed by the excellent MoneyPuck_ on Twitter, who has contributed content for us in the past.

For the second straight summer the Canucks went into the entry draft with multiple first round picks, offering a team now looked over by someone with Jim Benning’s past scouting acumen a huge opportunity to accelerate their retool, or rebuild, or whatever we’re calling it these days.

#6 Overall – Jake Virtanen

Consistent with what we’ve seen with many of the moves made by the new administration, there were no surprises when the Canucks brain trust selected Jake Virtanen with the 6th overall pick.

On the plus side, Virtanen is known as being one of the best skaters in the draft and has one of the hardest, most accurate shots. At 6’1”, 210lb he has that prototypical power forward frame that makes scouts drool. He was one of the youngest draft eligible players this year, to boot, which bodes well for his development when comparing his numbers to older players in his draft year.

As compared to other CHL draft eligible forward who were available when the Canucks picked at #6, Virtanen didn’t lead any major statistical categories, but he was in the noise in most areas:

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From the little we can infer about possession at the CHL level, which admittedly isn’t much, Virtanen didn’t really drive possession for his linemates. Here is the even strength goals for/against for Virtanen’s most common linemates with and without him:

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Virtanen’s linemates weren’t noticeably more effective when he was on the ice versus with them, which is disappointing coming from a top-10 pick; you would expect that a supposedly elite prospect would have a pretty material impact on his teammates at the junior level. By comparison, here is the even strength goals for/against for Nikolaj Ehler’s, who was the next CHL forward picked after Virtanen:

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By most accounts, if Virtanen reaches his potential he could be a solid top-6 scoring winger for the Canucks down the road, which is an asset every team needs. Other than Craig Button, most draft pundits had Virtanen ranked as one of the three best players available when the Canucks selected him at 6, but I’m definitely in the camp that would have preferred the Canucks take either Nikolaj Ehlers or William Nylander:

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While the case for picking Ehlers over Virtanen has been well documented you could make just as strong a case for picking William Nylander, who is coming off one of the most dominant U18 World Junior performances of all time:

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This performance at the World Juniors came a year after posting the second highest point total in Sweden’s SuperElit (U20) league of all time for an U-17 player:

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Virtanen is a good player and has a decent chance of becoming the type of big, fast, goal scoring winger that every team covets. When you consider the opinions of draft experts, he really wasn’t a reach at the number 6 slot, but I do think the Canucks passed on two players with a higher potential to become elite. That has very little to do with Virtanen himself, who’s a fine prospect in his own right.

#24 Overall – Jared McCann

This site ran a very interesting interview with former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM, and current Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant GM, Kyle Dubas earlier in the summer. Needless to say I like the selection of McCann at 24th significantly more than I like the selection of Virtanen at 6th, and he appears to have been a relatively clear consensus pick:

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McCann is known as one of the best two-way forwards in the draft, with outstanding hockey sense. This shows through remarkably well when looking at the even strength goals for/against of his most common linemates, with and without him:

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The main question mark around McCann is his offensive upside, as he scored quite a bit less this year than similarly ranked players such as Ivan Barbashev. However, his lower production can be accounted for by lower ice time versus some of his peers, as the Greyhounds were a very strong team this year that spread it around pretty evenly amongst their top three lines. When accounting for this usage, we can see McCann compared well with other CHLers available at the 24th pick:

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When watching him play it’s evident he has a pretty high skill set, so I expect his offensive numbers will improve this year with additional ice-time, specifically on the power play. Combining what appears to be at least some semblance of an offensive upside with a well-developed two-way game makes McCann a very solid pick at #24.

#36 Overall – Thatcher Demko

Demko was this year’s highest rated goalie prospect, thanks to what’s considered to be high end skill, and a big 6’4/185lb frame. His biggest weakness is the position that he plays; picking goalies at the draft is usually a pretty bad idea, both because the bust rate for goalies in the draft is ridiculously high and because it’s very much a buyer’s market for goaltending talent.

If there’s one thing that the Luongo and Schneider trades have taught Canucks fans it’s that the value of an elite goaltender is not as high as you’d like to think it is in today’s NHL. There is a limited number of goaltending jobs, but every year there is a surplus of capable goalies available via free agency. This summer alone there were 4 such goalies who had posted save percentages above .910 in their previous season (Miller, Hiller, Peters, Greiss). With such a low replacement cost for a capable goalie, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to select a goalie in 2014 who may develop into being a starter for you by 2020.

What’s worse is that goaltending prospects are notoriously hard to evaluate in their draft year. Looking at the 90 goalies drafted in the first two rounds from 1990 to 2008, we can see that teams drafting goalies between 31 and 60 were just as likely to pick a goalie that plays more than 200 games as those teams who picked goalies from between 11 and 30:

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On the other hand, if you are dead set on selecting a goalie, picking the top ranked goalie according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau is usually the best way to go. Here is a list of the top ranked goalies peer NHL CSB since 2002:

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It typically takes goalies up to six years to develop into NHL starters, if they make it at all. Looking at the period from 2002 to 2009, 5 of the 16 goalies selected have become bonafide NHL starters (31% – Lehtonen, Fleury, Bernier, Price, Rask) and another 3 (Lehner, Enroth, Montoya) are NHL regulars, resulting in a 50% success rate in that very small sample.

A couple of years ago, TSN’s Scott Cullen did a study looking at the probability draft picks would play 100 games in the NHL based on the position they were drafted at. The results are shown in the graph below, which provides a ton of context looking at later round picks:

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According to Cullen, the 36th overall pick yields a player who plays over 100 NHL games only 32 percent of the time, which is lower than the success rate of the top ranked goalies from Central Scouting 2002 to 2009. While I’m not a fan of selecting goalies in general, taking a flyer on the best available goalie with the hope that you’re lucky enough to grab the next Carey Price or Tuukka Rask may not be that bad a play after all.

#50 Overall

Traded for Linden Vey.

#66 Overall – Nikita Tryamkin

With the 66th overall pick the Canucks selected Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. Clocking in at a Chara-esque 6’7”, 230lb the 19-year old late bloomer was the first instance where the Canucks really went off of the board. Of the consensus list of experts, only Corey Pronman and McKeens had Tryamkin ranked (92 and 121, respectively), so by most accounts the Tryamkin selection looks like a bit of a reach.

It’s not unusual to see defensemen, especially big men like Tryamkin, develop later than smaller forwards. In fact, 18% of the defensemen that played in the NHL last year were not selected in the draft at all. Tryamkin has a cannon of a shot and showed enough development last season to warrant not only an invite to the World Juniors, but a significant top-4 role and a spot on their second power play unit.

According to the aforementioned Cullen study, the 66th overall pick has historically resulted in players to play in excess of 100 NHL games only 26% of the time. Taking those odds into account, swinging for the fences on a late blooming prospect with Tryamkin’s size and skillset doesn’t seem risk/reward gamble.

#126 Overall – Gustav Forsling

Forsling played the full year in Sweden’s SuperElit U20 league, where he scored the 5th highest points amongst U18 defensemen:

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Forsling also had an outstanding U18 tournament this summer leading all defensemen in goals, and coming second in points to Canada’s Travis Sanheim (who was picked 17th overall).
According to Cullen, the 126 spot yields a player who exceeds 100 NHL games only 13% of the time, so selecting a defensemen who has shown solid a solid offensive skill set and steady development throughout the year is a good bet.

#156 Overall – Kyle Pettit

The 156th overall pick fails to land an NHL player 86% of the time, so it’s hard to get too indignant about the Canucks throwing away a pick on the fourth line center for the Erie Otters who has only managed to score 16 points in his 120 junior games so far. However, at that point in the draft there were a number of players still available who were still available that had shown significantly higher upside:

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If Pettit is unable to play more than 7.6 minutes a game in junior, it’s extremely unlikely he’ll ever play a minute in the NHL. This one was a waste.

#186 Overall – Mackenzie Stewart

Stewart is a pretty good story. From Jason Botchford at the Province:

A year ago, he was playing Junior A. Three years ago, he was in Junior B, and flipped around to three different teams too. And eight years ago, well, Stewart wasn’t playing hockey at all.

Stewart was born deaf, so his progress from not playing hockey at all to the third pairing of the Prince Albert Raiders is actually pretty impressive. Who knows whether his progress will continue on this trajectory and take him to the NHL, but at 6’5/237lb size is clearly not an issue.

Conclusion

This was actually a pretty interesting draft for the Canucks, and there’s quite a bit I liked about it. When you look at the Cullen graph, it becomes apparent that a good draft is when you nail your first round picks and are able to make strong, calculated bets in the later rounds that buck historical bust rates.

With their first round picks, the Canucks look like they got two future NHLers in Virtanen and McCann, and in Demko they selected the best available goaltender in the draft.

Given the amount of NHL defensemen who were never drafted at all, I’m actually pretty interested to see if the Canucks strategy of picking rapidly improving, late bloomers like Stewart and Tryamkin will pay off.

That said, when I look at Nikolaj Ehlers and William Nylander I can’t help but fear this draft will be known as the year the Canucks let those two guys get away.

Previously in this series:

  • orcasfan

    I think you used the wrong chart for linemates’ 5/5 GF with V. It looks like you are in fact showing V’s goals when playing with the specified linemates. The Ehlers chart beneath it looks to be the right way around Linemates goals when playing with Ehlers).

    I suppose it is also possible that the chart labels are inconsistent bewtween the Ehlers and V tables and are in fact showing the same information – in which case, tsk, tsk.

    If the case is the former (wrong chart), however, does the data suggest that V is very consistent regardless of linemates? That sounds like a plus for V.

    • orcasfan

      Actually in both cases its team on-ice goals for/against with and without Virtanen/Ehlers. The chart labels are inconsistent as I should have had with/without Virtanen in the top columns as I did in the Ehlers chart below (my bad).

      My takeaway when looking at these two charts, is that Virtanen didn’t have a huge impact on team production for his linemates, whereas Ehlers’ linemates really water skied behind him. The old adage being great players make their team mates better definitely seems to apply to Ehlers, but apparently less so for Virtanen.

  • orcasfan

    I liked Nylander too. Could have been the heir to Henrik. But, I also understand the rationale about the challenge of playing in the big, tough Western conference (and especially the Pacific). Even with that factor, I think it would have been a worthwhile risk to go for Nylander. But, at the end of the day, especially with the loss of a physical C like Kessler, I am OK with the Virtanen pick.

  • Fred-65

    This is by now a well-rehearsed argument about Ehlers and Nylander versus Virtanen at 6. Your argument still seems to be skill vs. size but everything about Virtanen says skill AND size — that’s a really tough combination to pass up. There are all kinds of players who tear up junior and the minors but have difficulty translating it to the size requirements of the NHL. There were as many busts on the comparable player lists you gave for the U18 and the Swedish tournament as there were stars. It’s true that both Ehlers and Nylander have had very strong camps and preliminary tournaments so far for the Jets and Leafs, but if the Canucks had drafted them there would’ve been as much of an outcry about drafting skilled smallish forwards as anything else.

    I also think the idea that drafting goalies high is a bad move is laughable. One of the main reasons the Canucks were so competitive in recent years is because of the solid foundation Luongo gave them — we saw what happened in the Naslund years thanks to Cloutier et al. Of course there are exceptions but the majority of elite goalies in the league who provide dependable service are all high picks. Just because you COULD get a decent goalie later in the draft or via FA or on the waiver wires doesn’t mean you will.

  • orcasfan

    The most worrisome part of the draft was the possibility that this administration is chasing BC boys (Virtanen, the pursuit of Reinhart).

    As much as Virtanen is not who I would have selected based on my limited information, there is zero evidence that Sham Sharron or any of its disciples are better at the draft than the average NHL executive…

  • Fred-65

    One of the points I find exciting about Virtanen is his age. To achieve what he has at his age IMO can’t be overlooked. A couple of more weeks and he’d have been in next years draft that’s big number of goals for a guy in the Dub at his age. He’s a shooter lets hope Vey in the Future can be a set up player for Virtanen

    • Fred-65

      This is a pretty important point.

      Virtanen played all of last year as a 17 year old and put up a PPG.

      Reinhart & Draisaitl played nearly all of 2012-2013 as 17 year olds and put up right around a PPG as well in the same league…

      • Fred-65

        “This is a pretty important point.

        Virtanen played all of last year as a 17 year old and put up a PPG.

        Reinhart & Draisaitl played nearly all of 2012-2013 as 17 year olds and put up right around a PPG as well in the same league…”

        The amount of info you know tells me that you don’t have a family or much time for anything else. And the sad thing is it has to do with the Canucks…of all things.

        Now you may call me a troll but seriously, a Canuck super fan? wow, that is truly sad…and not sad meaning good in a ghetto reverse kind of way but just plain old sad.

        • Fred-65

          Almost as sad as somebody making roundabout racial remarks like “in a ghetto reverse kind of way.”

          Incidentally, you’re thinking of bad meaning good, which was more of a nineties thing anyway – if anyone had any remaining doubts that Fargo 26 is an aging white male.

          To at least try to remain on topic, I’d say that the potential rewards of drafting Demko far out way any criticism of picking a goalie. Elite netminders like Price and Rask are the single most valuable commodity in the league. That’s a drastic comparison and an unfair outcome to predict for the kid, but considering that the ways to come by such a goalie are few, I don’t begrudge the new regime for taking a chance. Especially since Benning’s other moves this summer were pretty sensible and grounded, if nothing else.

  • Canafan

    Disagree that he was not a better choice. Ehlers I think will be good, but somewhat one dimensional and rumours that I have heard are that Nylander has a bit of an attitude problem. He thinks he is great, so he acts like he deserves everything given to him. Virtanen is younger than both and still has the potential to develop. I like the Vancouver style of letting the young guys develop, I hope they send Horvat back and Shinkaruk down for a year. Maybe one or two first rounders are ready, really ready to play in draft year.

  • Fred-65

    For the Virtanen and Ehlers WOWY tables, I think the focus should have been on %GF rather than goal differential so the results are relative to the amount of total goals. The goal differential approach used above can paint a fuzzy picture if the amount of time played with and without Virtanen aren’t fairly even.

    3 of the 4 players are considerably better with Virtanen in terms of GF%. Although the results may not be as drastic as with Ehlers, it is inaccurate to say that “Virtanen’s linemates weren’t noticeably more effective when he was on the ice versus with them”. Based on the data, they were noticeably more effective.

    • Fred-65

      This is an excellent point. Thanks for pointing it out. The GF% increases are definitely there, but as you note nearly to the same extent as Ehlers. This should be a very interesting year, as his TOI should increase considerably.

  • ChickenSouvlaki

    I liked the article, but damnit guys every time there’s a Virtanen article it always becomes about Ehlers and Nylander.

    I wanted Nylander on draft day as well, it didn’t happen. Can we talk about how good of a player Virtanen is and could become rather than how good Ehlers/Nylander could become?

  • Canafan

    Good read, mercifully didn’t contain the incorrect chestnut about Virtanen playing the whole season in the top line with Chase and Brassart. Glad to see that one get dropped. Did find it interesting that the article references the low TOI estimates for McCann (17.3 mpg) when giving a positive spin on his barely-PPG yet ignored that same stat for Virtanen (17.8 mpg) when discussing his production. I find it a bit disengenuous to use low TOI as a explanatory factor for one player but not the other. Since you obviously have access to the now-defunct Extraskater.com estimates, you should be aware that Ehlers’ TOI was considerably greater (26.0 mpg) than Virtanen’s (17.8). Seems reasonable to give that some consideration before concluding that Virtanen was an inferior pick to Ehlers (even if the overall tone of article was reasonably positive about Virtanen). Just my 2 cents anyway …