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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
#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:
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:
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.
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.