Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SPORTS
The emergence of several players after Mike Gillis was fired, including Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton, and Brendan Gaunce, and even strong AHL showings from Jordan Subban, Alex Grenier, and Joe LaBate have served to dull the pain from a decade of poor results during the Ron Delorme era, the pinnacle of which coincided with Gillis’ reign as GM.
A short time ago, Anton Rodin made his debut with the Vancouver Canucks, and in doing so he was the eighth Mike Gillis-drafted player to make his NHL debut after Gillis was fired. The addition of Rodin and core players like Horvat and Hutton to the Canucks lineup make Gillis’ draft record look vastly better than it was, and some have speculated recently that his drafting might be better than we thought.
Well, that’s not really the case. Vancouver’s draft history over the last fifteen years has been so abysmal that anything looks good. Even with these new young players brightening the ranks, Gillis’ draft record is still not good. And I have evidence.
Note: the NHL data in this article was gathered on January 23rd, making it about nine days out of date. Though the all-star break occurred in this period, a few games have been played by each team. This moves the exact numbers by a small amount, but would not affect the results as a whole.
Drafting by Volume
Gillis ran six drafts from 2008 to 2013, calling a total of 37 names. Already we can spot a problem: since 2005, there have been seven rounds in each draft, with every team receiving a pick in each round. Over the course of six drafts, that would equal 42 picks – meaning the Canucks have five fewer picks than they were given automatically, before factoring in trading away and recouping picks, or compensatory picks for coaches and unsigned draft picks. In this six-year period, only two teams (Philadelphia and the New York Rangers) made fewer selections.
Naturally, the first thought would be: “well, the Canucks were one of the best team in the league at the time, they were trading away picks to stay competitive for the playoffs”. That is, of course, true – between 2008-09 and 2012-13, only the Chicago Blackhawks tallied more points in the standings.
However, the line of reasoning that tells us we should expect so little draft picks in the name of being competitive doesn’t exactly stack up with the data. While there is a statistical relationship between the two, there are teams that were having as much or more success than the Canucks that were also accumulating more draft picks.
In this chart comparing total standings points (2008-09 to 2013-14) and total number of draft picks (2008 to 2013), you can see teams with approximately the same amount of standings points as Vancouver (like Washington and Detroit) with several more draft picks, and the same can be said of team with more standings points: San Jose.
And just take a look where Chicago is – the Blackhawks won two Stanley Cups in this stretch (and another shortly after it) and trail only San Jose in standings points (by 1), and yet they had more draft picks than anybody.
It’s been established time and time again that the best and safest way of drafting is to go into the draft with as many picks as possible. Over stretches of decades or more, the difference in the percentage of success per draft pick varies very little from team to team. The “best” drafting team in the league has only roughly a 20 percent advantage on the “worst” drafting team in the league (this is a lesson for the current Canucks management group as well). The best way to succeed is to stack the deck.
Mike Gillis and his staff did not do that. Chasing a Cup, they dealt their selections and failed to recoup them, while also failing to grab the greatest prize – one that would have bought them forgiveness for all of this.
To make matters worse, Gillis’ staff whiffed on a large percentage of the picks that they did keep, especially in the early going. At the time of his termination, no team had fewer draft picks that had reached the 50 NHL game plateau, though a couple of others were tied with Vancouver.
The only two players at this time meeting the threshold were Cody Hodgson (211 games) and Jordan Schroeder (56 games). Gillis had already traded Hodgson for Zack Kassian, and his successor neglected to qualify Schroeder following the 2013-14 season. Hodgson is already retired, while Schroeder is barely clinging to an NHL spot in his home state of Minnesota.
Gillis was rightfully criticized at the time for leaving the cupboards bare, so to speak.
Since then, the Canucks have had no less than eight former Gillis draft picks – Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton, Brendan Gaunce, Hunter Shinkaruk, Alex Grenier, Alex Friesen, Joe LaBate, and most recently Anton Rodin – make their NHL debuts, while another – Jordan Subban – was just recently on an NHL roster, though he didn’t get to play.
Only three of those aforementioned players have taken part in 50 NHL games (Horvat, Hutton, Gaunce), while two others that had previously made debuts passed the 50 games mark as well, bringing the total to seven. An improvement of five players in this span is nice, but as you can see, it hasn’t really moved the needle in the big picture:
Only Toronto now has fewer 50-game players from the 2008-2013 drafts – given that this was the Nonis era for the Leafs, that’s not really an accomplishment that warrants bragging. Not that one should ever be tempted to brag about being second worst at anything.
The linear trendline slicing upwards across the graph is telling us that there is a very strong correlation present. It’s one that we hammer again and again – more picks are predictive of more NHLers. The colourful chart below demonstrates this as well. It contains the total number of picks that each team made between the 2008 and 2013 draft, and the number of players that crossed various thresholds. Colour scaled from highest (green) to lowest (red), there’s an obvious distinction between the teams that picked more and the teams that picked less.
The chart also contains standings points, playoff appearances and rounds won, so you can get a feel for the general inverse relationship between team success and the number of picks, as well as just how ridiculously impressive and usual it is that Chicago has had as many picks as they’ve had.
Note the particularly dark redness of many of Vancouver’s columns – they rank worst in terms of number of 10-game, 25-game, and 200-game players, and are down near the bottom in every other category. They may have pulled out of last place in terms of players that made at least one NHL appearance, but having players like Yann Sauve, Alex Grenier, Anton Rodin and Joseph LaBate play just a handful of games, with futures unknown, doesn’t really count as successful drafting. Nor does Alex Friesen’s single gratuitous game, which, aside from probably been a thrill for the player himself, might as well have not even happened.
Here is a summary of Gillis’ draft picks that have “made the NHL”, along with each of their games played and point totals.
Three of the top four players in terms of games played are no longer with the Canucks organization. Cody Hodgson is already retired, so he won’t be adding anything to his resume. Prior to that, he became Zack Kassian, who became Brandon Prust, who became a UFA.
Kevin Connauton never even played a single game for the Canucks, having been included in the Derek Roy deal before making his debut. Roy also left as a UFA. Jordan Schroeder wasn’t tendered by the new regime, while Frank Corrado was lost on waivers. Nicklas Jensen became Emerson Etem, who was also lost on waivers. So not only did the Canucks not get value out of their draft picks while they were here, they didn’t get much of anything in return for them either
Note that both regimes are responsible for this second point, as Jim Benning’s crew has shuttled off many assets without getting a return – of course that could also say something about the “assets” that Mike Gillis left him with.
Value per Pick
The current regime has also been negligent about stocking up on draft picks. Many of Jim Benning’s staunchest defenders will point to his draft history (which I won’t be reviewing here) and claim something along the lines of “he may not have a lot of picks, but he’ll be able to get more out of the ones he has”.
The one comment I’ll make on that is that the rate of success between the best and worst drafting teams is not that significant and that harvesting picks is still a smarter method.
In terms of Mike Gillis’ record, though, he went in the complete opposite direction. Not only did he not compile that many draft picks, he made poor selections with the ones he had. This is first illustrated in the following graphs which present numbers of draft picks against total games played.
Here Vancouver sits well below the trendline, indicating a below average return on the few draft picks they made.
Another colourful chart drives this point home. Again you’ll find Vancouver down here the bottom (this chart is sorted by percentage of draft picks that played 50 NHL games), and again you’ll find many of their columns in dark red.
You’ll see the same trends in this graph of the number of picks against the total number of points. Again, Vancouver was unable to gain an advantage – the points per game of their draft picks are about league average, which combined with their poor return in terms of games played, results in a poor return in terms of points accrued.
Again, only Pittsburgh has collected fewer points from players drafted in this time frame, and they won a Cup in 2009 and were in the Finals in 2008 (not to mention winning again in 2016). Like the Canucks, they were pushing all in, but the difference between winning and losing a championship makes Pittsburgh’s situation a lot easier to swallow.
Recouping Draft Picks
We’ll allow ourselves to throw some blame towards Ron Delorme, whose challenges are well chronicled here, for the lack of success from the players chosen. In fact, the 2013 draft in which Eric Crawford took over appears to be the most successful of the group. Mike Gillis bears responsibility in both letting Delorme run the show for as long as he did, as well as in failing to recoup the draft picks he traded away while chasing a championship.
In fact, I could make the argument that Mike Gillis and Lawrence Gilman’s contract wizardry ended up hurting them in this regard, in a very strange twist. They massaged the salary cap to the point that they hardly needed to remove any core players following their big run. Compare that to a team like Chicago:
- They received a 1st and a 2nd round pick in Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager trade, and a 2nd round pick in the Andrew Ladd trade in 2010.
- They received a 1st round pick for Troy Brouwer in 2011.
- They received 2nd and 3rd round picks for Johnny Oduya in 2012.
- They received 3rd and 5th round picks for Michael Frolik, and a 2nd and two 4th round picks for Dave Bolland in 2013.
- They received a 3rd round pick for Brandon Bollig, and a bevy of prospects for Nick Leddy in 2014.
- They received 2nd and 3rd round picks for Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen, and two 2nd round picks for Andrew Shaw in 2016.
Comparatively, the nearly three years that Gillis remained with the Canucks following the 2011 Cup Final, they accumulated the following picks:
- A 4th round pick for the negotiating rights to Christian Ehrhoff.
- A 3rd round pick in the trade of Mikael Samuelsson for David Booth.
- A 1st round pick for Cory Schneider (which of course became Bo Horvat).
- A 5th round pick for Rafael Diaz.
The Canucks didn’t need to get rid of core players like Mason Raymond, Dan Hamhuis, Sami Salo or Chris Higgins, or even role players like Raffi Torres, Max Lapierre, Manny Malhotra or Aaron Rome. Without being forced to remove them, they eventually lost every single one of them to free agency (again, the current regime bears responsibility for a couple of these names).
Again, the point of this article is not to drag Mike Gillis’ reputation through the dirt. He presided over the most successful era in franchise history, building the teams that won the only two Presidents Trophies in franchise history, maximizing value by exploiting the Collective Bargaining Agreement and pushing the bounds of sports science in ways that have since been adopted by organizations like the Chicago Cubs.
But the man flat out could not draft hockey players. Or at least, the group he created and managed couldn’t.
Recent NHL debuts, and the blossoming of certain Gillis-era picks hasn’t changed the fact that, by and large, the Canucks were one of, if not the worst drafting NHL franchise between 2008 and 2013. We’ve just been so accustomed to terrible that were impressed by below average.
We can only hope that the current regime, one that hasn’t been shy about shifting blame in regards to the state of the franchise on to their predecessors, has learned something from the mistakes of the Gillis regime. Early returns indicate that Benning’s group certainly seems to be better and getting NHL players from their draft picks, but their volume of draft picks at the previous and upcoming drafts indicate that they haven’t learned that lesson yet.