The Vancouver Canucks announced today that they had signed CHL free agent Zack MacEwen to a three-year Entry Level Contract. MacEwen was reportedly a sought after free agent, according to a report in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts article from a few weeks back.
Put bluntly, this a complete waste of a contract. Read on to find out why!
MacEwen has had a breakout year for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL, scoring 27 goals and 62 points in 59 games. He plays on the top line, predominantly with Vitali Abramov, who is second in the QMJHL in scoring.
The problem is this: MacEwen is 20 years old, and he’s never scored like this before. The possibility that he’s benefiting from playing with an extremely talented linemate is overwhelmingly obvious.
Canucks 'Let's scout Gatineau' 'Wow, this Abramov kid is great!' 'Let's sign all his bad linemates and take Lockwood instead of him'
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) March 3, 2017
The Canucks weren’t the only one interested in MacEwen, per Friedman’s report.
That fact that they got him may seem like a victory, but it probably shouldn’t. Ryan Biech delved into MacEwen’s numbers after the Friedman article, and found several red flags, including his sudden boost in production with talented linemates, a suspiciously high percentage of secondary assists, and a large percentage of power play goals. But there’s plenty more where that came from, and it doesn’t even touch on what I perceive to be the biggest and reddest flag of them all.
MacEwen has been noted as a “late bloomer”, which is really just code for “bad until he got so old that he could thrive on a top line with substantially better and younger players”. Sometimes these CHL free agents were overlooked because of some perceived flaw (often related, but not limited to, size). In those case, teams are able to pick up players that were passed over despite having promising numbers or other attributes, taking advantage of what we’d call a market inefficiency. Troy Stecher would be a great example of this – his numbers in Junior A and through his underclassmen years at college were draft worthy, but he was 5-foot-9.
Players like MacEwen are the exact opposite. They look like what traditional hockey minds expect players to look like. The reason that they don’t get drafted is not because of some sort of bias, but because they legitimately don’t deserve to be drafted.
When we’re projecting prospects, we always have to be wary of age – players develop an awful lot in the approximately four years they spend in junior hockey. Even when looking at older prospects, you can tell a lot about their futures when you look at how they performed in their 17-year old (draft year), or even 16-year old (draft-minus-one) seasons. Or, as the case may be, where they played.
A very prominent, yet easy to spot red flag for North American junior players is when they aren’t playing Major Junior by the their draft year. An exception might be that the player is trying to maintain NCAA eligibility – of course, if they end up playing in the CHL later on, that probably wasn’t the reason they weren’t in the CHL earlier.
MacEwen represents this type of player. In the first year that he was eligible for the NHL Entry Draft, MacEwen was suiting up for the Amherst Ramblers of the Maritime Hockey League (MJAHL). Worse, he recorded just 14 points in 50 games that year.
The following year he showed substantial improvement at that level, scoring 29 goals and 52 points in 46 games, earning some time in the QMJHL, where he produced two points in nine games. To reiterate, that’s two points in nine games in the QMJHL in his draft-plus-one season.
In 2015-16, he again made a large improvement, this time scoring 10 goals and 40 points in 66 games, then in his draft-plus-two season. Last offseason, MacEwen was traded to the Gatineau Olympiques, a substantially better team, and has again improved to 27 goals and 62 points in 59 games. He’s now an overager in his draft-plus-three season.
MacEwen has clearly shown improvement each year. That’s a good thing, but even with a good slope, the numbers look bad if the intercept is much lower than it should be. In other words, his year-to-year improvement doesn’t make up for the fact that his production is still about two years behind where we’d expect it to be from a player that has any chance to make the NHL.
As mentioned off the hop, this a complete waste of an NHL contract spot, of which teams are only able to hold 50 at once, making them a bit of a commodity. While we’ve argued ad nauseam that contract spots should be treated as such, the Canucks have seemed intent on throwing at last one away each year on junior players (not to even mention the contracts they waste on professional players).
This is the third straight spring that the Canucks have given a contract to a CHL player that simply didn’t deserve it – the first being their own draft pick, Mackenze Stewart, in 2015, and then free agent Yan-Pavel Laplante, also of the Gatineau Olympiques, in 2016.
This is the second year in a row that the #Canucks have signed Vitalii Abramov's linemate – who went the pick after they took Lockwood
— Ryan Biech (@ryanbiech) March 3, 2017
Stewart is now toiling in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces, with 10 points in 54 games, while Laplate is producing at a half-point per game for those same Aces, nearing his 22nd birthday.
The Canucks tried to force both on to the roster of the Utica Comets at various points, but Travis Green was having none of it. Stewart saw four games of action – with limited minutes – in 2015-16 before being dispatched to the ECHL. There he lasted six games before being sent back to junior, where he had to find a new team because his former one wasn’t interested in able to take him back.
Laplante played in 13 games for the Comets this season, interspersed with at least 12 healthy scratches (he missed approximately 11 more due to injury, but it is difficult to tell when he became healthy, since he couldn’t get back into the lineup). He had a single solitary assist in that time.
This is the future that I envision for Zack MacEwen. A few weeks of limited minutes and healthy scratches for Utica in 2017-18 before being dispatched to whichever ECHL affiliate is housing their cast offs. That’s fine enough for players on American League contracts, but it’s pretty embarrassing for a team to have that many NHL contracts in the ECHL, not because the talent level on the AHL team is too good, but because they can’t cut it at the next level.
ELC’s cannot be bought out. The team that signed them must suffer through them until they have run their course. I’d think less of the Canucks if they weren’t regretting the contract they gave to Mackenze Stewart two years ago (as nice of a boy as he seems to be).
The Canucks are at 46 out of their 50 available contract spots, assuming MacEwen slides and kicks in next season. That’s four spots available to sign NCAA free agents (with which they did very well last year getting Troy Stecher) as well as some of their own drafted players that may be ready to turn pro. They’re closer to the limit than they need to be for no good reason.
The Canucks seem intent on finding another Alex Burrows. The recently traded (but never forgotten) forward’s backstory is legendary in Canucks lore. Like MacEwen, Burrows didn’t become a full time CHL player until his draft-plus-two season, and it took him another season after that to get above a point-per-game in that league. (Ironically, Burrows; draft-plus-two season comes up as a match to MacEwen’s draft-plus-two season). Burrows had to try out for an ECHL team the following year to continue playing hockey.
We all know what happened after that. Burrows continued his ascent all the way to one of the NHL’s best first lines, potting more than 25 goals in four straight seasons. A remarkable tale that serves to tell us that great players can come from anywhere.
But a little reality is in order. For every Alex Burrows, there are hundreds more players that never play a single NHL game, or can’t even stick on an AHL roster. As much as I appreciate Burrows and love the journey he took to the NHL, it’s a player type that I’d bet against ten times out of ten, especially if it were my job on the line, doling out contracts.
Cohort models like the pGPS system should never be taken as gospel, but you can safely consider them as something more similar to betting odds, and these odds indicate that using a contract on MacEwen is a bad bet to make.
His limited successful matches each season make for distractingly high Expected Production scores, but the smart money knows to look at the bottom, where his Expected Success Percentage is flatlining.
While this represents a pointless and disappointing use of resources, it’s still not enough to dampen the spirits of Canucks fans after the stellar trade deadline that Jim Benning had himself. In the end, the value added by the acquisitions of Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin is a hundred times greater than the value lost by throwing away a contract on a player like Zack MacEwen.
But it creates a confusing reality for Canucks fans. Which is the real Jim Benning? The GM who acquires skilled players that have great numbers relative to their league and age, or the GM who signs character players that work hard, but have underwhelmed statistically or taken advantage of favourable age circumstances. While this move may seem inconsequential, it follows from the same kind of thinking that leads to $10+ million contracts for the Luca Sbisa’s and Derek Dorsett’s of the world.
Of course it’s possible that every GM is capable of making both good and bad decisions. But for fans that thought that Jim Benning had turned a corner, we’re left wondering if Jim Benning was temporarily possessed at the deadline and has since returned to his previous ways.