The Canucks really like Tom Willander, but will they regret the players they passed up on?
Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
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Yesterday evening, the Canucks selected Rogle BK J20 defenceman Tom Willander from Sweden’s most competitive junior hockey league with the 11th selection in the first round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. Willander, who recorded 25 points (4 G, 21 A) in 39 games this season, has been publicly linked to the Canucks since the start of this month when the team took him out to dinner during the NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo.
The Canucks also took out forwards Zach Benson, Matthew Wood, and Colby Barlow, who were all still available for the Canucks’ choosing, but were ultimately passed on in favour of Willander, who was a forward up until two years ago.
Canucks GM Patrik Allvin gave insight into Willander’s selection following the pick, revealing how “strongly” the Canucks felt about him since the start of the season when he was far from being projected as a first-round pick.
“My staff coming into the season were high on him. Smart player, right-shot defenceman, just trending up. [He] was impressive [in] the second half.”
Allvin said both Willander’s “mobility and ability to defend” as well as his “path to Boston University,” instead of opting to play in the SHL which he commended, made him a “nice package.”
But was Willander really the best package available?
Allvin certainly thinks so, referring to Willander as the “best player available” at the time based on the 10 players who had gone before him — including defencemen David Reinbacher and Dmitri Simashev, along with centre Nate Danielson, who might have been the only player the Canucks would have taken over Willander.
I don’t have any problem with the player. I like Willander and love the decision to go the longer route and develop his game in the NCAA at Boston University, which is stacked with some of the best offensive talents from this year and next year’s draft class. I just don’t love the pick.
It’s up for debate if Willander truly was the best player available at 11th overall. Maybe he was the best player available for the Canucks, but almost certainly not on the draft board. There was tons of movement yesterday, and for the first time in 16 years, no trades were made in the first round of an NHL Draft — a testament to the quality and depth of players ranging from pick one to pick 32.
For the first time in a long time, a good opportunity fell into the Canucks’ lap with not one but three players available for the taking who should have and could have been taken sooner, and yet, the Canucks didn’t stray from the plan to draft Willander. With the 11th overall pick, the Canucks had their stab at drafting Benson, who had managed to slip out of the top five and top 10 of the draft. Wood — the youngest NCAA player this season, and Oliver Moore, the best skater in the draft.
In hindsight, skipping on Wood should have been expected. He was ranked to go near the middle of the pack, and he did. Moore was touted to be selected in the top 10 and probably wasn’t ever an option for the Canucks, but one that presented itself and could have been acted upon. But Benson. Clearly, the Canucks didn’t rate Benson as high as public scouts did.
In terms of NHL ceilings, few will argue that Willander’s is higher than Benson’s, but there is certainly a case to be made that Willander is the safer bet to play NHL games.
Maybe if the defencemen the Canucks drafted years prior (a) stayed in the prospect pool for long enough and (b) could have successfully transitioned to manning the NHL blueline, the Canucks would have grabbed the chance to land two incredible forwards who don’t fill immediate holes in the system.
Don’t get me wrong, Willander’s still a good pick. Heading into the draft, he was seen as the third to fourth best defenceman, and he ended up being the third defenceman chosen. One way or another, he was going to be a first-round selection by some team if he wasn’t taken by the Canucks. And for once, the Canucks took definitive steps to add RD to their arsenal, which will help them select a better variety of positional players in following drafts, as they work to get their supply of RD up to par.
It’s just concerning given the Canucks’ history, to some extend. Allvin thinks of Willander as the “perfect fit” for the team’s number one defenceman, Quinn Hughes. But if that doesn’t pan out, and in a few years’ time forwards like Benson, who were taken after Willander, flourish as they’re projected to do, and Willander doesn’t — it would be a horrible blunder.
With the level of talent at Boston University, Willander is putting himself in the best position to succeed. When he hopefully does play for the Canucks, he’ll have a lot of former SHL players he’ll be able to connect with, and as a fan of the Sedins growing up, there’s a little bit of an extra incentive to turn into a franchise-type defenceman that Hughes is.
You just hope it’s not a decision that will come back to haunt the Canucks.
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