Learning from recent history: what should we expect from the Canucks at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft?

With all that nonsense about the Stanley Cup done and over with, hockey fans can turn their focus entirely to the entry draft, which will be happening in its entirety on Sunday, June 30th. Pass it to Bulis will be all over the draft from a Canucks perspective, from both myself “in studio” and Harrison, who will actually be in New Jersey providing on the ground coverage.

I’m assuming that means he’ll be spending most of his time actually lying on the ground, listening for Luongo trade rumours being broadcast by the reptilian Mahars that dwell within the hollow earth.

The draft is usually more exciting for those teams picking near the top, particularly this year, where potential franchise players like Seth Jones, Nathan McKinnon, and Jonathan Drouin are expected to be the top-three picks. The Canucks, both fortunately and unfortunately, have picked late in the first round for quite some time due to their regular season success.

So what can we expect from the the Canucks this year? To find out, I took a look at the common factors in every draft since Mike Gillis was hired. While Gillis has adjusted his drafting strategy over time, there are definitely certain patterns and tendencies that give us a pretty good idea of what to expect come Sunday.

There are, of course, those who think that Gillis should make like George Costanza and start doing the opposite of his every instinct when it comes to the draft. To be sure, mistakes have been made, but Gillis’s drafting does seem to have improved since his rookie year in 2008.

In particular, 2011 is starting to look like a pretty good year for the Canucks’ GM. Five of his eight picks have signed entry-level deals, with two of them — Nicklas Jensen and Frank Corrado — already appearing briefly with the Canucks. Of the three who haven’t signed, Joseph Labate is currently in the NCAA and seems likely to sign once he completes school or chooses to go pro, with David Honzik and Pathrik Westerholm the only two 2011 picks out of the system.

With two sure-fire NHLers and a handful of other depth prospects who may challenge for NHL jobs in the future, 2011 is an interesting year to look back on, but even it shares tendencies with some of Gillis’s other drafts.

First Round Safety

In the first round, Gillis has tended towards consensus picks, avoiding making selections that are off the board. His first pick, Cody Hodgson, surprisingly fell to number 10 when the Islanders reached for Josh Bailey instead, but Gillis didn’t hesitate to pick the highly touted centre. The same was true when Jordan Schroeder fell to the Canucks in 2009. Nicklas Jensen and Brendan Gaunce were both ranked 11th overall by International Scouting Services, but ended up picked by the Canucks at 29th and 26th in their respective years.

All four are forwards as well, with three of them centres. I fully expect the Canucks to continue their trend of picking the best player available with the 24th overall pick in this year’s draft, favouring forwards over defencemen. If a top-ranked forward starts to slip down the draft, you can bet that the Canucks will be targeting him.

Predilection for Elders

The Canucks surprised by going off the board as early as the second round last year, picking the 20-year-old Alexandre Mallet, but that pick highlights another well-publicized tendency of the last couple years: selecting older players. This has likely been done for two reasons: the Canucks organization feels like they can get a better read on a player’s ability and potential when they are a little older and they hope that older prospects will be ready to contribute at the NHL-level earlier.

It’s unclear how advisable this strategy is, considering it’s only been place for about three years, but early returns are underwhelming. Alex Friesen was 19 when he was selected in 2010 and bounced between the AHL and ECHL last season in his first professional year. Alexandre Grenier was a 2011 pick and spent almost the entire season in the ECHL, while Henrik Tommernes, an older pick in the 7th round that year, was just signed by the Canucks in May, and will look to impress at training camp this year.

Three of the Canucks’ six picks in 2012, including Mallet, were older players. Mallet just finished his first professional season, mostly in the ECHL. This is likely one of the big reasons why the Canucks were eager to acquire an AHL franchise, as players like Mallet, Grenier, and Friesen were bumped from a competitive Chicago Wolves lineup, potentially slowing their development.

In any case, it seems likely that the Canucks will pick at least one older player, likely later in the draft.

High-risk Goaltenders

The Canucks have selected a goaltender in four of the last five drafts, all of them with a high degree of uncertainty surrounding them. Morgan Clark was a seventh round pick with little-to-no upside but had a goalie coach for a father. Joe Cannata had a lot of talent, but was playing for a weak team at Merrimack College. Jonathan Iilahti was a backup in Finland struggling for playing time. And David Honzik had one good playoff series to bolster his draft ranking after a thoroughly mediocre regular season.

2012 was the first year the Canucks didn’t draft a goaltender. While they might make it two years in a row without a goaltender this Sunday, particularly after signing Joacim Eriksson to bolster their ranks, I think it’s likely that Gillis will once again use one of his late round draft picks on a goaltender with seeming untapped potential, hoping to hit a home run.

Swedish Focus

As is fitting for a team built on Swedish talent, Gillis has a distinct tendency to draft out of Swedish leagues. As Thomas Drance pointed out at Canucks Army, 20% of Gillis’s picks have come out of Sweden, more than twice the league average.

2011 saw three players selected from Sweden: Ludwig Blomstrand, Pathrik Westerholm, and Henrik Tommernes. In 2009, it was Anton Rodin and Peter Andersson, and in 2008, Mats Froshaug. However, in 2010 and 2012, the Canucks didn’t select any players out of Sweden, so it’s certainly possible that 2012 will pass without a player from a Swedish league joining the Canucks’ system, other than the aforementioned Eriksson.

College-bound

Finally, Gillis has targeted players from leagues and programs that are what we might call “under-drafted.” Particularly in late rounds, the Canucks have selected players from Junior A and US high school/prep school hockey.

The Canucks’ Junior A picks are Jeremy Price in 2009 and Ben Hutton and Wesley Myron in 2012. Patrick McNally in 2010 came out of Milton Academy, Joseph Labate in 2011 out of Holy Angels Academy, and Matthew Beattie in 2012 came out of Phillips Exeter Academy.

The upside of selecting players outside of Major Junior is that the majority are heading to the NCAA, giving them a longer development period before they have to be signed by the Canucks. The Canucks have also selected players already in college, namely Jordan Schroeder, Kevin Connauton, and Joe Cannata.

Mike Gillis has confirmed that this is a specific strategy, saying “In the fourth round and beyond we like to select players who are going into a college program to develop for a few more years. It gives you more opportunity and more development time.”

Thomas Drance notes, however, that the new CBA allows teams to retain the negotiating rights for international drafted prospects for four years now, similar to NCAA-bound prospects. This would give those non-North American prospects the same time to develop before needing to be signed as NCAA prospects.

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