When the Canucks selected Jake Virtanen 6th overall, there was a certain segment of Canucks fans that was disappointed and upset. To a certain extent, I was among them, as I was personally hoping to see William Nylander, but I certainly saw the upside and potential in Virtanen.
What Virtanen represents, in many ways, is a difference of opinion on drafting strategy, one that I liken to similar differences of opinion seen in baseball in the book “Moneyball.” It’s an issue of tools vs results.
Scouts and GMs who believe primarily in the former in baseball, for example, might draft a pitcher with a 98-mph fastball and wicked slider, regardless of whether he effectively strikes out batters or forces them into ground balls or pop flies.
The other view would focus primarily on the results, as expressed by statistics. Does a pitcher get outs, whether by striking out batters or forcing them into bad contact? Does he avoid walks? If so, then it hardly matters how hard he can throw the ball or how impressively his curve ball hooks; in their view, current results beget future results. The reality is that the best method combines the two, with the numbers finding what the eyes can’t and vice versa.
This does not translate particularly well to hockey, mainly because the statistics we have available for Junior and European hockey are incredibly rudimentary: mainly just goals and assists. We don’t have access even to ice time, let alone underlying puck possession numbers. The best we can manage are approximations and estimates.
All this is to say that Benning seems to look for tools over results and when it comes to physical tools, Jake Virtanen is near the top of the draft class. As I pointed out Friday, some scouts stated he had the best shot in the draft and was among the fastest skaters. McKeen’s Hockey had him ranked 4th in skating, noting his “raw strength and power” in his skating stride, 2nd in shooting, recognizing his hard shot and accuracy, and 3rd in bodychecking, thanks to his combination of size and speed.
Virtanen, then, has all the physical tools you could ask for: he has the size, strength, speed, and shot to be a star player in the NHL. While he lacks some of the mental tools — hockey sense and vision — that is true of any number of scoring wingers whose primary focus is putting the puck in the net.
They’re the same physical tools that made Cam Neely a Hall of Famer, so you can understand why Jeff Angus made the comparison in an article on the Canucks website. Considering the long-felt desire for the Canucks to make up for their mistake in trading Neely along with Virtanen and Neely growing up just a few scant kilometres away from each other — albeit, 30 years apart — makes the comparison particularly tempting.
The difference is results, even if we only have the basics with which to work. Virtanen absolutely got some results out of his physical tools, scoring 45 goals and 71 points in 71 games, but Cam Neely, as a 17-year-old, scored 56 goals and 120 points in 72 games and followed that up with 9 goals and 20 points in 14 playoff games. Certainly, it was a different era, but Neely was 15th in the WHL in points, while Virtanen was 35th.
Saying that someone won’t be Cam Neely is hardly an insult, of course. No one since has come even close to being as dominant a power forward as Neely in his prime.
It’s the combination of tools and results that made Neely such a rare and impressive prospect: you don’t often get both to that degree. Milan Lucic, for example, had just 19 points in 62 games in the season prior to being drafted, but had the right mix of physical tools to convince the Bruins he was worth drafting in the second round.
More often, it seems, results are a more reliable measure for predicting a prospect’s success, which is why some were clamouring for the Canucks to pick Nikolaj Ehlers, who had 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games in the QMJHL, or William Nylander, who had 15 goals and 27 points in 35 games against men in the Allsvenskan and 16 points in 7 games at the U-18 tournament.
Obviously, these two players had top-notch physical and mental tools that allowed them to produce these results, but they clearly weren’t the tools that Jim Benning was looking for. Judging by Benning picking Virtanen and the rest of the draft, he was specifically looking for size and strength, with both Ehlers and Nylander under 6′ and 170 lbs.
The Canucks drafted just one player under 6’0″, Swedish defenceman Gustav Forsling in the fifth round, who was surely a player Thomas Gradin campaigned for. Predictably, this was the one pick praised by those who prize results, noting his strong performance for Sweden’s U-18 team and decent totals in Sweden’s SuperElit. Even then, Forsling has a lot of the right tools, with Corey Pronman even describing him as “toolsy.”
Jared McCann was another “toolsy” player, possessing supposedly elite skills according to some reports, but short-of-elite numbers, scoring 62 points in 64 games while playing more of a defensive role. He has the hands, hockey sense, and two-way game that make him attractive to someone like Benning.
The Canucks’ other four selections were 6’7″, 6’5″, and 6’4″, with none of them producing results of note. Nikita Tryamkin, the hulking Russian defenceman, is intriguing, but Mackenze Stewart and Kyle Pettit are the kinds of picks that make me question Benning’s priorities and how he rates tools over results.
The most optimistic ceiling I can see for Stewart is Andrew Alberts. For Pettit, I could maybe see him as a non-fighting Zenon Konopka if absolutely everything falls into place for him.
But, here’s the issue. Every once in a while, there’s a guy like Milan Lucic who beats the odds. While Pettit is a far cry from Lucic, drafting with an eye for tools over results sometimes unearths gems. It’s entirely possible that Pettit’s 10 points in 53 games in his draft year is not an accurate representation of who he could become. The results we have access to in hockey simply don’t give us enough information to reliably override the tools that an intelligent and seasoned scout can see.
Now, whether the Canucks’ scouts are good enough to override simply looking at results is another matter entirely.