VANCOUVER — If the National Hockey League draft were three-strikes-and-you’re-out, the Vancouver Canucks would never have made the 1980s.
And general manager Mike Gillis would not have been still standing in the batter’s box last June to swing for the fences with first-round selection Nicklas Jensen. Gillis drove that pitch high and deep and although it’s too soon to call it a home run, Jensen, a power forward from Denmark — for where else does one find a power forward these days? — is the best prospect in the Canuck organization.
The year before, however, Gillis traded away a first-round pick and soon-to-be Calder Trophy finalist Michael Grabner in a deal for Florida Panther defenceman Keith Ballard.
In 2009, the Canucks drafted Jordan Schroeder 22nd in the first round and the tiny centre recently finished his second full season in the American League with 44 points in 76 games.
Cody Hodgson was Gillis’ first draft pick, in 2008, and the two-way centre appears headed toward a long NHL career.
Just not in Vancouver, where his relationship with the Canucks soured so much that the 22-year-old was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for 2009 first-rounder Zack Kassian.
The Hodgson fiasco illustrates the risk and uncertainty inherent in drafting teenagers and projecting how they will perform and conduct themselves as adults.
It also left the Canucks, somewhat embarrassingly, without anyone on their NHL roster drafted and developed on Gillis’ watch.
As he steps up to the plate again tonight in Pittsburgh, batting 26th in the first round, Gillis has a team whose window to win is starting to shrink with age, and a collection of prospects the Hockey News ranks 27th among 30 teams.
“We’re certainly conscious of that window,” Gillis said.
“But when you look at our lineup, there are very few holes. We’re prepared to be flexible when it comes to draft picks to improve our team. If we were in a rebuilding situation, we probably wouldn’t be. We have a couple of areas we’d like to improve, and if that opportunity comes and it costs us a draft pick, we’re going to do it. Including if it’s our first pick.
“We’re pretty confident we have some good young players [in our system] moving in the right direction. But you have to have patience to allow them to do it. They do it, perhaps, at a different pace than you want.”
Gillis argues four years is too small a time frame to fairly assess his ideals and investment regarding drafting and development talent.
The Canucks have made some promising mid- and late-round selections the last three drafts: defenceman Kevin Connauton (83rd) and goalie Joe Cannata (173rd) in 2009, defenceman Adam Polasek (145th) in 2010, and defenceman Frank Corrado (150th) last year.
And they’ve mitigated the draft risk and supplemented their talent pool by successfully pursuing entry-level free agents from junior, college and European leagues: goalie Eddie Lack, defenceman Chris Tanev and tough forwards Aaron Volpatti and Steve Pinizzotto.
Also, the Canucks have had the best four-year stretch in franchise history, averaging 50 wins and 108 points, so cracking their lineup hasn’t exactly been like trying to make the Cleveland Barons. The Detroit Red Wings similarly have no draft picks from the last four years in their lineup and scouting director Hakan Andersson is hailed annually as a genius.
Still, given the effort and resources expended — under Gillis, the amateur scouting department overseen by Thomas Gradin and Ron Delorme became the largest in the NHL — the Canucks should have more elite prospects than they do.
Gillis said he wishes he had back the pick he surrendered for Ballard, yet insists he doesn’t regret the trade because the Canucks two years ago needed certainty on their NHL blue-line.
“You wish everything in life costs less than it does,” he said.
Asked about Hodgson, drafted two months after Gillis replaced Dave Nonis as manager, the GM said: “That was our first draft and I think we’re better today than we were then. But I don’t want to get into that.
“[Draft picks] can go one of three ways: they can stay the same, in which case they’ll be American League players; they can improve [and] understand how hard they need to work to be successful; or they can go backward because they know more than you do.”
Four months before the start of next season is indefinitely postponed due to another owners’ lockout, the Canucks have two starting goalies, no third-line centre and no obvious temp to fill-in for injured second-line centre Ryan Kesler.
Their organizational needs, however, are largely unchanged since the 2011 draft. The Canucks need big, powerful players with NHL skill. Another Jensen, who had six goals in eight American League games this spring and could make the Canucks as a 19-year-old if there is a 2012-13 season, would be great.
But with a team still capable of challenging for a Stanley Cup, Gillis could trade his top pick or others for more immediate assistance.
He said a new draft analysis done by the team reveals anyone resembling a sure thing goes in the first six picks, and the odds of making the NHL declines significantly after about 15 players. By the start of the second round, the odds are 50/50 and falling fast.
“Those numbers become challenging particularly when you’re picking in the last five picks of the first round,” Gillis said.
“They become lottery numbers. If you get players beyond the third round who play on your team, you’ve uncovered a gem. And usually it’s a player who is under-developed when he’s selected, so it’s a risk.”
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