Jim Sandlak a poster boy for failed first-rounders


Jim Sandlak skates against the Calgary Flames in 1987.

Jim Sandlak skates against the Calgary Flames in 1987.

Photograph by: File photo, The Province

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Jim Sandlak, who came in 53rd on the list of the all-time greatest Canucks, accumulated 104 goals and 117 assists in a career that spanned nine seasons in Vancouver and if that’s all you knew about him, you’d conclude he had a respectable NHL career.

And by any reasonable measure, it was a respectable career. The problem with Sandlak concerned expectations, and when you’re the fourth overall pick in the draft, more is expected than respectable. Sandlak, in the end, is remembered as a disappointment with the Canucks; but if it’s any consolation to him, he has plenty of company.

There are a number of themes that run through the history of this franchise and the most unfortunate might be the litany of failed first-round draft picks which have haunted the Canucks. Sandlak wasn’t the worst. He’d have a way to go, in fact, to top Jason Herter or Dan Woodley or Alex Stojanov or Josh Holden or, cripes, this gets depressing. But the sad reality is the Canucks’ abysmal record at the draft table is the chief cause of their chronic mediocrity and Sandlak might be the poster boy for failed first-rounders.

“He was a great guy, a really good teammate,” says Garry Valk, who played three seasons with Sandlak. “But he was a whipping boy for the fans and it was so unfair.

“Some guys can deal with the pressure, especially in a Canadian market. And some guys can’t. It’s too bad, but I think it was a bad fit for Jim in this market.”

It didn’t start out that way.

Coming out of junior, Sandlak was viewed as the prototypical power forward, a beguiling mix of size, skill and toughness that identified him as a game-changer for any team lucky enough to select him. In 1984-85 he scored 40 goals with the London Knights while accumulating 128 penalty minutes and the Canucks gleefully took him with the fourth pick. The next Christmas he took a starring turn with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in Hamilton and was named the tournament’s best forward after scoring five goals in seven games.

That summer, then-GM Jack Gordon shrewdly deduced Sandlak was a better prospect than the kid the Canucks had taken ninth overall in the 1983 draft, Cam Neely. Neely was traded to Boston, along with a first-round pick who turned out to be Glen Wesley, for Barry Pederson.

It remains among the worst trades in NHL history.

Sandlak, meanwhile, had a decent start to his Canucks career, scoring 15 goals in his first full season, then coming back with 16 in 49 games the following year. But the wrecking ball the Canucks thought they’d drafted never materialized and, as Valk says, the hometown crowd grew impatient with their prize prospect. Sandlak, who was nicknamed “House” — as in big as a house — could hit. He had a big shot. He could fight. He just didn’t do it on a consistent basis, and his skating was an issue. There would be glimpses — he had 20 goals in 1988-89, and in 1992 he played a pivotal role in the Canucks’ come-from-behind first-round series win over the Winnipeg Jets. But he’d also disappear for stretches.

After eight seasons of waiting for Sandlak to develop, the Canucks traded him to Hartford in 1993 in a deal that brought back Murray Craven. With that, the House was shuttered.

“He had a tremendous shot,” says Valk. “He was skilled for a big guy. But if you weighed 220 pounds in those days, they expected you to fight and it wasn’t in Jim’s DNA to be mean. I think if they would have said, ‘Jim, go out there and score 20 goals,’ he would have been fine. But expectations were so high.”

As it was, Sandlak’s failure to develop into an impact player was a body blow for the organization. Had things gone according to script, he would have come of age in the early 1990s when the Canucks built a contender around Pavel Bure, Trevor Linden and Kirk McLean. Think of what a legitimate power forward would have done for that team. Think of another elite forward added to a team that had seven 20-goal scorers in 1991-92.

Think of what might have been for Sandlak and the Canucks.

Just don’t think too hard about it.

For Canucks fans, however, here’s the real heartbreak: That scenario has played out far too many times in the life story of the franchise. Beginning in 1970, the Canucks picked second, third, third and third (and had the ninth pick as well in 1973) and the best player in the bunch was Don Lever, a decent second-liner but hardly a franchise player. From 1984 to 1986 their first-rounders were J.J. Daigneault (10th overall), Sandlak (fourth) and Woodley (seventh). In the rich 1990 draft held in Vancouver, they held the second, 18th and 23rd picks and came away with Petr Nedved, Shawn Antoski and Jiri Slegr. You don’t want to know about the players they could have drafted that year.

No, this is the Canucks’ curse. At the turn of the century, they started to build a winner with the West Coast Express and Mattias Ohlund and Ed Jovanovski on defence. In 1996 they took Holden 11th overall, in 1997 they took Brad Ference 10th overall and in 1998 they took Bryan Allen fourth overall. Admittedly they weren’t great drafts, but think what the Canucks of the early 2000s might have looked like if they’d hit some of those picks.

As for the more recent drafts, it hasn’t gotten any better. The jury is still out on the Bo Horvat-Hunter Shinkaruk-Jake Virtanen-Jared McCann-Brendan Gaunce-Nick Jensen generation but consider the following: The last player the Canucks drafted who made any kind of impact on the NHL team (20 goals for a forward, top-five minutes for a defenceman) was, wait for it, Mason Raymond in 2005.

But what the hey. It’s only been 44 years. They might get it right one of these days.

Jim Sandlak skates against the Calgary Flames in 1987.

Jim Sandlak skates against the Calgary Flames in 1987.

Photograph by: File photo, The Province

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