Canucks roll into NHL draft without homegrown talent
Vancouver has avoided players from in its own backyard, but team says that will change
NEW YORK — It has been 12 years since the Vancouver Giants moved into the Vancouver Canucks’ backyard, and in all this time the city’s National Hockey League team has never drafted a player from the city’s Western Hockey League team.
“Yeah, it is a little strange,” Giants coach Don Hay said this week. “Sometimes being in someone’s backyard, maybe they see your players too much. I don’t know.”
Kelowna Rockets owner and general manager Bruce Hamilton doesn’t know, either. His team, one of the most successful in major junior hockey and among the most prolific at cultivating NHL draft picks, hasn’t had a player selected by the Canucks since 1999.
The last time the Canucks chose anyone from one of the WHL’s six teams in British Columbia was 2006, when Vancouver took Prince George Cougar Evan Fuller in the final round. Since then, the province’s WHL teams have had 48 players drafted into NHL organizations — and numerous others signed as free agents — and the Canucks haven’t taken any of them.
“I’m disappointed,” Hamilton said. “All the B.C. teams are frustrated when you see (the Canucks) bypass our guys when there are lots of them playing in the NHL. We’ve been developing players for 20 years (in Kelowna) and we must be doing a pretty good job because there are a lot of them in the NHL. I’m in the development business, but I guess we’re not good enough at developing players for them.
“I don’t know if they have a bias against the WHL, but it seems easier for them to pick college players and players from Europe than the guys who are sitting right here.”
Hamilton has no issue with Canuck scouts, but wonders about management’s decisions at the draft table.
And if the Canucks were winning championships or loaded with superior NHL prospects, none of this would matter. If there’s ever a Stanley Cup parade in B.C., no one is going to be checking passports.
But Vancouver’s collection of prospects is ranked 29th among 30 NHL organizations by the Hockey News while the Canucks, eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons, have tilted at the draft even farther away from the WHL and its powerhouse sibling, the Ontario Hockey League, since Mike Gillis became general manager in 2008.
Heading into Sunday’s NHL talent lottery in New Jersey, the Canucks have drafted 30 players in Gillis’ first five years. Only five of these players were from the OHL and just two from the WHL — both chosen in 2008. The Canucks also went four years without drafting any B.C.-born player before choosing Victoria Tier-2 junior Wesley Myron in the sixth round last year.
“I surely understand the frustration level,” Canuck player personnel director Eric Crawford said when asked about the lack of B.C. players, by birth or junior team, drafted by B.C.’s NHL franchise.
“The NHL has become more and more about recruiting, than maintaining the players you have. To do that, you want to have homegrown talent that will want to stay, so it makes sense to draft players from there.
“We did a pretty comprehensive scouting overview last summer. We did a couple of studies on where those guys in the last five drafts came from and how it translated into (making the NHL). We did some analytics on where they came from and where it was best to get players. There were some pretty noticeable trends that we’ve taken strong command of.”
The trends were so compelling the Canucks quietly reorganized their amateur scouting division and changed methodology. They built a new chain of command based on regions, established clearer priorities and focused resources on three key areas: Western Canada, Ontario and the United States.
Crawford, who had overseen the Canucks’ pro scouting department, was put in charge of amateur scouting. Chief scout Ron Delorme retained his title but was returned to the WHL because, as assistant general manager Laurence Gilman explained, the team needed its best scout back in the West. WHL scout Harold Snepsts was redeployed to help senior adviser Stan Smyl assess undrafted college and junior players, and the Canucks bulked up their scouting staff in Ontario.
“Even with the greater influence we’ve placed on Ontario, the United States and Western Canada, it doesn’t mean we won’t still pick players from Quebec and Europe,” Gilman said. “But we’re placing greater emphasis on the other three regions.”
Under Gillis, the Canucks have leaned heavily on the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Europe for draft picks, devoting 14 of their 30 selections to those areas the last five years.
Obviously, there are excellent NHL players from Quebec and Europe. Canucks Alex Burrows and Roberto Luongo, for example, are from Montreal, and stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin arrived in Vancouver through the Canucks’ historic pipeline from Sweden.
But the makeup of recent Stanley Cup-winning rosters is starkly different from the Canucks’ draft composition.
Last season, the champion Los Angeles Kings’ 24-man roster included 11 players from the OHL and WHL and another five drafted from leagues in the U.S. Fifteen of their 24 players were Canadian.
The 2011 Boston Bruins had 16 Canadians, and 12 of their 22 players were drafted from the OHL and WHL.
The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks were also Canadian-heavy, with 15 of 23 players born in Canada. Those Hawks had drafted 12 of their players from the OHL and WHL, and selected another four from the U.S.
The 2013 Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup last Monday, counter the current trend slightly because their roster was rebuilt and bolstered with several Europeans after a salary-cap crisis three years ago.
But even with Canadian content reduced to 11 players, 13 of 24 on the playoff roster were drafted from the OHL, WHL and U.S.
Gillis, who spoke briefly about his draft record after naming John Tortorella the Canucks’ new coach on Tuesday, said the composition of recent Stanley Cup rosters was a factor in restructuring his amateur scouting.
Not one player drafted by Gillis has become a Canuck regular, although 2008 first-rounder Cody Hodgson is on the Buffalo Sabres’ first line, and prospects Jordan Schroeder, Frankie Corrado, Nicklas Jensen and even 2012 first-rounder Brendan Gaunce could challenge for playing time in Vancouver next season.
Gillis’ trade choices have been as responsible as his draft decisions for the Canucks’ shortage of elite NHL prospects.
Like Canuck GMs before him, Dave Nonis and Brian Burke, Gillis has squandered annually at the trade deadline draft choices in rounds 2-4 to acquire an extra player or two for the playoffs.
Three months ago, he sacrificed a second-round pick and blue-line prospect Kevin Connauton to “rent” Dallas Stars centre Derek Roy.
Roy will leave the Canucks next week as an unrestricted free agent; the draft pick is gone forever.
In the last seven years alone, Gillis and Nonis traded away 12 draft picks from the second, third and fourth rounds. Gillis also gave his 2010 first-round pick to Florida in the terrible trade for Keith Ballard.
“It’s a practice I don’t like, haven’t liked, and I’m not sure we’ll continue it,” Gillis said.
“Trading draft picks is a practice I don’t like, but we’ve felt our team was close to pushing for a Stanley Cup and there were players available who could help. This new CBA dictates that it’s not a wise practice, anyway.”
Gilman said: “The analogy you can use is baseball: when you lose at-bats, you decrease your chances of hitting home runs. We know that there has been a cumulative effect of trading away those picks over time. That has been part of the cost of our success as a team.”
Ron Toigo, the Vancouver Giants’ owner, said most people don’t understand the impact of trading away picks.
“People say to me: ‘I can’t believe they didn’t draft Milan Lucic,” Toigo said, referring to the East Vancouver winger who became an NHL star after the Bruins drafted him from the Giants in 2006’s second round.
“But the problem is (the Canucks) had no picks in the second round that year. They’d traded them all, so they had no way to get Lucic.”
Gillis and Gilman said another factor that has hurt is the Canucks’ lack of ownership, until now, of their own American Hockey League farm team. In April, the Canucks purchased the Peoria Rivermen from the St. Louis Blues and subsequently moved the team to Utica, N.Y.
For the first time in a decade, the Canucks will have full control of player development and an entire AHL roster for their prospects. The scouting reorganization and new draft priorities will help, Gilman said.
The Canucks pick 24th in the first round on Sunday and, because of the Roy trade, won’t select again until the 85th spot, late in the third round.
As a consequence of the NHL lockout, the league is squeezing the seven-round draft into one day. The 2013 draft class is considered the strongest in a decade.
“Our problem was systemic, not individual,” Gilman said of the Canucks’ draft history. “We’ve made changes in the last year to address that. Can we do better? Absolutely. We do have to do better.”
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Like Vancouver Canucks general managers before him in Dave Nonis and Brian Burke, Mike Gillis (above) has squandered annually at the trade deadline draft choices in rounds two through four to acquire an extra player or two for the playoffs.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG