VANCOUVER — We don’t know if there will be Stanley Cup playoffs this season, but there will be a National Hockey League entry draft. Remarkably, given the franchise’s mostly dismal history at the draft table, this has become a good thing for the Vancouver Canucks.
It’s too early to tell, but 2019, 2018 and 2017 could all turn out to be among the top 10 drafts for the Canucks in their 50-year history in the NHL. Of course, 2016, may also be one of their worst — and Jim Benning was the general manager for all of those.
Canucks drafting has been much better since Benning and former president Trevor Linden took charge in 2014 and promoted amateur scout Judd Brackett, who became director of amateur scouting in 2015.
For a decade before that, the draft was a wasteland for the Canucks, who between 2005 and 2012 did not produce a single NHL regular in Vancouver, unless you count the brief, unhappy time on the West Coast for Cody Hodgson. In fairness to previous GMs, Mike Gillis, Dave Nonis and Brian Burke oversaw some very good Canuck teams that were trying to win, not rebuild, and the number of draft picks they surrendered in trades reflected that.
Three months out from the 2020 draft — we all hope — here are Sportnet’s best and worst draft classes in Canucks history.
The Best Drafts
The Canucks didn’t get a ton of quantity out of this draft but excellent quality: four players out of seven picks who logged at least 400 NHL games. First-round pick Cory Schneider was chosen 26th by Nonis and outplayed most of the players taken ahead of him. And at Gillis’ final draft in 2013, Schneider was parlayed into Canucks captain Bo Horvat in a trade with New Jersey, so that pick continues to pay dividends.
Third-round pick Alex Edler is still on the Canucks 16 years later and became the franchise’s career scoring leader among defencemen. (Note to readers: check back with us when Quinn Hughes has played four of five more seasons). And Jannik Hansen, selected 287th in the ninth round, played 626 NHL games and is one of the best bargain picks in Canucks history. A fourth player, wrecking-ball depth forward Mike Brown, played 407 games for six NHL teams after getting drafted in the fifth round.
Despite how poor their teams were, the Canucks actually had a solid four-year run at the draft starting in 1978 (Curt Fraser, second round; Stan Smyl, third round) during which the majority of their selections played in the NHL — nearly 10,000 games combined. In 1981, general manager Jake Milford chose nine players and six of them logged at least 100 games in the league.
Sure, he chose Garth Butcher in the first round, 10th overall, ahead of Al MacInnis (15th), but the combative defenceman played most of his 897 NHL games for the Canucks and outperformed several players chosen ahead of him. The Canucks picked backup goalie Wendell Young in the fourth round and he played 187 games, winning Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and ’92, and stole Petri Skriko in the eighth round (373 points in 472 games for Vancouver). Ninth-round pick Frank Caprice was the Canucks’ backup for parts of five seasons.
Vancouver has had several awful drafts that were saved by one great player: Horvat in 2013, Ryan Kesler in 2003, Pavel Bure in 1989. But in 1999, the two players chosen by Burke near the top of the draft not only made up for the stiffs taken later, but turned that draft into one of the franchise’s greatest days.
Burke’s famous series of moves ahead of the draft allowed the Canucks to sweep the Sedin twins second- and third-overall. Henrik and Daniel Sedin became the best players, and two of the most respected figures, in Canucks history. By the time they retired after 17 seasons in Vancouver, the Swedish brothers had combined for 2,636 games and 2,111 points. The totals of the other six players Burke drafted that day: 0 and 0. But who cares?
The Worst Drafts
Usually, when you look at a team’s draft list from a certain year and see no NHL games-played, it is because that draft occurred recently and the players selected are still hopeful and churning their way towards the big league. But unless Patrick White comes out of retirement having spent the last several years bathing in the holy water at Lourdes, we’re pretty sure the Canucks are never getting anything out of this black hole of a draft.
Nonis, who homered in his first draft after replacing Burke in 2004, struck out completely in 2007 by choosing six players who never saw a minute in the NHL. Now, only two of the picks were in the first four rounds. But White at 25th overall (ahead of David Perron) and defenceman Taylor Ellington at 33rd (ahead of P.K. Subban)? At least Gillis eventually packaged White in a trade for San Jose defenceman Christian Ehrhoff.
While we’re on the subject of Gillis, a couple of his drafts were candidates for worst-ever, but we’re going with 2010 for the “totality” of the former GM’s work at and before that draft. Gillis picked only five players that day and it wasn’t a complete whiff because undersized centre Alex Friesen, a sixth-rounder, did play one game for the Canucks in 2015-16 before taking his career to Europe.
But Gillis’ first selection wasn’t until the fourth round (defenceman Patrick McNally’s most notable hockey achievement was getting thrown out of Harvard in an exam cheating scandal) because he’d traded away his first three picks. The worst move was giving up his first-rounder, and prospect Michael Grabner, to get defenceman Keith Ballard from Florida to replace defenceman Willie Mitchell, who was soon invited to leave Vancouver as a free agent. It turned out OK for Mitchell because he was able to help the Los Angeles Kings win two Cups. It wasn’t a strong draft in 2010 and the incompetent Panthers, who would waive Grabner so he could score 34 goals for the Islanders the next season, selected Quinton Howden at 25th — just before the Washington Capitals took a Russian named Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Three years after his heist of the Sedins, Burke went to the 2002 draft without a first-round pick, but nobody was complaining because the GM had repatriated Trevor Linden in a trade with Washington. But the Canucks still had volume, 11 picks, including two in the second round and two in the third. The first four players they selected: Kirill Koltsov, Denis Grot, Brett Skinner and Lukas Mensator. The draft didn’t get any better for Vancouver after that.
The pick of the litter of these mutts turned out to be Skinner, who played all 11 of his NHL games for the Islanders in 2008-09, in the middle of a career that saw the defenceman play for 10 different American League teams. The Canucks’ other 10 draft picks combined for one NHL game: a three-minute appearance by goalie Rob McVicar during 2005-06. At least it was for the Canucks.