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‘Rushed’: Are the Vancouver Canucks not properly developing draft picks?

Analyzing what the NHL Draft has produced for the Canucks at the AHL and NHL level
Prospect development for the Vancouver Canucks has been a hot topic recently. Research by The News has shown that the organization’s draft picks over the last six years produced fewer NHL and AHL games than all other teams in the Pacific Division. (Black Press/Canadian Press file photos)

Over the past six seasons, Vancouver Canucks draft picks have played almost 200 fewer professional games than any other team in the Pacific Division and over 700 fewer than the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Drafting and developing, and Abbotsford’s role in both of those processes were heavily discussed last week following the American Hockey League Canucks team’s elimination from the postseason.

Abbotsford Canucks head coach Trent Cull criticized player development and the utilization of the AHL team when it was based in Utica on Sportsnet 650 last week. He pointed to a player such as Adam Gaudette as an example of a young talent unnecessarily pushed into the National Hockey League.

Gaudette was chosen by Vancouver in the fourth round of the 2015 draft and after completing his college career he spent just 16 games over two seasons in Utica. The majority of his time was spent in Vancouver, but after a slow start in 2020-21 he was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cull said he thinks Gaudette would have been better served learning the pro game in the AHL.

“Why wouldn’t he have spent two years with us?” he asked. “So we can groom him. The goal is to get a more rounded, finished product before he’s out of his entry-level contract, as opposed to something that’s rushed.”

Cull spent several years as an assistant coach with Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch and stated that patience with that organization is key. He pointed out that only superstar prospects will make a quick jump to the NHL.

Patience did not appear to be a virtue of former Vancouver GM Jim Benning and the Canucks previous regime. First-round picks such as Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann spent minimal or no time in the minors before becoming NHLers. Neither player developed into a consistent contributor for Vancouver.

Nils Hoglander, a second-round pick in 2019, also bypassed the AHL to middling results.

The News analyzed the draft pick journeys from 2016 to 2021 of every team in the Pacific Division, as well as the Lightning and the Canucks usage of the AHL as a means to develop and hone talent was by far the lowest.

Firstly, it all comes down to picks and accumulating them. Tampa Bay had the most picks from 2016 to 2021 with 46. Picking more often is comparable to buying more tickets in the lottery - more opportunities means more chances to get it right.

Another item to note is that Vegas has only been around for five years so for the Golden Knights to collect an equal number of picks as the other teams listed showcases the job Vegas management did in year one by making side deals and acquiring picks. The Golden Knights ended up with 12 draft picks in 2017, teams begin each draft with seven.

Draft pick totals from 2016 to 2021:

  • Tampa Bay - 46
  • Anaheim - 41
  • Calgary - 40
  • Los Angeles - 40
  • Vancouver - 40
  • Vegas - 40
  • Edmonton - 39
  • San Jose - 39

When Cull was asked about the players he’s most proud about developing during his combined time in Utica and Abbotsford, he mentioned players who were not draft picks.

“I’d go back to some of the guys who might come in as long shot free agents like Zach MacEwen and Jalen Chatfield,” he said.

Cull added Jonah Gadjovic (Canucks third round pick 2017) and Thatcher Demko (third round pick 2014) as other players he helped develop.

MacEwen ended up playing 51 games over two seasons with the Canucks before being placed on waivers and picked up by the Philadelphia Flyers last October. Gadjovic played one game in Vancouver before also being placed on waivers last October. He was picked up by the San Jose Sharks. Chatfield played 18 games with Vancouver in 2021-21, but went on to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes last July. Demko has emerged as Vancouver’s top goalie and was an all-star this season.

Only one first-round pick from 2016 to 2021 suited up in the AHL, as defenceman Olli Juolevi played 63 games in Utica before making the NHL team. He was then traded to the Florida Panthers earlier this season and eventually went on waivers. He was picked up by the Detroit Red Wings on the waiver wire in March.

The lack of draft prospects available at the AHL level is likely why the Abbotsford Canucks loaded up with so many veterans prior to the club’s inaugural season. The talent is not in the pipeline and for the team to be competitive they must add outside assets.

The NHL numbers tell a slightly different story, with Vancouver in the middle of the pack.

Vancouver’s drafts over the past six years tell an up and down story. The 2017 and 2019 years were both strong.

2017 saw the team select Elias Pettersson, Kole Lind, Gadjovich, Michael DiPietro and Jack Rathbone. All five of those players have either played in the NHL or significantly contributed in the AHL.

2019 saw forwards Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander emerge as NHL talents. AHL ready talents include Arturs Silovs, Carson Focht and Karel Plasek. There are also two potential pros in Ethan Keppen and Aidan McDonough.

For as good as those years were, the other years were arguably as bad. Will Lockwood and Juolevi are the only pieces to contribute at the NHL level from 2016, Quinn Hughes appears to be the only player from 2018 and both 2020 and 2021 are unclear. Due to a number of trades, the first pick Vancouver made in 2020 was in round three so that entire draft year might be a write-off.

From 2016 to 2021, the average amount of AHL or NHL games played per draft choice selected by the Vancouver Canucks was a Pacific Division worst 45.1. The other totals were:

  • Anaheim - 57.5
  • Calgary - 51.2
  • Edmonton - 53.2
  • Los Angeles - 55.2
  • San Jose - 51.3
  • Vegas - 54.4
  • Tampa Bay (non-Pacific) - 56

Benning took over as general manager in Vancouver in 2014 and was let go on Dec. 6, 2021. The Canucks made two playoff appearances and won one playoff round during his tenure. The new regime, made up of president Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin have stated they will be making changes and will be focusing heavily on draft, development and building the Abbotsford Canucks.

The first big step for the new group occurs on July 7 and 8 at the NHL Draft in Montreal. Vancouver currently has picks in rounds one, three, four, five, six and seven.

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Ben Lypka

About the Author: Ben Lypka

I joined the Abbotsford News in 2015.
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