Canucks should target high-risk, high-reward players at draft

Jun 24, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Olli Juolevi puts on a team jersey after being selected as the number five overall draft pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft at the First Niagra Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 24, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Olli Juolevi puts on a team jersey after being selected as the number five overall draft pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft at the First Niagra Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports /

The Vancouver Canucks have to face some difficult decisions this summer, and the 2017 NHL Draft is a large part of that.

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning is known to be a strong talent evaluator, making him the perfect person to head into the draft with. However, his first three drafts with the club were not outstanding. Especially the selection of Jake Virtanen with the sixth-overall pick in 2014 keeps coming back to haunt him.

Now that the Canucks are officially rebuilding, they need those drafts to be successful. Yet, they should target some hit-or-miss players.

Safe picks

Every year, there are prospects that are considered safe picks. Smart players that skate well and work hard, standing out with a strong two-way game. Those players are often ones that have a large frame and play a pro-style game. Their ceiling might not be as high as that of others, but they have a very high floor, making them almost guaranteed NHL players.

Technically, that sounds great. A rebuilding team needs as many successful draft picks as possible, right? Get those old guys out and replace them with young guns. It can’t get much worse than it already is.

But is that really true? Does it make sense to build a team around solid two-way players that are best-suited for the bottom six, with an odd outlier or two — likely the high first-rounders — with top-six potential?

Probably not.

Home-run picks

A draft is of course not just made up of high first-rounders and ‘safe picks.’ Every year, there are potential home-run picks that look more risky than others.

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Most times, these risky picks are often highly skilled but very small players. Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames, 2011, fourth round), Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes, 2015, fifth round) and Alex DeBrincat (Chicago Blackhawks, 2016, second round) are recent examples. This year’s perfect example is WHL Spokane Chiefs winger Kailer Yamamoto.

Other high-risk, high-reward prospects could, for example, be promising players with skating issues or dangerous scorers with questionable hockey sense.

So, what makes these picks better than safe picks, if the Canucks could — worst case scenario — end up getting just one NHL player out of this draft that will be selected fifth overall?

The value

These were just random thoughts I had about the draft. Seeing how bottom-six players can easily be acquired in free agency or in cheap trades, trying to get players with higher value just seems to make sense.

But since that’s not a good argument to make, I went out to find proof of that — and the analytics community, once again, saved the day.’s namitanandakumar explored the value of drafting players with a high ceiling rather than safer picks. You should definitely give his piece a thorough read, but here are some of the important passages that support my idea.

First, teams need to ask themselves, “how much do I have to pay a free agent of the same level as the player we’re about to draft?”

"When a team considers drafting a player, they should consider the opportunity cost of not drafting him. For example, you might want to draft a projected fourth liner who is worth exactly $925,000, and then offer him a max ELC with a cap hit of $925,000. But if you don’t draft him, the cost to find someone like him in free agency would be around $925,000, and there are many players available every year who fit the description. So you don’t lose anything but you don’t really gain anything, either.At the other extreme, if the Penguins didn’t draft Sidney Crosby (because of concerns about his finger-slashing habits, let’s say), the cost to acquire a player of his caliber would be astronomically high. Players like him rarely exist in free agency, but even if they did, the Penguins would have had to take on a cap hit of at least $7,850,000 ($8,700,000 – $850,000) more than his ELC cap hit."

Teams can’t possibly know how their draftees turn out, but if they project a prospect to become a third-line guy who makes $1.5 million a year, they might as well sign a similar player in free agency and draft someone with a higher ceiling.

There is a large number of fringe NHL players that can fill a bottom six, but top-six forwards and top-four defensemen are much harder to come by.

"The baseline for a good draft decision is not “does this prospect have some positive expected value?” Rather, the question to ask is “how much value can this prospect add beyond what I can find in other channels?”Every team needs third and fourth liners, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should draft them. Instead, consider taking a chance on a player you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else."


Going for the home-run pick is risky, which is why many highly talented prospect drop down the board every year. But, it will eventually pay off.

"Of course, we can’t run multiple trials of reality, and so boom-or-bust prospects will often look like bad decisions in hindsight. But if teams remain consistent in their decision-making, keep and acquire as many picks as possible, and aren’t incredibly unlucky, seeking variance should eventually pay big dividends."

Not all high-risk players end up playing in the NHL, but some do. The more picks a team acquires, the higher the chances of hitting that home-run pick. If a team accumulates a large number of picks and uses them on high-risk, high-reward players, they will most likely receive a few prospects that will make the NHL and become valuable top-six players. That, in turn, will pay off in the long run.

The Canucks could stick to their guns and draft big centre Michael Rasmussen, then pick MacKenzie Entwistle in the second round and Max Gildon in the third. That might give them three NHL players.

But maybe they should go big in potential instead. Pick up Cale Makar in the first round, maybe acquire another pick or move up to grab Yamamoto or Klim Kostin in the late first. Then go with someone like Nikita Popugaev in the second, Alexei Lipanov in the third and Alexandre Texier in the fourth. Be bold.

Next: Full first-round mock: Canucks Pick Vilardi 5th overall

The Canucks will have many options, but maybe they should change their draft strategy to speed up the rebuild. It will be a long one either way.