Vancouver Canucks draft week exceeds expectations

June 23, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Elias Pettersson poses for photos after being selected as the number five overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
June 23, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Elias Pettersson poses for photos after being selected as the number five overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

In a plot-twist that few Vancouver Canucks fans would have anticipated, the week of the NHL expansion and entry draft was a success, highlighted by the selection of a highly-skilled playmaking centre, Elias Pettersson.

It’s been a tough slide from the heights of 2010-11 for Vancouver Canucks fans. That year, the team came within one win of the Stanley Cup itself. This week, the same team was literally the laughing stock of the NHL Awards.

The decline has been painful, punctuated by ugly momentsbad trades, mysterious coaching decisions, horrendous free-agent signings, ill-advised draft decisions, disappointing player management, and more than a few front office blunders.

When the Canucks released their protected-players list in advance of the Vegas expansion draft, overpaid, underperforming centre Brandon Sutter was not exposed, leaving younger forwards with untapped potential (Reid Boucher and Brendon Gaunce) available. It didn’t bode well.

And then, a curious combination of good fortune and smart decision-making — both at a premium in Vancouver — intervened to give the team a very positive week. Here’s how it all played out.

Sbis-ya Later

That may be a terrible pun but, if it’s any consolation, that may be the last Luca Sbisa pun Canucks fans will ever hear. The bottom-pairing defender was chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft in a selection that wasn’t totally surprising, but was nevertheless a huge relief for Canucks fans.

Sbisa is, by all accounts, a nice guy and a serviceable player and I wish him well in Vegas. If he even cracks the defense-rich roster they have assembled. Is Sbisa better than Marc Methot, Jason Garrison, Alexei Emelin, Derek Engelland, Shea Theodore or Nate Schmidt? Sbisa may end up being part of a trade, although it’s hard to imagine many teams looking to take on his $3.6-million cap hit.

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Put this in the win column for Vancouver. That cap space can be used to sign Bo Horvat and other young core players as they move out of their ELCs.

It also means that Vancouver has room on the blue line to give younger players a shot. As the Vancouver Sun’s Jason Botchford put it, the Canucks can have a much-needed “defensive do-over.” Troy Stetcher and Ben Hutton will continue to move up the depth chart, Olli Juolevi will almost certainly have an opportunity to crack the NHL roster, and Canucks fans may finally get to see what Jordan Subban has to offer.

Finally, the Sbisa selection means that Vancouver held on to Gaunce and Boucher, the latter of whom especially could yet emerge as a middle-six goal scorer for the Canucks.

When Life Hands You Lemons…

…turn them into Elias Petterson. Look, everyone in Vancouver wanted to get Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick. By all accounts the Canucks, who finished second-worst in the NHL, deserved to get one of those two elite prospects.

Instead, cruel fate and an absurd draft-lottery system handed Nico to the New Jersey Devils and Nolan to the Philadelphia Flyers (who finished last season with almost double the number of points as last-place Colorado. Great system, Gary.)

The Canucks dropped to fifth overall, but Vancouver’s front office managed to use that pick effectively. With the top two defenders going third and fourth, respectively, GM Jim Benning went a little off the board to select Pettersson, a playmaking Swedish centre with poise, patience, and a ton of raw skill. Pettersson was not tipped to go as high as fifth, with most rankings placing him somewhere down near the 10-to-15 range.

But, he is a great fit for Vancouver and could be a key piece of the rebuild.

Related Story: Fans react to Elias Pettersson selection

Pettersson is small, which is why many scouts in North America had him lower than players like Cody Glass and Casey Mittelstadt. But, his creativity, soft hands and hockey IQ make his potential very high, provided he is able to bulk up a bit and transition effectively to the NHL.

He is also a smart pick for the Vancouver Canucks, who recently acquired forward Jonathan Dahlen, Pettersson’s linemate in Timra, Sweden. There is precedent in Vancouver for high-skill Swedish linemates whose creativity together makes them both better. If Pettersson and Dahlen can bring Sedin-like chemistry with the tempo of the modern NHL, they could become the centerpiece of the future Vancouver Canucks.

A Busy Second Round

Beyond the first round, one always has to keep a sober head about the prospect pool. Only about 30 percent of second-round picks become NHL players, and the statistics drop off pretty hard in the third. Nevertheless, a scan of the Vancouver Canucks’ selections shows a lot of very good value picks: players whose odds of NHL success are as high or better than others selected around them.

Still, with Columbus activating the John Tortorella conditional pick, giving the Canucks two picks in the second round, it was imperative that they get this right. And where I am unreservedly positive on its first round, I am only cautiously optimistic on Vancouver’s second round.

They started well, choosing forward Kole Lind 33rd overall. Lind was pegged by many scouts as a first-rounder. He is a proven scorer with great vision, and while no single element of his game stands out, it is reasonable to expect that he could contend for a middle-six role with the Canucks if he continues to develop. Like my colleague Janik Beichler, I would have preferred Jesper Boqvist, linemate of Pettersson and Dahlen in Sweden. But Lind is, nevertheless, a solid option.

Related Story: Draft profile: Kole Lind

Later in the same round, the Canucks chose Jonah Gadjovich, a self-described power forward in the OHL who brings maturity and muscle to the depth chart. He needs to work on his skating; the NHL is moving past the Milan Lucic era, and Vancouver’s odyssey with 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen attests to the need to combine size with speed and skill.

But, Gadjovich did score 46 goals this season, and if he can become the elusive combination of skill and strength that makes a David Backes or Leon Draisaitl, he could be a welcome addition to a third or fourth line or a net-front presence on the powerplay.

Expanding the Pool

The rest of Vancouver’s selections were, with one exception, sensible and attuned to the team’s needs. Vancouver chose goaltender Michael DiPietro (64th), defender Jack Rathbone (95th), defender Kristoffer Gunnarsson (135th), forward Petrus Palmu (181st), and defender Matt Brassard (188th).

DiPietro is a depth selection in net, and a good one. The future of the Canucks’ net clearly belongs to Thatcher Demko, but DiPietro could develop into a solid backup or better. His resume in the OHL is impressive, including a Memorial Cup Championship and a Dinty Moore Trophy for the lowest goals-against average among rookies. Best-case scenario, he challenges Demko for the starting position and one of the two becomes a valuable trading chip.

The three defensive selections are definitely depth choices, with only Rathbone appearing to have a real shot at playing in the NHL. He’s a long way from being ready and is committed to Harvard for 2018-19. Gunnarsson is the only choice that looks bad, an overage stay-at-home defender who doesn’t likely have much more to offer than what he has already shown.

So, not much change to the Canucks’ defensive pool, and this will have to be a priority in the 2018 draft.

Related Story: Vancouver Canucks select Petrus Palmu 181st overall

But, up front, the Canucks look much better, and 181st pick Petrus Palmu is in some ways the most intriguing of all. Palmu was the shortest player drafted, at just 5-foot-7, but he is an incredibly dynamic and exciting player who scored 40 goals this season in Owen Sound, alongside fellow Canucks draftee Gadjovich. He may be a dark horse, but according to Canucks Army editor J.D. Burke, he has a 25-percent expected success rate, and may be comparable to a Derek Roy or Steve Larmer.

Great Save Benning!

This offseason did not start out well, with the departure of Nikita Tryamkin, the uninspired selection of Travis Green as head coach, and the decision to protect the albatross contract of Brandon Sutter. But with his own job probably dependent on righting this ship, Jim Benning has bounced back.

The one-year extension of Erik Gudbranson was wise, as many of us worried that the loss of Tryamkin would lead Benning to commit longterm money to a mediocre defender. The loss of Sbisa to Vegas was a fortuitous bounce, and with that momentum, Benning’s team pulled off a solid draft highlighted by an elite player with a high ceiling in Elias Pettersson.

It hasn’t been easy to find hope, but the Canucks are finally building some. Imagine, if you will, a top line with Pettersson, Dahlen and Markus Granlund. A second line of Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi and Brock Boeser. A third line with Lind, Nikolay Goldobin and Boucher. A fourth line of Gadjovich, Jake Virtanen and Palmu.

Elite scorers on three different lines, and an ability to grind out goals on all four, with the possibility of loading up some dynamic power-play units with Juolevi, Stetcher and hopefully another high-level defender from the class of 2018.

Next: Grading Canucks 2017 Draft Picks

The thought may just be enough to keep me going through what is going to be a tough, tough 2017-18 campaign.