Canucks: Grading the top-10 picks over the last 10 years

Feb 8, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich (33) makes a save as Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson (40) and forward Bo Horvat (53) look for the rebound during the third period at Rogers Arena. Calgary won 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 8, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich (33) makes a save as Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson (40) and forward Bo Horvat (53) look for the rebound during the third period at Rogers Arena. Calgary won 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports /
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The dust has (seemingly) finally settled on two wild weeks in the NHL and for the Vancouver Canucks. For most fans, there is likely one specific thing that they haven’t been able to get out of their heads.

How good is Dylan Guenther?

The 2021 NHL draft class has been shrouded in uncertainty due to the wildly varying circumstances of the 2020-21 season. Leading up to the draft, the Canucks were in a very interesting position at ninth overall, given how many talented players could’ve been available to them at that position.

One name that brought quite a bit of intrigue was Guenther.

Despite his developing transition game out of the neutral zone, the 18-year-old winger still managed to score 12 goals and 24 points in just 12 WHL games this past season with the Edmonton Oil Kings, proving that he was one of, if not the most, dangerous scorers in the draft.

As we all know, Guenther eventually fell to the Arizona Coyotes at ninth overall, a pick they acquired from the Canucks in a blockbuster draft day deal that saw Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson get shipped out to Vancouver in return.

We’re not here to provide a full breakdown on the trade made by Vancouver, nor should we focus on how Garland and Ekman-Larsson could impact the team next year. As of right now, there’s no denying that both players are immediate improvements to the roster for next season, and we’ll have to wait until October to see how much they can actually benefit Vancouver.

The biggest question mark, of course, should be Vancouver’s former 2021 first-round pick, and what could’ve been if the Canucks had held onto it.

Could Guenther become an elite goal-scorer in this league? Does he have the offensive prowess to rewrite Arizona’s losing history? Would the Canucks have also taken him at ninth overall had the draft board turned out the way it did a few weeks back?

These questions have been burning a hole in this writer’s head as of late, especially given Guenther’s dynamic offensive prowess and natural point-producing ability but, as it goes with all NHL drafts, we’ll never know what could’ve been.

What we can do, however, is take a step back and see how Vancouver has utilized their top-ten picks, the ones that they actually held onto, over the last ten years, and how those selections have shaped and contributed to the franchise so far.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at each player on the list, and their deserved grade.

2019: Vasili Podkolzin (10th overall) – A

Grading a draft pick used on a player who has yet to play an NHL game, and was only drafted two years ago, is probably not a very fruitful exercise, but here we are.

Vasily Podkolzin has had a challenging two seasons in the KHL.

He was deployed largely as a bottom-six forward under SKA St. Petersburg coach Valeri Bragin, and his statistics showed as such. In 75 career regular season games, Podkolzin scored seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points. His playoff output has been better, with seven goals and 14 points in just 20 games. However, Podkolzin’s full impact isn’t necessarily evident on the stat sheet, as his effectiveness often lies in his playmaking abilities, as well as in his two-way game.

Given those strengths, the 20-year-old winger, who signed his entry-level deal earlier this offseason, is expected to feature in Vancouver’s opening-day lineup at the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign.

At the beginning of his draft year, Podkolzin was touted as a potential top-three pick. A few reasons later, including the fact that he ended up signing a professional contract in Russia, and his position gradually began to fall as the year went on. Vancouver eventually found themselves selecting Podkolzin at tenth overall.

The Canucks had a plethora of talented forwards to choose from at that position, including Cole Caufield and Alex Newhook, but decided to take a chance on the Russian. So far, there is nothing to say that Podkolzin won’t shine when given the chance next season and, given that rationale, receives an ‘A’.

As stated, Podkolzin looks like a talented prospect with a high NHL ceiling. The only case that can be made against the Podkolzin pick is the immediate success that Caufield has had since being drafted. Caufield was another explosive, highly-talented winger who slid down the first round rankings of the 2019 draft, eventually being picked by Montreal at 15th overall.

Upon completion of the USA Hockey National Development Program, Caufield went on to score 49 goals and 88 points in 77 games over two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. Caufield joined the Canadiens at the end of the 2020-21 season and performed incredibly well during Montreal’s improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.

With all that being said, measuring Podkolzin up against someone who might eventually be considered the best player to come out of the 2019 draft isn’t fair. The Russian winger is yet to have his chance, and we will have to wait until after he is given his opportunity to truly evaluate the high rating.

2018: Quinn Hughes (7th overall) – A+

Two things are blatantly obvious to anyone who has watched the Canucks and, more specifically, Quinn Hughes over the last two seasons. First? He’s immensely talented. During the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, legend Wayne Gretzky said that Hughes had “better hands than I had”, and Hughes’ incredible offensive output since his NHL debut has shown.

Second? His defensive game also took a huge step back during this past season in Vancouver.

You can blame Hughes’ decline on a number of things; a sophomore slump, a challenging year for the team overall, or the loss of his rookie season defence partner in Chris Tanev. No matter the reason, we’ve seen better of Hughes than what was on display during the 2020-21 season, and that better, electrifying version, the version of Hughes that we know he can be, is what’s being kept in mind while grading this pick.

Hughes was taken seventh overall by Vancouver back in 2018. During his first full rookie season, the left-handed blueliner scored 53 points in 68 games and 16 points in 17 playoff games, while also finishing second in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s best rookie.

Since the end of the 2018-19 season, Hughes has amassed 97 points in 129 regular season games. Only four players from the 2018 draft class have played more games than Hughes, while only three (Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk and Rasmus Dahlin) have scored more points. What’s even more impressive is that those trio of youngsters all have an extra year of NHL experience compared to Hughes, ranking his 0.75 points-per-game rate first amongst any other player in his draft who has played at least three NHL games.

Defensive liability or not, his offensive talent and production are enough to suggest that he should easily be considered one of the best players to come out of his draft year.

Hughes wasn’t exactly a no-brainer pick at seventh overall, either. At the time, he was ranked below both Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson in the pre-draft rankings, with many insiders and scout experts also expecting Swedish defenceman Adam Boqvist to be off the board before Hughes. Up to now, Hughes has proved the Canucks right in their selection of him, far surpassing any player drafted below him.

Vancouver will hope that Hughes can write off a difficult last season as a sophomore slump and return to the form that saw him finish a respectable 15th overall in Norris Trophy voting for the 2019-20 campaign.