Without a single pick in the first three rounds of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, due to the Keith Ballard trade, Canucks GM Mike Gillis was conscripted with a difficult task; make the most of five lower round picks and continue adding depth to a deepening prospect pool.
The Canucks have seen steady improvement in the player development side of hockey operations, partly due to an increased number of staff assigned to the department, partly due to the strength of the teams farm teams, yet also partly due to two strong drafts in a row.
Given the lack of high picks this year, nobody expected Gillis to have another Jordan Schroeder drop to him, but surely he could find another Kevin Connauton or Steven Anthony.
Depending on who you ask he either achieved greatly or failed miserably. His picks were either good or bad; black or white.
On Friday night Gillis made a difficult and admirable decision to deal away his first round pick when the player(s) his draft team put at the top of their lists were no longer available; likely Jarred Tinordi and Beau Bennett, maybe Mark Pysyk. The loss of the first round selection meant the Canucks would wait til the fourth round to grab their first fresh new face.
Patrick McNally would be that selection, a mobile defenceman that will fill out his frame nicely, his detractors will focus on how difficult it is to judge a players skill when playing against inferior talent as McNally did in the Prep School system in New England under Paul Cannata, (who, despite speculation, has no relation to Canucks goalie prospect Joe Cannata) playing against kids who, for the most part, will not play hockey past grade 12. Even an average player will look good to great against weak opposition who have yet to hit puberty let alone their growth spurt. His detractors may also focus on the lack of quality opposition that Harvard University typically plays against in the NCAA and Harvard's recently suspect reputation for producing quality NHL talent.
However, his supporters will say that the praise bestowed upon McNally by Cannata comes from as educated a hockey mind as exists at that level, with six seasons under his belt as an assistant coach at Northeastern University, Cannata knows what to look for in young kids going to play in the NCAA and even those who are lucky enough to go on to play in the NHL. McNally's admittance into Harvard implies he has those character intangibles that Gillis' speaks so often on needing to see in his players.
Cornering the market on hockey players with the last name "Polasek" the Canucks drafted Adam with their fifth round selection. A rangy defenceman from the Czech Republic that is as comfortable jumping up into the play as he is backchecking, Adam likely won't have as many detractors as will the rest of the Canucks selections this year. If he does have detractors they will likely focus on two things, first, how unfortunate it is that he shares a last name with a former Canucks draft pick that most of us have worked hard to wipe from memory, and second whether or not he is really as good as his performance in the QMJHL indicates. It is well documented that defenders from the east are difficult to judge when playing against such small albeit skilled forwards day in day out especially when usually playing in more offensively oriented systems.
However, his supporters will note that Polasek was the best blueliner on his Czech team in the U-18 World Championships, against the best young talent in the world, even when asked to assume a more defensive role than he was accustomed to. They will also point to Polasek's recent nominations as the QMJHL Rookie of the Year and the QMJHL Rookie Defenceman of the Year as well as his inclusion in the QMJHL All-Rookie Team. By all accounts, Polasek may just be one of the steals of the draft.
Moving away from drafting blueliners, Gillis used the teams sixth round pick, acquired in the Mathieu Schneider trade, to take undersized but overpowering centre Alex Friesen from the Niagara Ice Dogs. His detractors will note that for undersized players to succeed in the NHL they usually need to have enough offensive upside to counterbalance the lack of size and strength. Scoring 23 goals and adding 27 assists on an average Ice Dogs team is certainly worthy of respect, but perhaps not praise. This upcoming year will go a long way to determining if Friesen has more potential than a fourth line grinder.
However, his supporters will point your attention to a recent OHL coaches poll where Friesen was voted as both the most hardworking player and the best face-off man in the OHL's Eastern Conference. A powerful pitbull of a player, Friesen throws his small albeit fit frame around well and can wreak havoc on the forecheck, combined with his skating, work ethic, and aptitutde for winning face-offs it is easy to see why he warranted a pick in his second go around in the NHL Entry Draft. While he has yet to prove he will be able to produce offensively at the NHL level, in no way has he given anyone a reason to doubt his ability and potential to be a difference maker.
Getting back on track with what Gillis said he was looking for in this years draft (defencemen and goaltending) the Canucks then selected Jonathan Iilahti with their original sixth round pick. His detractors will point out (once they are able to pronounce his name) that the Finnish U-18 league is not known for providing as challenging an environment as is found in Sweden or North America, and the fact he wasnt able to produce any great numbers with Espoo's U18 or U20 teams, never getting his GAA below a 2.49 and never having a higher Save % than .917. He is also a featherweight at the moment (6'1" and just 167 lbs.) and will take some time to fill out.
However, his supporters will point towards any number of Finnish goaltenders who have been picked in late rounds (Kiprusoff went 116th, Niittymaki went 168th, Rinne went 258th) and that all of these goalies, as well as Niemi, took time to develop and at one point or another were relative unknowns just like Iilahti. They will also point out his Bronze medal winning performance going 4-2 in the 2010 U-18 World Championships despite having a 2.79 GAA and a .893 Save %. Iilahti signed an extension with Espoo on May 18th and will playing for the Blues senior team next season.
Ending the long day of drafting the Canucks took a shot in the dark on 17 year old member of the NHL Entry Draft "All-Name Team," Halifax Mooseheads defenceman Sawyer Hannay. His detractors will tell you that although he was among the QMJHL's leaders for fighting majors, he was also among the league leaders for minors and he needs to adopt more discipline into his game when throwing around his 6'4" frame. They will also point out that as a tough, stingy, defensive defenceman his -17 rating is worrisome.
However, his supporters will tell you the stories of how he came into Mooseheads camp as maybe their seventh d-man at best, and by the end of the year was their go-to shutdown guy. While telling you this story they will salivate at the thought of a nice cold bottle of Moosehead, as well as the fact that Hannay is among the youngest players selected in the draft, and that playing 54 games in your rookie season as a shutdown defenceman in an offensive league is a good indicator that you can play at a high level. Red Line Report also ranked Hannay as the fourth toughest player that was draft eligible this year.
Now, the question remains, was the draft a success? Maybe, was the draft a failure? Maybe, did Mike Gillis draft any superstars today? Maybe, did Mike Gillis draft any busts? Maybe.
And maybe there is no good or bad, black or white when looking at these young kids and their career potential just hours after being drafted.
Maybe it's all just shades of gray.