Today, the Vancouver Canucks pick sixth overall. Without the knowledge of hindsight, it’s the team’s most important draft. Ever.
Sure, 1988 was big. That year, Pat Quinn picked Trevor Linden second overall, and the guy would on to not only become one of the greatest players in team history, but Vancouver’s chosen son, its captain, its compass, and (now) its president.
In 1989, the team took a chance on Pavel Bure, a phenom who wasn’t supposed to leave Russia, with the 113th pick. Bure is the most exciting player in Canucks history, one of the most exciting players in NHL history, and perhaps the greatest goal scorer of his generation.
In 1999, Brian Burke somehow dodged and weaved his way to the top of the draft board and took Daniel and Henrik Sedin, back-to-back with that year’s second and third overall picks.
But going into 2014, you could say the Canucks have never had so much riding on a draft – not in the lead-up, and not with what they’ve gone through.
Last season, Vancouver scored the second-fewest goals in the National Hockey League. The only team worse was Buffalo. And Buffalo is terrible.
Daniel Sedin had 47 points in 73 games. It was his worst year, statistically, since 2003. Back then, even Canucks fans called him and his brother ‘The Sisters’ and the team’s fortunes fell on Naslund, Bertuzzi, Morrison, Ed Jovanovski, and Dan Cloutier.
Henrik was slightly better last year, putting up 50 points in 70 injury-riddled contests. Alex Burrows had five goals in 49 games, after four seasons of 26-plus since 2008. The team shucked off all-star goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, unbelievably, eventually, and carelessly.
The Canucks have fallen from Stanley Cup finalists, Presidents’ Trophy winners, to an afterthought.
In 2014, the team never really got healthy, but they never deserved to make it anyway.
And Vancouver’s prospect base is a massive question mark. Like one of those colourful boxes in Mario Kart, you really have no idea if it’s going to help you or blow up, not without driving right through it in the middle of a race you sort of need to win.
In 2013, the Canucks nabbed two highly touted junior stars in Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk. But the two of them join a rather random collection of recently drafted players, all of them perhaps talented or capable in their own right, but their talents either don’t correspond or haven’t been useful yet.
The Canucks drafted Cody Hodgson, 10th overall, in 2008. He’s skilled, he’s smart, he’s a centre. But then they traded him to Buffalo for power forward Zack Kassian in 2012 – a move toward a new direction, which made little sense when set next to everything then-general manager Mike Gillis had done to that point.
In 2009, Vancouver picked Jordan Schroeder 22nd overall. Undersized but speedy, Schroeder was never supposed to be the saviour. But after five years, he hasn’t been much of anything.
In 2010, the Canucks didn’t draft until the fourth round. In 2011, they took Nicklas Jensen 29th overall – back to skill and Euro possession, but just before Mike Gillis decided to re-write his blueprint and shuffled Hodgson off to the Sabres for the Kassian jackhammer.
2012: Big centre Brendan Gaunce, 26th overall. And then Horvat and Shinkaruk in 2013.
These guys are all worthy of a first-round selection, or they were when they were picked. But is there an identity, with all of them together? Was Vancouver actually planning their next step, or were they constantly tracing over someone else’s model, chasing a moving goal post – a phrase you’re no doubt sick of – and Etch-A-Sketching their way to wherever they are now?
And when you factor in the team’s trade deadline acquisitions – Sami Pahlsson in 2012, Derek Roy in 2013 – their refusal to sign Christian Ehrhoff or Raffi Torres, their inability or unwillingness to replace the void left by Manny Malhotra, their swap of Mikael Samuelsson for David Booth, and their inability to properly coach or manage Keith Ballard… well, none of it seems to be according to plan.
With new management – with Linden in the cockpit, with no-nonsense, blunt Jim Benning as GM, and with Willie Desjardins on the bench – tonight’s draft will tell us everything we need to know about where we can expect this team to go, and what we can expect they’ll look like.
If the Canucks take William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers sixth overall, we know we’re re-investing in speed and flashy skill. If they pick blunt object Nick Ritchie, well that’s good news for guys like Kassian. If Benning trades up into the top four and takes Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, or Leon Draisaitl, well at least we know he’s taking this thing seriously.
And the new guy – today’s first rounder – has to fit with what the Canucks are already working with. An experienced blueline and core of the Sedin twins, Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Alex Edler have been left for dead in their contending years with two young goalies in Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, climber Chris Tanev, and seat-fillers Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen.
This is, right now, a team of 20 or so guys who all want different things. A few want to win, one wants to win somewhere else, and the rest have a career in front of them, not beside or behind them. They’ve gone from a team to a collection.
If that can be even helped today, Benning will have done his job. For now. It’s always for now.