Vancouver Canucks draft day was… nothing much. At least, certainly not as much as was promised in the lead-up to the first round. That isn’t a bad thing at all.
Canucks Draft Day Holds No Surprises
There was plenty of speculation about Vancouver possibly dropping down in the draft this year. The management group hasn’t been reluctant to make big, possibly unpopular moves. Drafting Tom Willander eleventh overall this year might qualify.
Willander is exactly what the Canucks have been looking for. He’s a 6’1″ right-handed, excellent-skating defenceman. He controls the puck well, passes well, shoots, uh, weeeeellll…
Projections are that he’s going to be an NHL player, probably a second-pair guy. Those are valuable, as Canucks fans should know. Unofficially, Vancouver has now spent two first-round selections to get two of them.
And now that the Detroit Red Wings selected Axel Sandin Pellikka, he and Filip Hronek are tied at the waist. Or should that be Willander he’s connected to for Canucks fans? Eh, right-side defenders. They’re all alike, you know?
A Silly Season
This was an odd year for defence prospects. At the beginning of the season, there were articles written and opinions given that 2023 would be the weakest draft for defencemen in years. And not for no reason!
It doesn’t help that the forward group is ridiculously deep. Numbers, as always, are easier to see in forwards than defence. There were plenty of prospect rankings that projected as few as four or five defencemen selected in the entire first round. Zero in the top ten.
That changed, obviously. By the time the dust settled, eight defencemen were selected, four of those in the first eleven slots. That’s relatively few, but again this is a very strong year for forwards. As exposure increased, these names rocketed up the charts.
Willander himself is often completely absent on these early lists. While no one believed Partik Allvin when he said he was looking to move up in the draft, when he was offered a chance to move down, he declined that, too.
With Zach Benson still on the table, the Canucks draft day ended when the general manager selected the defenceman instead.
We are extremely high on Zach Benson here. Local kid in a lot of ways, too: born in Langley, trained at Yale Academy (that’s in Abbotsford), starred in “The Dub”. Huge ceiling on him, and one of the smartest players in the draft.
And they passed him by. The choice is not one that sat well with a lot of the public. Canucks fans have memory burn of talented wingers getting passed over for sure-thing defencemen.
But time heals some wounds, and perhaps seeing how difficult it is to find defencemen will ameliorate the impact. And it’s not like Willander is Olli Juolevi, after all. Willander hasn’t had repeated surgeries, for instance.
And just to be clear, Zach Benson is not Matthew Tkachuk. Not without a ladder, anyway. But he is still an excellent prospect all around and would have made for a great story. Unlike the last guy they got because he was a local.
Okay, so going in either direction – safe defenceman, local star forward – has been fraught for the Canucks draft day in the past. But THIS time, it’s going to work! Because THIS time, the guy is really, really good. And sorta local, which is nice.
Good Guy Tom
One of the weirder things to hear from any young athlete is that they “always looked up to” someone who, when you look, is five or six years older than them. But it makes sense: when you’re taking a sport seriously, goals are closer. The league you’re trying to reach is only a few years away.
Willander, on the other hand, revered Henrik and Daniel Sedin, despite the ocean and continent separating them. He was, odd as it sounds, a Vancouver Canucks fan from afar. And now he’s got the opportunity to be embarrassed by guys twice his age on the Grouse Grind!
Great as the selection may be for him, for the Canucks it’s possibly better. Willander is going to an excellent program at Boston University next year, with the possibility of turning pro the year after.
His reasoning for the jump to North America is an interesting one. Many Swedish players stay home until it’s time to turn pro, taking advantage of the comforts of home while adapting to a higher league – if they make it to the SHL.
The problem with that is the SHL isn’t a development league. Young players can be stuck in third-pair roles or worse, playing only occasionally. The NCAA, on the other hand, has development as a focus of the league.
He knows his offence is a weakness, and thinks he can work on it with more minutes in the NCAA. The odds are good, frankly. There are fewer 30-year-olds fighting for a call-up to the bigs. And his skating alone is probably going to get him top-pair ice time.
In The End
As much as fans clamour for a partner with Quinn Hughes, remember that Willander is just 18 years old. It’s going to be a couple of years before there’s even a chance of him pulling on a Canucks jersey. But he is, as of this moment, their best prospect.
So where does that leave Filip Hronek in three years? That’s hard to say without seeing him on the ice for longer than last year’s four games. There’s a contract to sign, yet, and how that goes is anyone’s guess.
But having a highly talented, cost-controlled rookie coming up behind him has got to be music to Canucks fans’ ears. He might not have been everyone’s first choice, but the Canucks draft Day One pick should leave few regrets.
Main Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports