Canucks go with age, but still get beauties in back half of the draft

Kristoffer Gunnarsson, Petrus Palmu, and Matthew Brassard

Pass it to Bulis

Jim Benning came into Vancouver with a reputation for drafting well thanks to his history as a scout and in the front office with the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. That’s why it was always so frustrating to see the Canucks seemingly so reticent to acquire additional draft picks: if drafting is Benning’s strength, why wouldn’t he give himself more opportunities to play to that strength?

It was gratifying, then, to see the Canucks trade down on Saturday, sending the 112th pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for the 135th and 181st pick.

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The likelihood of a pick making an impact in the NHL declines sharply after the first few picks and, eventually, you’re just as likely to get an impact NHL player in the seventh round as you are in the fourth.

As a result, there’s very little downside to trading down in the draft once you get outside the first couple rounds. It’s arguably a lot better to take a shotgun approach to acquiring prospects: increase your chances of getting an actual NHL player by making more picks rather than one higher pick.

The trade allowed the Canucks to take a chance on two older players in their third years of draft eligibility, then took another older player in his second year of draft eligibility in the seventh round.

With the 135th pick, the Canucks took Kristoffer Gunnarsson, a stay-at-home defenceman from Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League. In some ways, this pick harkens back to Benning’s first draft with the Canucks, when he took the low-scoring Kyle Pettit and Mackenze Stewart late in the draft.

The 20-year-old Gunnarsson hasn’t put up points at any level, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of making it to the NHL. Even defensive defencemen need to have enough skill and hockey sense to effectively play at the NHL-level, and those abilities usually translate into points at lower levels.

In his first year of draft eligibility, Gunnarsson had zero points in 45 games in the SuperElit Under-20 League in Sweden, though he managed 14 points in 36 games the year after. In 36 regular season and playoff games in the SHL in his career, Gunnarsson has zero points. He has just two points in 34 Allsvenskan games.

Understandably, much of the reaction has been negative, as it’s seen as a wasted pick. While Gunnarsson is a hard-hitting, gritty defenceman who can skate well, you have to wonder if his puck skills and decision-making will survive the fast pace of the NHL.

That said, Gunnarsson did play for Sweden at the World Junior tournament this past year, rotating with 16-year-old (and potential 2018 first overall pick) Rasmus Dahlin as the World Junior tournament allows teams to dress seven defencemen.

Gunnarsson averaged 14:17 in ice time per game at the World Junior Tournament and managed one assist and one shot on goal in seven games. His assist was a secondary assist in an 8-3 victory over Slovakia on what was really a great individual effort by Tim Soderlund.

In an ironic note, Soderlund is the player that the Blackhawks took with the 112th pick they got from the Canucks.

Even if Gunnarsson was a bit player for Team Sweden at the World Junior Tournament, that he was there at all says something about how much he’s valued by his coaches.

I’m not going to lie, I’m not thrilled with the pick, but if the worst thing you can say about the Canucks draft is that they took a chance on a World Junior defenceman by trading down to add an additional asset, then this was an excellent draft.

With the extra pick the Canucks acquired in the trade, they took a very different type of chance on Petrus Palmu, a dynamic scoring forward that racks up points, but lacks size.

Palmu was the shortest player drafted this year at 5’6”, but he’s stocky and strong. He may be half a foot shorter than Elias Pettersson, but he weighs 20 pounds more. He has a similar body type to Martin St Louis, who Palmu idolizes, judging by the cover photo on his Twitter account.

Palmu represents the type of pick that I like in late rounds: he has the potential to be a top-six forward thanks to his speed, intelligence, and skill. He’s a great goalscorer with his quick hands around the net, an accurate wrist shot with a quick release, and a surprisingly good slap shot despite his smaller stature.

He’s also an excellent playmaker, frequently finding passing lanes that others miss or creating lanes with quick shifts in his skating. The Finnish forward even quarterbacked the Owen Sound Attack’s power play from the point.

Canucks scouts would have seen a lot of Palmu while scouting his teammate, second-round pick Jonah Gadjovich; frankly, it would have been impossible not to notice Palmu, who finished with 40 goals and 98 points in 60 games in the regular season, then added 13 goals and 21 points in 17 playoff games.

That included 6 goals and 11 points in 5 games in a playoff series against the Kitchener Rangers, including this ludicrous lacrosse-style goal.

 

 


There are some questions for Palmu to answer besides his small size: it took until this past season for him to break out in the OHL. Though he was no slouch in his two previous seasons, scoring 91 points in 114 games, he scored at nearly twice that pace this past season. You have to wonder if that breakout came because he was playing on a team with Nick Suzuki, who was justifiably picked 13th overall by the Vegas Knights.

From all reports, however, Palmu is a determined, driven young man. Taking a chance on finding the next Theo Fleury or Martin St. Louis makes this a great pick for the Canucks.

Finally, the Canucks added another defenceman to the prospect pool in the seventh round, taking 18-year-old Matthew Brassard 188th overall. While in his second year of eligibility, he was just barely too old to be a first-year eligible player, which is something to keep in mind.

Brassard had a respectable 12 goals and 32 points in 62 OHL games split between the Barrie Colts and Oshawa Generals, ranking him 19th in points and 8th in goals among under-19 defencemen. He’s got a great shot from the point, but also has a knack for finding the net with a wrist shot to quickly get it through a shooting lane, rather than loading up for a big slap shot.

That ability to get shots on net shows up in the statistics: he was fifth among OHL defencemen in shots on goal with 203, one behind second-round pick Nicolas Hague.

The selection of Brassard brings to mind Carl Neill, who was right around the same age as Brassard when the Canucks selected him in 2015 and had a similar number of goals and points. While the Canucks chose not to sign Neill, he did develop fairly well, putting up 69 points in 67 games in his over-age year in the QMJHL.

Brassard has good size at 6’2”, 200 lbs, and decent mobility, according to Brock Otten at OHL Prospects, who also calls him “pretty raw,” suggesting he could have some serious potential if he rounds out his game. There’s enough there to make Brassard well worth a seventh round pick.
 

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