The Canucks have gotten good value out of the USHL in recent years at the draft.
If you re-did the 2015 draft, Brock Boeser would go a lot higher than 23rd overall, and Adam Gaudette wouldn’t last until the fifth round. While Will Lockwood and Tyler Madden haven’t made the NHL yet, their progression in college hockey suggests both should have been drafted sooner than the third round when the Canucks selected them.
That track record has engendered a certain amount of trust from the Canucks fanbase when it comes to draft picks out of the USHL. So, when the Canucks once again dipped into the USHL late in the 2019 draft, fans nodded in approval. Could Aidan McDonough or Jack Malone follow in the footsteps of someone like Adam Gaudette?
McDonough certainly has some potential as a late-blooming power forward, but what about Malone? There’s a lot to suggest that the Canucks got excellent value in the sixth round when they picked Malone 180th overall.
Among first-time draft eligible forwards in the USHL, Malone was sixth in scoring, with 19 goals and 59 points in 57 games. Of those 59 points, 42 were primary points: goals and first assists.
All five of the players that finished ahead of Malone in scoring were selected in the first four rounds; in fact, four of the five were picked in the first two rounds. In other words, players with a similar statistical profile to Malone’s mostly got picked by the second round of the draft. To get Malone in the sixth round already seems like a steal, but it gets better.
If you take the power play out of the equation and just look at 5-on-5 scoring, Malone shoots up to first. His 43 points at 5-on-5 led all first-time draft-eligible players in the USHL last season.
Sure, there’s a mild caveat: on a per-game basis, Malone was out-scored at 5-on-5 by Alex Turcotte, Matthew Boldy, Jack Hughes, Cole Caufield, Bobby Brink, and Trevor Zegras. But now we’re talking about first-round picks and one second-round pick that should have gone in the first round in Bobby Brink. Not just first-round picks, either, but players that went in the top fifteen picks of the draft.
Malone is clearly not in the same tier as that group of players, but is he so far behind that he deserved to be picked five rounds later?
Hockey Prospect describes Malone as “a well-rounded forward, who can do a lot of things well” in their scouting report, noting he can play at either centre or right wing. They praise his ability to control and protect the puck, along with his strength on his skates, with a still-developing playmaking ability. In fact, “still developing” is a theme in his scouting report, with Hockey Prospect concluding that he “represents an intriguing chunk of clay to mold.”
“I think I can be reliable on both ends of the ice and I think I’m a 200-foot player,” said Malone at Canucks development camp. “A player I try to emulate is definitely Nick Backstrom on the Capitals. I mean, I’m a bit bigger than he is, so I try to use my body a bit more, but as far as his ability to make plays and see the ice.”
You can see that playmaking ability in a couple clips from his USHL season. This cheeky little backhand saucer pass to send his teammate Connor MacEachern in on a breakaway is something special, as he neatly chips the puck two feet in the air over a defender’s stick. It's worth watching it a couple times to fully appreciate it.
This blind pass from behind the net is also fantastic, as he catches everyone off-guard with the unexpected setup.
Malone’s vision is also on display with this backdoor feed to Jeppe Urup after coming out of battle in the corner with the puck. It looks like a power play situation, but it’s actually 5-on-5.
One area that Hockey Prospect identifies as needing improvement is Malone’s skating technique, but they praise his quick feet and changes in direction, describing him as “quick and hard-working.” The Canucks emphasized a “good motor” throughout the draft and Malone fits that particular bill with the way he drives forward and churns up the ice with his constantly-moving feet.
“I always try to keep my feet moving,” said Malone. “If I’m sitting there with my feet still, I know that I’m doing something wrong… I definitely want to improve some of my skating, some edge work and explosive starts from standstill.”
There’s a reason why Hockey Prospect describes him as unmolded clay. Beyond the improvements needed in his skating technique, they identify his hands as needing work so he can execute plays in tight quarters at higher levels. They also suggest that his finishing ability isn’t where it needs to be. Malone is definitely more of a playmaker than a goalscorer at this point, though he certainly showed flashes of quick hands and finish at times.
Another big reason why Malone likely fell in the draft is that he was playing on a line with one of the best players in the USHL last season, Buffalo Sabres prospect Brett Murray, who led the USHL in goals with 41 in 62 games.
Murray figured into a lot of Malone’s scoring, including assists on 18 of Malone’s 19 goals. The concern, then, is that Malone’s point production was a product of playing with Murray, rather than his own offensive talent.
Malone will get a chance to prove himself next season at Cornell University. Because he’s going the college route, the Canucks will have plenty of time to let Malone develop. There’s certainly hope that he can become an impact player in the NHL; similar players to him have certainly done so.
Looking at some of the comparable players that come up in Jeremy Davis’s prospect analytics work, some big names jump out: Patrick Sharp, Max Pacioretty, and Joe Pavelski certainly represent a pretty attractive ceiling for a player like Malone. They all scored at similar rates to Malone in their respective draft years in the USHL.
Of course, other statistically-similar players never even made it to the NHL, but the comparable players are compelling. 14.7% of similar players had NHL careers, with 7% going on to become top-six forwards. When you can wring that kind of potential out of a 6th-round pick, you’re doing very well.
Malone certainly isn’t dwelling on just getting drafted.
“It’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “One day, I want to play for the Canucks and I’ve got a long way before that happens, a lot of work left.”