After beating the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, the Vancouver Canucks are six points out of a playoff spot. They are also six points ahead of the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks for a bottom-four spot in the NHL.
In other words, they are right in the mushy middle. It’s the perfect spot if you simultaneously want to miss the playoffs and also pick in the middle of the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. It’s where no team wants to be.
It’s frustrating because Canucks fans just caught a glimpse of what they could be missing at the 2023 World Junior Championship, where Connor Bedard gave every indication that he’s a generational talent.
Bedard's record-breaking World Juniors
It took just four games in the preliminary round for Bedard to break a longstanding record held by Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros for the most points by a 17-year-old Canadian at the World Juniors. Bedard’s 18 points in those four games not only passed Gretzky and Lindros, but also tied Jaromir Jagr for the most ever by any 17-year-old at the tournament.
He still had the playoff round ahead of him.
Bedard added five more points in the playoffs to lead Canada to the gold medal, leading the tournament in scoring with a whopping nine goals and 23 points in seven games.
That’s the fourth most points ever in a single World Junior tournament. The three players ahead of him — Sweden’s Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund and Finnish legend Raimo Helminen — were all 19 years old when they had their dominant tournaments. Bedard is still just 17.
Bedard is also the highest-scoring Canadian in career points at the World Juniors. Or, rather, he’s tied with Lindros for the most career points with 31.
It took Lindros 21 games to score those 31 points. Bedard did it in 14 games.
A generational talent at first overall
If Bedard wasn’t already a lock to go first overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft with the way he’s racking up points in the WHL for the Regina Pats, this World Junior tournament has surely cemented his spot at the top of an extremely talented draft class.
He’s exactly the type of franchise player that a struggling team could build around. Just look at the names he’s being mentioned with in World Junior history: Gretzky, Lindros, and Jagr. If his potential pays off, he’ll soon be named in the same breath as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. He’s that good.
He’s exactly the type of player the Canucks desperately need.
Not only that, but Bedard was born in North Vancouver and has been a diehard Canucks fan his entire life. The possibility of the best player ever produced by Vancouver hockey playing his professional hockey in Vancouver is extremely enticing.
There’s just one problem: the Canucks are very unlikely to be able to draft Bedard.
The Canucks have never picked first overall in their history, starting from their very first draft in 1970 when a spin of the wheel gave the Buffalo Sabres first overall and Hall-of-Famer Gilbert Perreault, while the Canucks got second overall and Dale Tallon.
In order to even have a chance of getting the first-overall pick in the 2023 draft, the Canucks would need to not only finish out of the playoffs but in the bottom 11 positions in the NHL, as teams can only move up a maximum of ten spots in the draft lottery.
Then the Canucks would need to win the draft lottery, with only a tiny chance of doing so unless they finish right at the bottom of the standings. As it is, if the season were to end now, the Canucks would have the eighth-best odds of winning the draft lottery, giving them a 6.0% chance of getting the first-overall pick and Bedard.
The Canucks have been thoroughly mediocre this season, with a 17-18-3 record while playing a brand of hockey that has not inspired much faith in their ability to turn the season around. The trouble is, mediocre isn’t enough to get you the first-overall pick.
You have to be terrible — intentionally terrible.
Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, and Ducks: masters of tanking
Three teams, in particular, have gotten out to an astonishing head start in being terrible this season: the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks and Blue Jackets both have 11 wins and 24 regulation losses this season, though the Ducks have two extra losses in overtime for a slight boost in points to land them in 30th in the NHL and the Blue Jackets in 31st.
The Blackhawks are in last place with a putrid 8-25-4 record on the season. They have been utterly atrocious this season, outscored by 61 goals, though somehow the Ducks have an even worse goal differential at minus-68.
The Canucks, with their modest minus-16 goal differential, can’t compete. At this point, there’s no catching the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, and Ducks for the bottom of the NHL standings.
Those three teams are not in the basement by accident.
The Ducks sold off players like Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, and Rickard Rakell at last season’s trade deadline for a wealth of draft picks and will likely do the same with John Klingberg this season. Along with making two first-round picks last year, they have six picks in the first three rounds of the 2023 draft and have a strong chance their first pick will be first overall.
The Blue Jackets signed Johnny Gaudreau in the offseason, which would seem to preclude a tank/rebuild, but Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has been making all sorts of rebuilding moves over the last two years, such as trading away Seth Jones, David Savard, and Nick Foligno.
The Blue Jackets made three first-round picks in 2021, two first-round picks in 2022, and could get the first-overall pick in 2023.
Finally, the Blackhawks were very obvious with their intentions to tank heading into the season. They acquired a bunch of picks by trading away the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Alex DeBrincat, and Kirby Dach, as well as by taking on a couple of cap headaches for other teams, like Petr Mrazek and Jason Dickinson.
The Blackhawks made three first-round picks in 2022 and have two first-round picks in 2023 and 2024. They could add to those picks and make themselves worse to ensure a bottom-of-the-league finish if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are willing to waive their no-movement clauses.
The cratering of the lineups and the wealth of draft picks acquired by those three teams were intentional rebuilding moves that not only give them a chance at drafting Bedard first overall but also gave them a deep and wide prospect pool that should theoretically allow them to build a strong roster around him in the near future.
A late tank is better than no tank at all
The Canucks are in a bad place — not good enough to truly compete for the Stanley Cup but too good to compete for the first-overall pick with the teams that have been serious about rebuilding.
The truth is, it’s very easy to miss the playoffs by accident while trying to be a playoff team — Canucks fans have seen their team do exactly that six times in the last seven seasons and could be on their way to a seventh. Do it enough times and a fanbase starts to lose hope, particularly with an evaporating prospect pool from too many ill-considered trades.
If you miss the playoffs intentionally while building up draft capital, stocking the prospect pool, and tanking for a potential generational talent, however, then at least there’s hope.
So, even though the Canucks can’t catch the three worst teams in the league, they still have an opportunity to do what they should have done years ago: start the rebuilding process.
The Canucks have players that they could trade for draft picks and prospects. They have ways of making the team bad enough to sink in the standings and give them a chance of getting a higher draft pick. They can start to put together the pieces that they'll need to build a team around Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes in the next few years.
It might not be pretty but the Canucks haven’t been pretty all season, so what would really be the difference?
Even if the Ducks, Blue Jackets, and Blackhawks can’t be caught, the Canucks could still catch the likes of the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. They could still get into the bottom five in the league.
The 2023 draft class has multiple first-overall talents available
Finishing fourth-last in the NHL would give the Canucks a 9.5% chance of picking first overall but, more importantly, it would ensure they would get a top-five pick. And, in the stacked 2023 draft, that’s nearly as good as first overall.
There are multiple prospects available at the top of the 2023 draft that would be in consideration for first overall in any other year. Bedard is a potential generational player, but Leo Carlsson, Adam Fantilli, and Matvei Michkov are all first-overall-caliber talents. In a lesser year, even Andrew Cristall, Zach Benson, and Will Smith might have been in consideration for the first-overall pick, and there are other prospects who could put themselves in the mix in the coming months, such as right-handed defenceman David Reinbacher, who caught the attention of scouts with a strong World Juniors for an overmatched Austrian squad.
Michkov would be an obvious target for the Canucks. Some have called him the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and he was once neck-and-neck with Bedard for first overall, but his contract with SKA combined with so many other strong prospects at the top of the draft might see him slide to fourth or fifth in the draft.
If the Canucks can tank their way to a top-five pick, they might be the ideal landing spot for Michkov. They have a European general manager, a strong relationship with Michkov’s agency after signing Andrey Kuzmenko, and several other Russian players already in the fold.
Getting a top-five pick in this draft would be a game-changer with respect to the Canucks’ ability to put together a competitive team in the next few years. Bedard is the lure. He's the selling point for tanking, the prospect that everyone can get excited for, but there's so much talent at the top of the draft that it's the proverbial shoot-for-the-moon situation: even if the Canucks miss Bedard, they'll still land among the stars.