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Nemec and Jiříček make trading up a tantalizing prospect for Canucks

The top-ranked defencemen at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft are both right-handed, fitting the Canucks' biggest need.
Jiricek checks a Canadian opponent nhl
David Jiříček checks a Canadian opponent.

Patrik Allvin seems to believe the Vancouver Canucks can get a top-five talent with the 15th-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.

“I think there is a lot of good players in the draft,” said Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin. “I don't think there is a lot of difference between, I would say, maybe 4-5 and down to 15-16.”

The consensus appears to be that there is a clear top-three in the upcoming draft: Kingston Frontenacs centre Shane Wright, TPS winger Juraj Slafkovsky, and U.S. Development Program centre Logan Cooley. According to Allvin, then, the next tier of the draft comes immediately after and extends to where the Canucks are picking at 15th overall.

With that in mind, it seemingly wouldn’t make much sense for the Canucks to trade up in the first round. Why bother spending assets to get a higher pick when you can get the same caliber of player without spending the assets? Simply sit at 15th overall and draft the best player available.

Here’s where drafting for need steps in. 

The Canucks biggest need is right-handed defencemen

The difference between the players available to the Canucks at 15th overall at the two players most likely to get selected fourth and fifth is that those two players are both right-handed defencemen: Simon Nemec and David Jiříček.

It just so happens that the Canucks’ biggest need, both in the NHL and in their prospect pool, is right-handed defencemen. 

If the prize is a right-handed defenceman that can potentially play on the Canucks’ top pairing alongside Quinn Hughes for the next decade, then maybe trading up at the draft is worth it. In fact, it might be the only way for the Canucks to get a high-end young right-handed defenceman.

That might seem like a pipe dream — what team is going to trade out of the top five and give up the chance at drafting a right-handed defenceman, one of the hardest player types to find in the NHL?

Enter the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We're going to try to aggressively retool here."

The Flyers hold the fifth-overall pick and, after trading away Claude Giroux to the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline, you might expect them to be starting a rebuild. Instead, they appear to be aiming for a quick turnaround that gets them right back to the playoffs next season.

Hiring John Tortorella as their head coach is a pretty clear signal. Tortorella is not a coach that you bring in to guide prospects along as the team rebuilds. He’s the coach you hire when you want to give your team a swift kick in the posterior.

“We’re going to try to aggressively retool here,” said Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher in January.  

They have reason to believe they could be better next season. They dealt with major injuries to key players like Ryan Ellis, Sean Couturier, and Kevin Hayes. If they can stay healthy and add a key piece — say, a first-line centre — maybe they can turn things around quickly. 

That makes the Flyers an unexpected option as a trade partner for the Canucks and J.T. Miller, who seems like a pretty ideal fit for the style of game for which the Flyers are known. 

If the Flyers are interested, the Canucks would do well to maneuver for more than just the fifth-overall pick in 2022. Perhaps a deal could be fashioned around Miller, with salary retained, and the Canucks' 15th-overall pick for the fifth-overall pick and the Flyer’s 2023 first-round pick.

That would take advantage of the Flyers’ belief that they can get back to the playoffs next season, potentially nabbing the Canucks a lottery pick if the Flyers falter. If the Flyers balk at that, it could be conditional on Miller re-signing with the Flyers or allowing the Flyers the choose between their 2023 and 2024 first-round pick. This is where the Canucks need to get creative to extract the most value.

There are other opportunities to trade up — the Columbus Blue Jackets have both the 6th and 12-overall picks, so might be more willing to listen to a trade offer than most teams — but the Flyers seem like the best bet if the Canucks want to grab one of the top-ranked right-handed defencemen.

Who are those defencemen? Let’s take a closer look at Nemec and Jiříček, who have been neck-and-neck in draft rankings all year. Let’s start with Nemec, who has landed ahead of Jiricek on most draft rankings.

Simon Nemec - Defence

6’1” - 192 lbs - Feb 15, 2004 (18)
Liptovsky Mikulas, SVK
HK Nitra, Tipos Extraliga (39-1-25-26)

Nemec spent his season in the top men’s league in Slovakia, the Tipos Extraliga, and also represented Slovakia at the Division 1 Under-18s, the World Juniors, the World Championships, the Olympics, and the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, where he was named the tournament’s most valuable player. 

Nemec had 26 points in 39 games for HK Nitra in the Tipos Extraliga, then followed it up with 5 goals and 17 points in 19 playoff games. Only two players put up more points in their draft year in the Tipos Extraliga than Nemec’s 26: Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik. That’s pretty heady company to keep, particularly when you consider that offence isn’t even necessarily Nemec’s calling card. Instead, he’s a safe, dependable, structured presence on the blue line. 

“You just won't find a more reliable, steady defenceman in this year's draft than Nemec,” reads Nemec’s scouting report from Elite Prospects. “He isn’t going to bring you out of your seat with any exhilarating displays of creativity or skill, but the trade-off is that he won’t leave you shaking your head in disbelief at a poor decision or a costly turnover either.”

Nemec is exceptionally well-rounded, with essentially every tool you could want in a defenceman. His steady defensive game saw him playing over 20 minutes per game against men, using his agile skating and quick stick to make up for what he might lack in strength. Not that he’s small — he’s 6’1” and nearly 200 lbs but still has room to add strength.

“You don’t get by him because he’s in good position with stick on puck,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News. “He’s just a good, safe, solid guy…He’s going to play a long time in a top-four role.”

The most intriguing part of Nemec’s game is his ability to attack in transition. He’s quick and mobile on his skates and can break the puck out with either his feet or with his plus passing. 

“Simon Nemec is one of the most talented puck-carrying defencemen in this year’s draft,” says Will Scouching in his breakdown of Nemec’s game. “He has a really strong ability to use his torso and positioning his legs and his body just to create a little bit of separation from forecheckers and give himself valuable time and space to skate up the ice.”

On top of all of that, Nemec also has some silky mitts.

There are few weaknesses to Nemec’s game. The flaws pointed out in scouting reports seem like minor quibbles that could be addressed with more maturity and experience. His gap control when defending the rush needs improvement as he tends to sit back a little too much. He excels when the game is structured but struggles more during breakdowns. He could stand to be more physical.

With his tools and well-rounded game, however, those flaws seem minimal. And there is some intriguing offensive upside with the way he transitions the puck.

“He's the type of defender you build around,” said an NHL scout to Elite Prospects, who conclude that he has “one of the highest floors in this class” in their scouting report.

Jiříček, however, might be the better fit for the Canucks.

David Jiříček - Defence

6’3” - 190 lbs - Nov 28, 2003 (18)
Klatovy, CZE
HC Plzeň, Czech Extraliga (29-5-6-11)

While most draft rankings have Jiricek below Nemec, Elite Prospects are significantly higher on the Czech defenceman, ranking him second overall, behind only Shane Wright.

“This endorsement, of course, marks something of a departure from the industry consensus, but it’s a position we’ve arrived at confidently,” reads his Elite Prospects scouting report. “The more eyes our group set on Jiříček, the more we came to admire the way he plied his trade. There were even some in our ranks who were so bold as to float the possibility of Jiříček at No. 1 overall.”

That’s quite the statement and it comes from a combination of Jiříček’s fantastic defensive game and a belief in his offensive upside.

Jiříček spent his season playing in the Czech Extraliga, a step up from Slovakia’s top league. He put up 5 goals and 11 points in 29 games and also chipped in points at the World Juniors and World Championships for Czechia. 

Scouts rave about Jiříček’s shutdown game, calling him a “throwback” for the way he throws hits and makes life difficult for opposing forwards. 

“Jiříček has all the tools to become a defensive monster at the NHL level,” said Elite Prospects’ Lassi Alanen in a game report. “He’s got the mobility, quickness, and reach to become a high-end rush defender.”

Jiříček leverages his 6’3” frame with a side of nastiness to make opponents miserable in front of the net and along the boards. He’s just as likely to throw a hit in the neutral zone too, halting an opposing rush before it can even get started, with Elite Prospects ranking him the top neutral zone defender and best defensive defenceman in his draft class.

Jiříček has exceptional defensive awareness and he’s better than Nemec at adjusting his game when the system breaks down. His defensive reads are top of the class.

“He’s probably the most complete defenceman in the draft,” said one NHL scout to The Hockey News. “You’re not drafting him to run your power play, but he’s a guy who’s going to be out in the last minute when you’re up by a goal.”

That’s what makes him such an intriguing target for the Canucks, who need a staunch defender on Hughes’ right side who can also move the puck well enough to play in a top-pairing role. Jiříček is a mobile and physical defensive defenceman but there’s reason to believe he can provide some offensive upside to go with his defensive game.

“His creativity at the offensive blue line, coupled with a constant drive to push the boundaries of his skill set, made him this draft’s most compelling offensive defenceman,” reads his scouting report from Elite Prospects, which praises his “cannon” of a shot but also how he uses the threat of that shot to open up space for his teammates in the offensive zone. 

While Jiříček may not be as dynamic as Nemec in transition, he’s still effective on the breakout, using his size to protect the puck and evading forecheckers with his agile skating and adept puckhandling.

Here's the thing: not everyone sees that offensive upside in Jiříček. Some rankings have him outside of the top-five altogether. It all comes down to how the Canucks view Jiříček compared to how a team like the Flyers view him. Would the Flyers rather have a first-line centre for next season if they don't believe in Jiříček's offensive upside?

If not for a knee injury suffered at the World Juniors, perhaps Jiříček would have been ranked higher but that just creates an opportunity. If Jiříček is still available and the Flyers are willing to trade the pick, then trading up makes all sorts of sense for the Canucks.