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Should the Canucks draft Conor Geekie?

The Winnipeg Ice centre has a tantalizing combination of size and skill.
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Conor Geekie skates for Team White at the CHL Top Prospects Game. Could Geekie be the Vancouver Canucks' pick at 15th overall?

Size.

Everyone wants it in hockey, to the point that NHL teams frequently make terrible decisions in its pursuit. That’s particularly true at the draft table, where teams can get enamoured with the physical traits of a prospect and lose sight of all sorts of red flags that might prevent that prospect from succeeding in the NHL. 

Consider the stacked 2003 draft, with one of the deepest first rounds in recent memory. All Stars like Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, and Corey Perry went in the second half of that draft. All of them were picked after the New York Rangers took Hugh Jessiman, a 6’6” right wing out of Dartmouth College, with the 12th overall pick.

Jessiman wasn’t even expected to be a first-round pick but the Rangers saw his size and, to be fair, his 23 goals and 47 points in 34 games for Dartmouth, and couldn’t resist reaching.

While so many other first-round picks from his draft went on to success, Jessiman played just two NHL games, both for the Florida Panthers.

The Rangers didn’t learn their lesson. Seven years later, GM Glen Sather took Dylan McIlrath — a 6’4” defenceman with limited upside who was expected to go late in the first round — 10th overall in the 2010 draft. He’s played 66 games in his career.

But there’s a good reason why NHL teams take gambles on size — when it works out, size can be a gamechanger. 

When you can find that big defenceman that can also skate and handle the puck, you get players like Zdeno Chara, Victor Hedman, and Colton Parayko. Forwards that combine skill with size, like Mikko Rantanen, Brady Tkachuk, Tage Thompson, and Blake Wheeler, are a nightmare for opposing teams to handle.

So, at the NHL draft, size still matters. Every team is looking for that unicorn — the big power forward or the towering two-way defenceman that could change everything.

Enter Conor Geekie, a centre with the type of size and skill that teams tend to find so tantalizing. Should the Canucks draft Geekie with the 15th overall pick on July 7?

Conor Geekie — Centre

6’4” — 205 lbs — May 5, 2004 (18)
Strathclair, MB
Winnipeg Ice, WHL (63-24-46-70)

Conor Geekie is ranked right around where the Canucks will be picking by public draft rankings, though there is a wide range. The Hockey News has Geekie as high as 7th in their Draft Preview magazine, while others rank him late in the first round — TSN’s Craig Button has him 31st overall, as does Dobber Prospects.

Geekie had a strong draft year in the WHL, putting up 24 goals and 70 points in 63 games with the first-place Winnipeg Ice. That was good for fourth among first-time draft-eligible players in the WHL.

"He's a dominant player at this level."

What is so intriguing about Geekie is that he has the soft hands that people typically associate with a smaller player. 

“It's just not often that you see a 6-foot-4 skater pull off some of the handling moves that graced his draft year highlight-reel,” reads his scouting report from Elite Prospects, though they also caution that he sometimes tries to do too much with his dangling ability.

Geekie combines his slick hands with excellent vision and passing, making him more of a playmaker than the typical goal-scoring power forward. 

“He’s a dominant player at this level and he makes great plays,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News. “He’s got the high-end puck skill, really noticeable at 5-on-5 and on the power play.”

Consider this assist, where Geekie turns a neutral zone turnover to his advantage, quickly attacking the offensive zone. He’s stick-checked, but neatly maintains possession with a quick hook pass, then takes the return pass, dekes to his backhand, and sets up his teammate for the tap-in goal.

“He has a knack for identifying passing options through layers and has the skill as a passer to connect, almost always with pace,” says his scouting report from Elite Prospects.

It’s that playmaking ability that makes Geekie a potential top-six centre, the type of player that can slow the game down, protect the puck with his size and reach, then find a teammate open through a seam for a great scoring chance. His ability to find open teammates with the puck makes everyone around him better.

That’s not to say that Geekie can’t score goals — he’s got great touch around the net — but the velocity isn’t quite there on his shot, though scouting reports seem mixed on that front. His shot will likely improve over time, but at the NHL level, he’s more likely to leverage his intelligence, hockey sense, and vision to be a setup man.

"Make life miserable for the opposition's best."

To top it off, Geekie also has a strong two-way game — essential if he wants to have a future as a top-six centre that will frequently face tough matchups. He applies that same hockey sense and intelligence that make him adept at reading defences and spotting open teammates to the defensive zone, positioning himself effectively to close off passing lanes, support his defence down low, and cover for his teammates when things go sideways.

“More than anything, we're drawn to the Ice centre's two-way game,” reads his Elite Prospects scouting report, “His ability to play high-leverage minutes, kill penalties, and make life miserable for the opposition's best.”

And then, of course, there’s the size that allows him to just run over opponents. That can be a tool defensively and offensively.

With his combination of size, skill, and defensive responsibility, it’s no wonder some rankings see him as a top-ten pick. So, why do other rankings have him at the back of the first round?

One word: skating.

"It's a clear red flag for his long-term upside."

Skating can often be a concern for larger players, who frequently lack the agility and mobility of their smaller counterparts. For Geekie, it’s not just that he’s not as good a skater as a smaller player but that he’s got skating issues even compared to other players his size.

“[Geekie] has a whole host of issues with his posture, mechanics, and the general pace of play,” said Elite Prospect’s Cam Robinson about his skating. “It's a clear red flag for his long-term upside.”

Geekie can clearly create decent straight-ahead speed — when he gets a head of steam through the neutral zone, he’s clearly noticeable — but it’s the ability to accelerate, turn quickly, and make east-west mobility that could hinder his ability to be a top-end player in the NHL.

“The skating is a major hurdle,” said one scout to Robinson. “Smart defensively and strong puck skills allow him to pop at this level, but it’s not clear if he can do it in the NHL. There are red flags here.”

Mediocre skating can affect every other element of a player’s game. A lack of footspeed and agility means less time and space to make plays with the puck offensively. Being even one step slow can also mean constantly chasing the play in the defensive zone. Since timing is such an essential element of throwing hits, it can also affect a bigger player’s ability to play a physical game.

"Geekie is a wild card for me."

That’s why there’s so much disparity in the draft rankings with Geekie. Some might see his skating as a fixable issue and envision him developing into a first or second-line centre. Others might see mechanical issues that can’t be easily fixed and put his ceiling as a third-line forward.

“Geekie is a wild card for me. When he’s on, to me, Geekie could be a top-five or top-six pick in this draft,” said one NHL scout to The Athletic. “Am I willing to use a very high pick on a guy that’s inconsistent? That scares me.”

On draft day, a team might be willing to use a high pick, reaching for size like so many other teams before them. If that’s the case, he might not be available by the time the Canucks pick at 15th overall.

If he is available, however, the Canucks will have to make a decision. Do they believe Geekie has top-tier potential? Do they want to use a first-round pick on a player that might top out as a third-line centre?

Or is Geekie the power forward that the Canucks have been seeking ever since they traded Cam Neely away 36 years ago?

“When he’s on his game, Geekie looks like a legitimate top-ten pick,” says Matthew Somma of Smaht Scouting. “When he’s off his game, however, Geekie looks like a player that I’d avoid entirely if I were drafting in the top 20.”