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Should the Canucks draft Mason McTavish?

Gritty, two-way centre has a mature defensive game and goal-scoring touch.
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Mason McTavish might be the Vancouver Canucks' best chance at a top-tier centre prospect in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

One of the Canucks’ biggest needs, both in their current NHL lineup and in their prospect pool, is at centre. While the Canucks have two excellent young centres in Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, that’s essentially the extent of their centre depth.

After trading away both Tyler Madden and Adam Gaudette in the past two years, the Canucks have few other young centres. Dmitri Zlodeyev and Carson Focht are their two best centre prospects, with Jackson Kunz, Linus Karlsson, and Arvid Costmar next on the list. None of those centres are locks to even make the NHL, let alone be impact players.

What the Canucks could really use in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft is a top-tier two-way centre — the type of player that can match up with the best the opposition has to offer and shut them down, while also putting up points at the other end of the ice. 

Fortunately for the Canucks, there might be just such a player available to them at the ninth overall pick: Mason McTavish.

“I'm a power forward, who takes a lot of pride in his defensive zone and two-way ability,” said McTavish to TSN. “Obviously, I love to score goals too.”

There’s very little consensus over where McTavish could or should get picked at the upcoming draft. Experts have him ranked as high as fifth (Elite Prospects) and as low as 29th (Dobber Prospects). Generally speaking, however, McTavish is typically ranked right around where the Canucks are picking. 

Why are some scouts so high on McTavish and why are others so low on him? Would he be the right pick for the Canucks at ninth overall? Let’s take a closer look.

Mason McTavish by the numbers

McTavish got a lot of attention in the 2019-20 season when he erupted for 29 goals and 42 points in 57 games — impressive production for a forward who was only 16 at the start of the season. Those 29 goals and 42 points led his draft class in scoring in the OHL.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to improve on those numbers in his draft year. With the OHL season cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McTavish took off for Europe, playing for EHC Olten in the Swiss League, the second tier of professional hockey in Switzerland.

McTavish had 9 goals and 11 points in 13 games in the Swiss League, which led all players his age in points per game. That included his fellow exile from the OHL, Brennan Othmann, who is also expected to be a first round pick. Othmann had 7 goals and 16 points in 34 games, for context.

It’s hard to know what to make of those numbers, since very few draft-eligible prospects play in the Swiss League. For what it’s worth, it’s the best season since 1985 by points per game for a player his age. And his subsequent 7 points in 4 games in the playoffs is the best point-per-game performance ever for an under-20 player in the Swiss League. That seems good.

His performance at the World Under-18 Championship is a little easier to parse. McTavish helped lead team Canada to the gold medal with 5 goals and 11 points in 7 games. That was good for sixth in tournament scoring, with three of the five players ahead of him prospects competing to be the first-overall pick in the 2022 and 2023 drafts.

Suffice it to say, McTavish’s numbers seem pretty dang good. He was excellent in the OHL in his draft-1 year, came just short of a point-per-game against men in the Swiss League, and was one of the best players when facing his peers at the U18 tournament. 

McTavish’s eye-popping shot

There’s a lot to like about McTavish’s game, but what immediately jumps out is his shot. McTavish has a knack for getting himself and the puck to dangerous areas on the ice and, with his 6’2”, 207 lbs frame, is as adept at battling in front of the net for loose pucks to bang home as he is at scoring from a distance with a quick release.  

“His toolbox is highlighted by a bomb of a shot, which he can get off quickly and accurately from anywhere in various scenarios,” said Dobber Prospect’s Jacob Barker. Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino describes him as a “pure sniper.” And the Athletic’s Corey Pronman said, “He has the shot to score from range versus pros and is very good at creating around the net.” 

“He draws from a wide array of releases,” said Elite Prospect’s J.D. Burke, “employing the one-timer, catch-and-release, and two-touch shots, sometimes with a little blade deception, too.”

You just have to look at his point totals to see that he can score goals. He had 29 goals compared to 13 assists as an OHL rookie. In Switzerland, he had 9 goals in 13 games and 5 goals in 7 games at the U18 tournament.

Despite his point totals heavily favouring goals, he’s not a one-dimensional offensive threat. Elite Prospects calls him, “one of the draft’s legitimate dual-threat scorers,” noting that when he played with his peers at the U18s, he did a lot more playmaking, repeatedly setting up teammates for shots and chances.

In other words, McTavish knows how to use his teammates and more assists seem likely in the future.

Matching skill with physicality 

One thing that sets McTavish’s offensive game apart from other skilled players in the draft is that he is far more physical.

“It’s not that he dominates in the small area game with dazzling 10-bell manoeuvres, swashbuckling his way through defenders,” said Burke. “It’s that he courts contact, using it as a means to create space. His ability to weaponize physicality and manipulate defenders is so advanced for a player this age.”

His prospect profile from DraftPro says, “Due to his size and compete level he’s also a problem for defenders off the cycle where he uses playmaking skills and nice vision to pick apart the zone and find the open man.”

He also has the ability to throw big hits, particularly on the forecheck in the offensive zone, frequently taking defencemen off their feet with heavy contact to free up the puck. 

Most importantly, McTavish uses his size effectively to win battles along the boards and gain or keep possession of the puck. 

“If Mason McTavish wants the puck, then Mason McTavish takes the puck,” said Burke. “He’s just an unrelenting force on puck-retrievals. He takes the best lines, establishes body position, times contact perfectly, and just plain outworks his opponents every time. He’s so efficient along the boards it’s absurd.”

McTavish's mature defensive game

All of that hard work translates to the defensive zone, which might actually be the strongest element of his game. He plays a mature defensive game with smart positioning and high-percentage passing plays when he wins possession. 

“He kills penalties, supports his defensemen below the faceoff dots, and backchecks with a purpose,” said Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst. “These traits were incredibly consistent in McTavish’s shifts at the under-18 world championship, but he played the same in-your-face style against older competition in Switzerland.”

McTavish points to Brayden Schenn as an NHL player he likes to emulate, partly because of his defensive game.

“Just how hard he works. He works super hard,” said McTavish. “He's always there on the back check and forechecking super hard and he wins a lot of faceoffs. I take a lot of pride in faceoffs too, so just little things like that." 

Some young prospects get the job done on defence simply by working hard and pursuing the puck. While McTavish has great puck pursuit, he more importantly plays a smart, detailed game defensively.

“He’s constantly scanning the ice, and has a great sense for when to come low into the defensive zone to support his defencemen,” said Burke. “Perhaps no part of his game is quite as refined as his in-zone defensive play.”

Finally, there’s the physical edge that he brings to his defensive game, which tends to come out more when he plays on the wing.

“In the defensive zone, McTavish is strong on the back-check,” said Josh Tessler for Smaht Scouting. “When deployed on the wing, he shows off his physical grittiness and can be a handful for wingers and defenders running the cycle along the boards. But, when he is utilized at center, he plays more of an insurance support role and won’t appear to be as gritty.”

The questions that still remain for McTavish

That appears to be one of the sticking points for McTavish that might prevent him from being drafted higher. Is he a gritty, two-way centre that can play a big role at both ends of the ice or is he a goalscoring winger who might have a more limited two-way impact?

Elite Prospects sees him as a potential second-line centre that can play against top lines. As a result, they rank him fifth overall. Dobber Prospects, meanwhile, sees him as a potential top-six winger, ranking him 29th.

If he’s a winger, McTavish’s skating might hold him back. He lacks explosiveness in his first two steps and doesn’t have the dynamic element that you might look for from a winger. For a responsible, two-way centre, that skating might be less of an issue at the NHL level.

Still, it would be nice to see McTavish develop a stronger, more powerful stride. If he can address that deficiency, he could be a dominant two-way player.

So, is McTavish a fit for the Canucks? Absolutely. If he’s still available at ninth overall, it’s hard to see the Canucks passing up a chance to add a blue-chip centre to their prospect pool, one that can fit right behind Pettersson and Horvat in a couple of years.

That said, there’s a chance that McTavish will get picked sooner than ninth or that the Canucks prize another prospect in the draft more highly. There is a lot of uncertainty in this draft because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s hard to know how the first round will play out.