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Should the Canucks draft Nate Danielson?

Scouting reports on Nate Danielson debate whether he projects a third-line centre or if he has legitimate top-six upside.
Nate Danielson, a top prospect for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, celebrates a goal for the Brandon Wheat Kings.

One of the Vancouver Canucks’ biggest needs, both in the NHL and in their prospect system, is at centre. 

In the NHL, the Canucks have Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, but things get dicey after that, with Sheldon Dries and Nils Åman next on the depth chart. One of the team’s priorities in the off-season is to find a third-line centre but they’ll have to navigate a tricky salary cap situation to do it. 

In the system, Aatu Räty, acquired in the Bo Horvat trade, tops their prospect depth at centre but he’s no sure thing. Neither are Linus Karlsson, Max Sasson, or Daimon Gardner. Jackson Kunz has withered in the NCAA, Dmitri Zlodeyev has underwhelmed in Russia, and Connor Lockhart and Arvid Costmar are out of the system after the Canucks didn’t sign them to entry-level contracts.

In other words, one of the most important positions in a prospect pool is astonishingly shallow for the Canucks. 

General manager Patrik Allvin has a chance to change that at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft with the 11th overall pick. There are a number of intriguing centres that will be available at that pick, particularly if teams in the top ten prioritize defencemen like David Reinbacher and Axel Sandin Pellikka, pushing top forwards further down the list.

Word on the street is that one centre the Canucks might be interested in at 11th overall is Nate Danielson.

Underrated by the public sphere or overrated by NHL scouts?

That might come as a surprise to those diehard fans who scour draft rankings for months leading up to the draft. Danielson has been consistently ranked in the back half of the first round by most public draft rankings and the highest he’s ranked is 13th overall by McKeen’s Hockey.  

But the draft boards put together by NHL teams don’t always reflect the opinion of the public sphere. At least one of the NHL scouts surveyed by TSN’s Bob McKenzie had Danielson inside his top ten and he’s far from alone.

“Perhaps no one player in this year’s draft exemplifies the divergence of opinions between the team side and the public sphere than Nate Danielson,” says Elite Prospects in their draft guide. “Most on our side of the aisle rate the Brandon Wheat Kings centre as a middle-to-late first-round pick; many on the team side as a lock for the first 15 picks. Time will determine who’s right.”

There’s a reason why Danielson landed at 11th overall to the Canucks in Corey Pronman’s mock draft for The Athletic. There’s a better-than-even chance that’s exactly where he goes on draft day.

The appeal of Danielson is clear: his profile screams “I AM AN NHL PLAYER” at the top of its lungs. He’s a 6’1”, right-handed centre with high-end speed, excellent hands, an accurate shot, a solid defensive game, and even leadership ability as the captain of the Wheat Kings at 18 years old.

“[Danielson] projects as a player who can be a major difference-maker at the NHL level,” says McKeen’s Derek Neumeier, who calls him one of the most underrated prospects in the draft. “He is able to affect almost every facet of a game. He routinely leaves his fingerprints all over his shifts.”

Danielson is the type of prospect that gives scouts confidence that he’ll play hundreds of games in the NHL. The question is, just how good will he be in those games?

A projectable defensive game

With his defensively-responsible two-way game, Danielson is a coach’s dream. He brings everything defensively that you could hope to see from a centre: he stays above the puck to prevent odd-man rushes, uses his speed to backcheck effectively, hounds the puck in the neutral zone, wins faceoffs and puck battles along the boards, and is a smart and diligent penalty killer. 

Danielson takes care of the little details that coaches love to see. When the opposing team attempts to break out, he hustles to get above the puck and take away lanes, forcing opponents to turn back and regroup. When he backchecks, he doesn’t just blindly chase the puck, but keeps his head on a swivel and picks up the open man and regularly picks off passes to end rushes.

The defensive side of the game is something in which Danielson prides himself, comparing his own game to that of the Calgary Flames’ Elias Lindholm.

“I like to watch him and Nick Suzuki, because I think they're similar players and I have a lot of the same traits,” said Danielson. “They're both very skilled 200-foot centremen that are both very reliable and responsible in both ends of the rink.

“Then, you look at the numbers that Lindholm has put up over the past couple years…That's what I want to be - someone that takes pride in playing a solid defensive game, as well as being a skilled, dynamic presence in the offensive zone as well.”

Danielson’s defence looks eminently translatable to the NHL and it’s easy to foresee him playing regularly on the penalty kill and potentially matching up against top-six forwards in the future. That side of his game isn’t an issue.

Speed in transition

Danielson is also adept at transitioning the puck from defence to offence. He’s at his most dangerous off the rush, as he’s able to leverage his speed and handling ability to gallop through the neutral zone and attack backpedalling defencemen by driving down the outside lane to either cut to the net himself or feed a teammate driving to the net.

It’s the most dynamic element to his game that leads to highlight-reel plays and is easy to get excited about.

“Until recently, Nate Danielson’s WHL career has been one of solid impact but not dynamic play,” said Elite Prospects’ Mitchell Brown in February. “That’s changing. He’s become more aggressive with the puck, cutting inside on defenders and attacking the net more. The depth of skill he shows is exciting: edges, handling skill, shooting, and vision. 

“As Danielson continues to tighten up his timing and reads, those flashy sequences of individual skill should result in even more offence.”

Danielson isn’t limited to just creating chances for himself with his speed, but is adept at using his skating to open up passing lanes to find a trailing teammate. It’s something he could improve even more by varying his speed and layering in some deception to draw in opposing defencemen rather than just attacking at full speed.

One question for Danielson is how much of his rush offence will be translatable to the NHL. When defencemen are better able to match his speed and can gap up on him, does he have the hockey sense and deception to adapt and create in other ways?

At times, Danielson can skate himself into dead ends or get angled into the corner with no secondary options. In order to create off the rush at the NHL level, he will have to find ways to avoid those dead ends or creatively problem-solve his way out of them. 

Danielson also has a habit of coasting as he stickhandles or scans the ice to make plays. More dangerous offensive players will combine their stickhandling and skating to create a more dynamic range in their puck movement or to keep opposing defencemen guessing as to when they might pass the puck.

Still, it’s clear that Danielson’s speed is an asset in the transition game, aided by his attention to detail in the defensive zone: he’s always available for a breakout pass to get the puck up ice.

Does Danielson have enough offensive upside?

Inside the offensive zone, Danielson becomes a little bit more limited compared to his rush game. There are glimmers of the type of one-touch, give-and-go game that can be successful but there are question marks about his hockey sense and decision-making with the puck.

“He lacks precision and awareness,” said Brown in one scouting report. “Passes to the other team, throws pucks blindly into space, and when he tries more complex plays, he drops his head and waits too long before passing.”

When Danielson keeps things simple offensively — drawing in an opponent, protecting the puck, then making a short pass to an open teammate — he can be effective. He just isn’t a particularly creative playmaker off the cycle.

“Danielson can execute difficult passes, and there are flashes of great puck skills, but he doesn’t show creativity or above-average problem-solving skills with a great level of consistency,” reads his scouting report from Dobber Prospects.

With more time and space on the power play, however, Danielson’s playmaking is given a little more room to shine. That’s where he suddenly shows an ability to thread passes through layers and spot teammates open on backdoor plays. 

Danielson finished his draft year with 33 goals and 78 points in 68 games, which is solid production but lags well behind some of the other expected first-round draft picks from the WHL like Andrew Cristall, Riley Heidt, and Zach Benson.

Along with his playmaking, Danielson has a great shot, with an array of weapons at his disposal: a hammered one-timer, a quick-release snap shot, and a heavy wrist shot. There’s room for improvement with his shot, both technically and with his shot selection, as he sometimes had a tendency to throw the puck at the net from low-percentage areas.

"There’s a real chance he tops out as a third-line centre."

The ultimate question that the Canucks will need to consider as they evaluate Nate Danielson is whether he can be more than a third-line centre at the NHL level.

Danielson looks like he has a certain NHL future but those who project him to go late in the first round see that future as a third-line centre — a useful contributor to a team but not the type of game-changing talent that typically gets picked high in the first round.

“I think there’s a real chance he tops out as a third-line centre with room to become a second-line one, and if the former is the outcome, even if he’s very good in that role, that’s just not the kind of player I could justify ranking closer to the top 10,” says The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler, who ranked him 20th overall.  

“We envision his career path as that of a bottom-six, two-way forward who can contribute secondary offence and perhaps chip in on the second unit of both special teams groups,” reads his scouting report from Elite Prospects’ Draft Guide.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when looking at Danielson is that he’s one of the oldest players in this draft class. Danielson missed the age cutoff for last year’s draft by just 12 days and he’s about 10 months older than some of the younger players expected to go in the first round, like Connor Bedard and Quentin Musty. 

At this age, that can make a big difference in development and it means he has slightly less runway to improve his game. It’s a small difference in age but that small difference can be huge in determining whether a player should be a high first-round draft pick. Is his mature two-way game simply a result of literally being a bit more mature than his fellow first-year draft-eligible players?

Still, there’s another caveat to his draft year: he was on a terrible team. 

In spite of Danielson’s best efforts, the Brandon Wheat Kings missed the playoffs and were out-scored by a wide margin. His teammates regularly fumbled his passes or missed the net on the chances he created, which might help explain his more modest point totals compared to other high-end prospects in this draft class.

“There are some who believe a more structured environment with a better supporting cast will bring out the best in Danielson and unlock untapped potential as a top-six centre at the next level,” says Elite Prospects. “Maybe they’re onto something.”

Or maybe those that see Danielson as a bottom-six, supporting centre are right. 

It’s a difficult quandary: if Danielson has legitimate top-six upside, his defensive game is an enormous plus, making him the type of two-way, impactful second-line centre that NHL teams crave. But if his offensive upside is limited, his impact will be limited as well and there are other forwards with a lot more upside that could be available to the Canucks at 11th overall.

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