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Should the Canucks draft Owen Pickering?

Pickering is a 6'5" defenceman with the mobility and puckhandling skills of a much smaller player.
Owen Pickering carries the puck in testing ahead of the CHL Top Prospects game.

When Chris Tanev completed Grade 11, he was just 5’3” and had been repeatedly cut from hockey teams because of his size. Frustrated about not keeping pace with his friends with whom he’d grown up playing hockey, Tanev took a step away from high-level hockey — it just wasn’t fun anymore.

Then he grew a foot taller over the next two years. 

By the time he went to the Rochester Institute of Technology for a year in the NCAA, Tanev was 6’2” and started turning the heads of NHL scouts with his poise in the defensive zone. From there, he signed with the Vancouver Canucks and became one of the best defensive defencemen in the NHL.

One of the biggest assets for Tanev is that the hockey sense he developed as a smaller player never left him when he hit his growth spurt. All of the skill and intelligence that he had to use to cope as a smaller player against bigger foes was still there but now he had the size to go with it.

In a way, Tanev’s late growth spurt helped him become a much better player. He still likely would have been a smart player if he had grown earlier, but he had no choice but to develop so many aspects of his game to make up for his lack of size — how to both avoid and absorb contact, how to play the right angle to defend against the rush, how to get leverage in board battles, how to read the play and take away passing and shooting lanes. 

There’s sometimes a risk at the NHL draft when it comes to picking a player with size. Sometimes that player is dependent on their size advantage in a junior league and when they lose that size advantage playing against players just as big and strong as they are, they don’t have anything else.

But there’s something intriguing about a player with size who hasn’t always had that size. That brings us to the next prospect profile heading into the draft on Thursday: Owen Pickering.

Owen Pickering - Defence

6'5” - 179 lbs - Jan 27, 2004 (18)
St. Adolphe, MB
Swift Current Broncos, WHL (62-9-24-33)

Pickering was just 5’7” when he was picked by the Swift Current Broncos in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft. He immediately rocketed up to 6’2” before joining the Broncos and now, three years after he was drafted to the WHL, Pickering is 6’5” and expected to get picked in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.

Everything that Pickering had to do to succeed as a smaller defenceman only helped him become better as he grew taller.

“Growing up, I could always see the game. I could always process it,” said Pickering in an interview with Elite Prospects’ Cam Robinson. “The one thing I would say that helped me was when I was 5’7” or even 5’10” or 6’0”, 'If you want to be a smaller defenceman you need to be extremely mobile. You need to be able to move the puck fast.' So I was trying to mold my game into that to have success at the size that I was.

“Some of that mobility, shiftiness, offensive skills carried over as I grew. That ended up helping.”

Former Swift Current director of player personnel Gary Aubin praised Pickering’s hockey sense and intelligence when he joined the Broncos and noted that he still had those instincts he honed as a smaller player.  

“When you project that into a 6’2’’ frame, he hasn’t lost any of those smarts, he’s just bigger and stronger,” said Aubin.

"He has NHL-level retrieval ability already."

Pickering skates, handles the puck, and sees the game like a much smaller player, but he still has that 6’5” frame that gives him fantastic reach and the ability to win battles along the boards and in front of the net. He’s constantly using traits that are more common in smaller players and it’s particularly true when it comes to his transition game.

“The way he can get back and retrieve the puck while under pressure is really impressive,” said an NHL scout to Elite Prospects. “He can maintain possession around a tight net turn or shake the forechecker with a quick cut back and a few quick strides for separation. He has NHL-level retrieval ability already.”

When you’re a smaller player, evading the forecheck is an essential survival skill. Pickering uses deception to direct forecheckers away from where he wants to go, giving him lots of space to work with.

“The core of Pickering’s game is what he does with the puck,” said Elite Prospects’ Mitch Brown. “On retrievals, he deceives, cuts back, then sprints to the inside. With head fakes and changes of pace, he misdirects forecheckers and then hits a teammate up the ice. When he’s not leading the rush, he’s joining it.”

That shows up in his highlights, as he can frequently be found jumping up in the rush, heading to the backdoor to finish off a play, or cramming in a rebound on top of the crease.

Seeing that style of game and high-level deception from a player who is 6’5” is tremendously exciting. There’s some serious offensive upside in Pickering that belies his limited point production in the WHL.

Pickering's offensive upside 

Pickering had just 33 points in 62 games for the Broncos, which is a far cry from the near point-per-game production of his CHL draft peers, Denton Mateychuk, Kevin Korchinski, and Pavel Mintyukov. It’s worth noting, however, that the Broncos were largely terrible last season, missing the playoffs with just 26 wins in 68 games. On a stronger team, Pickering likely would have put up a lot more points.

Once in the offensive zone, Pickering has a great shot, whether he’s sending wrist shots through traffic from the point or smartly jumping into space to get opportunities from in close. 

Pickering is also an adept distributor. In transition, he can hit streaking forwards with pinpoint stretch passes, such as this breakaway assist. Pickering looks to the near boards to fake out the forechecker, which leaves the middle lane wide open for Pickering to send a laser to the opposing blue line. His teammate mishandles the pass initially, but recovers for the goal.

In the offensive zone, Pickering has the potential to be a legitimate creator. Sometimes he looks to make the easy play but there’s the glimmer of something more. He can find teammates through layers of traffic and has the deception and puckhandling ability to open up opportunities for his teammates. 

Pickering could be a shutdown force

Defensively, Pickering has the potential to be a legitimate play-stopper. His mobility, again honed as a smaller player, gives him great gap control, as he quickly matches pace with opposing forwards, then uses his excellent reach to divest them of the puck and turn play back up ice.

That makes him a nightmare in the neutral zone, as Pickering is able to cover such a wide area with his mobility and reach. There’s still room for improvement in this area, however, as he’s sometimes more passive than he needs to be. There’s room for him to be more aggressive and refuse to give up the blue line.

In the defensive zone, Pickering leads with his stick, looking to make contact with the puck early before engaging with the body. He’s sound positionally and can completely take away the front of the net with his size.

“His stick work is really a positive in his defence,” said Elite Prospects’ David St-Louis in February scouting report. “He hides its length which makes attackers think they have more space than they do in reality, which allows him deceptive pokechecks.”

"You have to do a lot of projection with Owen Pickering."

The question mark for Pickering is that he’s still very raw in his development. It’s like he hasn’t quite adjusted to being 6’5” yet and has yet to fill out his frame at just 179 lbs. He still needs a lot of development before he can make the NHL but he also has a lot of room for that development. 

“I’m not the most filled-out kid,” admitted Pickering to Robinson. “Still very lanky and there’s a lot of explosiveness to grow into. Not just putting on meaningless mass but getting more explosive is the big thing for me.”

When Pickering adds more strength to his frame, he should be able to take another step. His shot, already a strength, will only get harder. Most importantly, added strength should improve his skating, which is still a work in progress. Pickering’s focus on improving his explosiveness is good to hear and he already has some excellent mobility in how he escapes forechecking pressure on puck retrievals. 

But the fact that Pickering still has so much development ahead of him is a big reason why teams might be hesitant about spending a high pick on Pickering.

“You have to do a lot of projection with Owen Pickering that he’ll fill out and be able to grow into his body,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News. 

Beyond just adding strength, Pickering needs to become more consistent. His offensive creativity is intriguing but it’s not always present. Sometimes the plays he looks to create are based a lot more on hope than they are reading the play, leading to turnovers in transition. He also needs to more consistently use his size defensively, something that will hopefully come with time.

Teams might also question his offensive upside given his lack of points. Was it just a matter of the team around him or could Pickering have done more to create offence himself? When Pickering did activate on the rush, good things happened, but perhaps he just doesn’t have the hockey sense to read the play and jump up more often.

Should the Canucks bet on Pickering's upside?

The uncertainty of Pickering's projection makes him a fascinating player in this year’s draft. He has tremendous upside if he develops the right way, potentially becoming an all-situations top-four defenceman, capable of erasing plays defensively and then immediately making plays offensively. His size and versatile transition game mean there could be some serious payoff in the future.

On the other hand, maybe that raw potential never quite coalesces into the high-end, two-way defenceman that Pickering desires to be. He might end up as a more one-dimensional player — molded into a stay-at-home defensive defenceman as he’s pigeonholed because of his size, frustrating fans with turnovers when he does attempt a more adventurous offensive play. There is risk there and NHL teams are notoriously risk-averse.

That’s why Pickering’s spot in draft rankings are all over the board. Elite Prospects and The Hockey News slot Pickering in at 16th overall. Craig Button has him highest at 13th overall, while his TSN coworker Bob McKenzie has him at 23rd. Some rankings even have Pickering as a second-round pick.

But with that size and upside, someone will surely take Pickering in the first round. Will it be the Canucks?