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The Canucks repeatedly went off the board at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft

…for certain definitions of “board.”
Ty Mueller, a 20-year-old forward in his third year of draft eligibility, wasn't expected to be drafted when the Vancouver Canucks picked him in the fourth round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.

It was an interesting two days at the NHL draft for the Vancouver Canucks. For the first time in four years, the Canucks made seven selections at the draft, albeit not with the original seven picks they were given.

The focus on the day was clearly on restocking the prospect pool on defence, particularly on the right side. Four of their seven picks were defencemen, three of them right-side defencemen, including top pick Tom Willander at 11th overall.  

“Defencemen? Yeah, we got a few,” quipped Todd Harvey, the Canucks director of amateur scouting, but he insisted that their approach at the draft was not to pick for need: “We’re taking the best player on our list.”

That means the Canucks’ list was very different from anyone else’s list. That in itself isn’t surprising. The draft boards put together by NHL teams seldom resemble those of other teams, particularly after the first ten picks or so, and rarely match the draft rankings put together by those in the public sphere.

Betting on over-agers and a late-blooming behemoth

What stands out about the Canucks draft, however, is just how far afield most of their picks were compared to the public consensus.

Few outlets saw fit to rank Seattle Thunderbirds defenceman Sawyer Mynio and those that did thought he’d be a sixth or seventh-round pick. The Canucks took him 89th overall in the third round.

Ty Mueller wasn’t ranked by anyone as a 20-year-old centre in his third year of draft eligibility when the Canucks used the 105th pick in the fourth round to select him. You have to wonder if he even wanted to be drafted — he could have signed anywhere as a free agent after next season if he decided to leave college but now he’s part of the Canucks system.

Matthew Perkins was similarly unranked as a 19-year-old centre in his second year of eligibility. He was well under a point-per-game in the USHL but the Canucks liked him enough to take him 119th overall in the fourth round.

Vilmer Alriksson landed on just one public draft ranking — FC Hockey had him 193rd — but the Canucks took a chance on the 6’6” winger taking a big step in his development in the years to come and drafted him 107th overall in the fourth round.

Aiden Celebrini, drafted 171st overall in the sixth round, only made two public draft rankings, landing 235th on FC Hockey’s list and 223rd with Draft Prospects. The draft is notably only 224 picks long.

"We like everything about him."

Even Willander was a reach at 11th overall according to most outlets. Only TSN’s Craig Button had Willander in his top ten, ranking him eighth overall, while most rankings had him in the back half of the first round. It’s not that those scouts were low on Willander but that they were higher on other players, such as Zach Benson, Colby Barlow, or Oliver Moore, all of whom the Canucks passed up to draft Willander.

To the Canucks, however, Willander wasn’t a reach at all. He was the best player available.

“Tommy [Willander], we think very, very highly of him,” said Harvey. “We like everything about him: the compete, the character as a person is phenomenal — he doesn’t give you the old hockey player answers. I think he’s a really intriguing person to start with and he’s going to be a heck of a player for us.”

The Canucks felt the same way about all of their picks and firmly said that they focused on the best player on their board throughout the draft, even if it just so happened that they filled needs in their system in the process.

And, if they took players that scouts in the public sphere weren’t high on? So be it. 

Disagreeing with the consensus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of successful teams became successful by going against the grain. But it is a gamble. When you break with consensus, you’re betting that you know something the others don’t. Maybe you do and you end up looking like a genius. 

Or maybe you don’t. 

Maybe the scouts in the public realm that looked at Mynio, Mueller, Alriksson, Perkins, and Celebrini and didn’t see a prospect worth picking were right. Maybe future Canucks fans will look back at the 2023 draft and see it as a massive missed opportunity to not take Benson or Moore or some other star player taken in the picks after the Canucks selected.

But the Canucks believe they got it right.

"We're happy we got him where we got him."

Scouts stake their reputation on these picks, sticking their neck out for prospects they believe in during draft meetings in order to get them on the board. The stakes are higher for an NHL team than they are for public scouting services and content creators. If an NHL team gets a draft board right, they come away with the future of their organization. If they get it wrong, they could lose their jobs.

The Canucks’ most off-the-board picks came in the fourth round, which is where the odds of finding an NHL player are already exceedingly low. With that in mind, it’s understandable that the Canucks took chances on prospects in their second or third year of draft eligibility or gambled on a 6’6” prospect being a late bloomer.

Reaching for Willander will look like a brilliant move if he develops into a top-pairing, right-side defenceman. Going off the board to take Mynio will pay off if he becomes an NHL regular down the line. And the scouts that pushed for those picks will make — or potentially break — their reputations based on those calls.

Not all of the Canucks’ picks were off the board, of course. Hunter Brzustewicz, taken 75th overall in the third round, was projected to go much higher in the draft, with almost every public draft ranking seeing him as a second-round pick. On that, the Canucks and the public sphere agree.

“We feel we got good, second-round value there,” said Harvey. “Solid player, moves pucks very well. Smart, smart player and we’re happy we got him where we got him.”

If the Canucks and draft experts are both right about Brzustewicz and assuming Willander becomes the top-four defenceman he’s projected to be, then the Canucks will get at least two NHL players out of the 2023 draft, which is about what you expect.

If that’s the case, going off the board with their other picks may not matter much. And if one of those off-the-board picks hits, then the Canucks could look brilliant in retrospect.