It’s a beautiful sunshiny day as I look out the window of a Kelowna internet cafe. I should be off at the beach, reading my book (Stephen Brunt’s Searching For Bobby Orr, which is excellent by the way), but here I am slaving away at a computer to break down this afternoon’s draft picks. It may be the off-season, but hockey is always on my mind. And besides, I’m pretty happy to be enjoying the cafe’s air conditioning right now. It’s 32 degrees out there, and it’s killing me.
First, a few more thoughts on the Ballard trade now that I’ve had more time to think it over.
Last night, as I poured over my list for my fantasy draft (which isn’t til September — but without cable or the internet at my place, I get bored easy and plotting out my draft plan kills time like none other), I realized that I need to assess this trade more as a fantasy owner and less as a fan.
What do I mean? I have an emotional investment in these players and this team that doesn’t exist when I make fantasy assessments. I am not just a fan of the Canucks, but of Michael Grabner personally, having rooted for him since 2006 when I was at GM Place to see him get drafted. As training camps came and went and countless fans gave up on him as he failed to make the team, I stood firm in my belief that his speed and shot would make him an NHL player. Four years later, it’s nice to be right.
But I need to put all that aside. In making fantasy decisions, all I care about is winning and the money that comes with it. I recently made a tough decision with my keeper team, electing to cut loose James Neal, a young and promising power-forward for the Dallas Stars, in favour of more help on D in the form of Montreal’s P.K. Subban. This was very difficult for me, as I think the world of Neal and believe he’ll be a big star (pun…intended?) in a few seasons. But objectively speaking, my team is stacked at forward, and Neal’s contributions to my success this year will be easy to replace next season.
Applying that same logic to the Ballard trade, it’s a lot easier to get over losing Grabner. Just like my fantasy team, the Canucks are stacked at forward and thin on D. Realistically, there was no room in Vancouver for Grabner to grow into the player I know he can become. And in the now, we are talking about a player who has only ever scored 5 NHL goals in his career. Any fourth-line player worth a damn should be able to replicate that production over the course of next season. Victor Oreskovich could even do it! And adding Ballard gives the Canucks a player they have needed desperately for at least two years now.
Some fans have expressed displeasure with Ballard’s $4.2M salary, but I think we need to remember that as the salary cap continues to rise, salaries only inflate with it. The $6.1M that Henrik Sedin earned this past season might look like more than Markus Naslund’s $6M salary on paper (because…it is), but Henrik was playing under a $57M cap, of which he occupied just shy of 11% of Vancouver’s allotted cap space last year. Naslund’s $6M, under a $39M cap? More than 15%. The point is that while $4.2M may seem like a lot (and it is the second highest salary Vancouver has ever paid a defenseman), it doesn’t buy the kind of talent that it used to. And it actually takes up less of the cap than Kevin Bieksa’s current deal did when he signed it.
So what’s not to like?
Even the loss of a first round pick is offset somewhat when a player like Patrick McNally falls all the way to the 115th spot in the fourth round. McNally, the Canucks first selection in the 2010 draft, was a projected second-rounder, and the exact type of defenseman I was hoping for with that first round pick: a big, mobile puck-mover.
Standing at 6’2, there’s plenty of room for McNally to add more muscle to his 180 lbs frame. And he’ll have plenty of time to do that, as he’s committed to another year of prep school at New England’s Milton Academy before joining Harvard’s NCAA squad for the 2011 season. Should he stay at Harvard for the duration of his schooling, he’s a good five years away from even attending Canuck training camp. But his offensive skills are quite strong (he led his team in scoring with 14 goals and 35 points in 28 games — not too shabby for a defenseman), and his pro potential is promising. His father is also an FBI agent. That’s not at all relevant, I just thought it was interesting.
With recent college free agent signing Chris Tanev set to turn pro for the Canucks next season — himself a highly touted NCAA defender from the Rochester Institute of Technology — the loss of this year’s 25th overall pick becomes much easier to swallow. It also means there’s no immediate rush for McNally to go pro. Tanev is but one of Vancouver’s rookie-pro defensemen slated to join Manitoba next season, alongside 2008 second-rounder Yann Sauve, as well as 2009 third-round pick (and former Vancouver Giant) Kevin Connauton.
That’s a good group of two-way defensemen, and while they won’t all blossom into quality NHLers, the Canucks should be happy with getting even one or two NHL contributors out of the lot of them. And that’s making no mention of last year’s surprising Swede, Peter Andersson. All of a sudden, there is a glut of young defensemen in the pipeline where there were once none. It’s still early, and none of those D are surefire bets, but it looks like Gillis has done a bang-up job of restocking the cupboard over the last few years.
Vancouver also added another big, puck-moving D in the fifth in Adam Polasek. And unlike McNally, Polasek actually plays with an edge. I can’t claim to know much about his game, but his stat-line is intriguing — as is his recent nomination as QMJHL Rookie of the Year. It’ll be interesting to see how the 6’2 Czech defenseman develops over the next few seasons. At any rate, he should be better than Libor.
After Polasek came Niagra IceDogs center Alex Friesen, shortly followed by Finnish goalie Jonathan Iilahti, both in the sixth round. Rounding out the group in the seventh was physically imposing defender Sawyer Hannay. As the fifth to last pick in the draft, it’s unlikely Hannay ever amounts to anything, but this quote from his Red Line Report profile is nice:
Where did this guy come from? … Guys in the Q have already seen enough to know they don’t want any part of him.
Friesen is a strong skater and relentless forechecker who received top marks from OHL coaches — he was voted both the hardest worker in his conference and the league’s top faceoff man. He projects to be the player Ryan Kesler was before Kesler’s offensive game exploded two years ago. And he’s got quite the offensive game himself, scoring at a point per game pace in the OHL this season. He’s also a fairly smart fellow — he was named the OHL’s scholastic player of the year in 2008, and according to Gillis had the third highest score on the Canucks’ aptitude test, for whatever that’s worth. Even better than his smarts is his hitting ability. Hey Taylor Hall, guess who just followed you to the Northwest Division?
Iilahti is what he is: a Finnish goalie. So hot right now.
Overall, not a bad crop considering Vancouver didn’t have a pick until 115th. Gillis has shown a penchant for taking players in their second year of draft eligibility, as they’re more developed and will be ready to contribute sooner. Both Polasek and Friesen fit that profile this year.
But of course, all of these names are relevant today, only to fade into obscurity tomorrow. Ballard is the big move this weekend, and the name that will still be on the tongue come September. As I come to terms with the fact that Grabner is gone, I warm up to the trade more and more by the minute.