The Vancouver Canucks selection of Swedish defenceman Tom Willander with the 11th overall pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft on Wednesday was well-received by some while others questioned the pick.
Your opinion on the matter basically boils down to your draft philosophy.
Do you draft according to need or do you draft the best player available?
For Canucks General Manager Patrik Allvin the team’s selection ticked both boxes as he claimed that Willander was the ‘best player available’ at the 11th pick and by also filling an organizational need for a right-shot defenceman.
Long-time draft analyst Shane Malloy of Hockey Prospect Radio on Sirius XM was on board with the Canucks choice.
“I really liked the pick as I had him projected 13th overall. He’s the best all-round skater in this draft class. It’s a fortunate convergence, where the best player available on the board and the positional needs for the organization happen at the same time,” explains Malloy, who was covering his 18th NHL Entry Draft.
“And for me, I project him as a number three defenseman, but a lynchpin number three who will be capable of killing penalties, stepping into the power play and the type of player that you can throw against the other team’s top lines because he’s so mobile that he takes away time and space.”
Others weren’t so sure with many feeling that the Canucks would have been better off by selecting Winnipeg Ice forward Zach Benson. Benson was chosen two picks later at 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres.
J.D. Burke of EP Rinkside, one of the top draft analysts in the industry, had a different opinion on the Willander pick.
“Not much suspense with the Canucks at 11. Tom Willander is the pick, addressing an area of significant need in the system (RD). It’s not an egregious reach by any means, but certainly not the pick I’d have made given how the board fell. Zach Benson was the play. Full stop,” tweeted Burke.
But according to Malloy, the Canucks selection of Willander also boiled down to their projection of Benson.
“At the end of the day, you have to decide what you think what Benson is. Is he a second-line scoring winger? Because if that’s the case, then I personally value number three defenseman over second line wingers every time because you have to look at the acquisition cost of a number three defenseman in free agency,” said Malloy.
“Look at the cost if you trade for number three defenseman and how rare and valuable they are. If you can get one as a draft pick, you hang onto those for dear life. It’s so much easier to find a potential second line winger. Don’t get me wrong. I really like Benson. He’s dynamic and he really drove the Winnipeg Ice considering that he had a couple of first round picks ahead of him, but at the end of the day for me, I’ll always take the defenseman. If everything is equal, I’ll take the defenseman over the winger every day.”
Willander is set to go to Boston University this fall in an attempt to transition to the North American game and it’s a move that will be good for his development according to Malloy.
“I’m actually really glad that he’s going there because it’s going to help him adjust to the North American ice quicker. He’s a very intelligent player with high hockey sense and he has good defensive habits. There is some untapped offensive upside as well and we’ll see how that develops in college,” noted Malloy.
According to Malloy, you won’t be able to pass judgement on Willander for a few years as he continues to grow into his 6’1”, 186-pound frame.
“For him, it’s just growing into a man’s body, but he also needs time to round out his offensive game too. Sometimes when you play in Sweden, you get to play with older players, so you end up deferring and you’re not in a position where you’re the offensive player. Playing at Boston University is really going to allow him to try a bunch of different things,” explained Malloy.
“Sometimes it will work out and other times he’ll fail but it will allow him to develop his game and recognize what he can and can’t do.”
OVERTIME: The Canucks also selected Kitchener defenceman Hunter Brzustewicz and Seattle defenceman Sawyer Minio in the third-round while choosing center Ty Mueller of Nebraska-Omaha, Swedish winger Vilmar Alriksson and USHL product Matthew Perkins in the fourth round.
They finished the draft by selecting defenceman Aiden Celebrini from the AJHL in the sixth round. Celebrini is the older brother of Macklin Celebrini, who is considered to be one of the top picks in next year’s draft. In case you are wondering, yes, they are the sons of noted Vancouver physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, who currently works for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA.
While Willander wasn’t looked at as a ‘bad pick’ considering his pedigree, the remaining Canuck draft picks were met with lukewarm reviews.
“Gotta say, now that the dust has settled on the 2023 draft, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about the #Canucks work. They’ve brought some good prospects into their system in Tom Willander and Hunter Brzustewicz, but not much else, and they left a lot of talent on the board,” tweeted Burke.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.