Between 2014 and 2019 — the heart of Vancouver’s rebuild — the Canucks were the unluckiest team in the NHL Draft Lottery. During that six-year stretch, Vancouver fell more slots in the lottery than any other club in the league, never picking higher than No. 5 despite routinely finishing near the bottom of the standings.
That got me thinking: What would the Canucks have looked like if the draft lottery didn’t exist? What if Vancouver wasn’t cursed with bad luck?
I decided to go year-by-year, looking at what selection the Canucks would have had if first-round picks were simply awarded in the reverse order that teams finished in the standings. From there, The Athletic enlisted the help of a source with knowledge of Vancouver’s internal draft rankings to determine who the team would have selected in that new slot.
This is a fun “what if” exercise rather than a serious criticism of the NHL’s lottery rules, but with that said, here’s an alternate look at what the Canucks’ first-round picks from 2014 to 2019 could have looked like if the team wasn’t so unlucky in the lottery.
2014 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 6 (zero slots dropped)
Player selected: Jake Virtanen
New pick without lottery: No. 6
Nothing would have changed in 2014, the Canucks would have still had the No. 6 selection. Virtanen, therefore, would have still been the Canucks’ pick in 2014.
2015 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 23 (zero slots dropped)
Original player selected: Brock Boeser
New pick without lottery: No. 23
2014-15 was the only season in this stretch where the club made the playoffs. Because of that, they weren’t eligible for the draft lottery and thus would have retained the same pick that they used to take Brock Boeser.
After this draft is when things start getting spicy …
2016 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 5 (dropped two slots)
Original player selected: Olli Juolevi
New pick without lottery: No. 3
Who Canucks would have taken at No. 3: Pierre-Luc Dubois
Vancouver claimed 75 points in 2015-16, finishing ahead of only Toronto and Edmonton. The Leafs won the first pick that netted them Auston Matthews. After that, the bottom feeders who ironically went on late-season winning streaks which worsened their odds got lucky.
Winnipeg finished 25th, three points ahead of the Canucks because of a four-game winning streak, and ended up climbing to No. 2. Columbus, who finished one point ahead of the Canucks after winning three straight to end the season, won the No. 3 pick.
Vancouver strongly preferred to take a defenseman with the No. 5 selection. Among the crop of defensemen, the Canucks were obviously very high on Olli Juolevi. Mikhail Sergachev, Jakob Chychrun and Charlie McAvoy weren’t serious considerations at the end. It was pretty much down to Juolevi and Jake Bean among the blueliners, out of which the club obviously preferred the former.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, however, was the apple of the Canucks’ eye. Vancouver loved Juolevi, even rating him ahead of Jesse Puljujarvi, but the club would have taken Dubois ahead of both Finnish skaters.
The unluckiest part about the 2016 draft was that out of all the possible teams, Columbus specifically jumped to No. 3. Matthews and Patrik Laine were the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 prospects. After that, Puljujarvi seemed to be the favourite to go No. 3 for most teams. When Columbus took Dubois at No. 3, it was a shock. Had it been another team who won the No. 3 pick, there’s a chance Dubois would have still been available in Vancouver’s original slot at No. 5.
There are rumours that the Canucks considered trading their first-round pick to Montreal as part of a package for P.K. Subban — which was contingent on Dubois being available for Montreal to select — but the source The Athletic spoke to doesn’t believe that trade was close.
2017 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 5 (dropped three slots)
Original player selected: Elias Pettersson
New pick without lottery: No. 2
Who Canucks would have taken at No. 2: Cale Makar
After finishing second-worst in the NHL during 2016-17, the final year of Willie Desjardins’ tenure in Vancouver, the Canucks had their best odds at a top-three pick. Instead, they fell three slots and ended up at No. 5, which was the lowest selection they could have ended up with.
New Jersey (fourth-highest odds) won the lottery, Philadelphia (12th-highest odds) won the No. 2 pick despite just a 2.4 percent chance and Dallas (seventh-highest odds) got the No. 3 pick despite just a 6.4 percent chance.
Some may consider that a blessing in disguise because it allowed the Canucks to select franchise centre Elias Pettersson, who most of the industry had pegged as a mid-to-late top-10 talent, but the top of the Canucks’ draft board in 2017 looked very different from the consensus anyway.
Trevor Linden caused mini-headlines following the Pettersson pick when he said in a Sekeres and Price interview that the Canucks would have passed on both Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier — the industry consensus top-two prospects — if they had the No. 1 pick.
In reality, Cale Makar was ranked No. 1 on Vancouver’s final draft board. Pettersson was right behind him at No. 2.
That take has aged pretty well, hasn’t it?
Makar is not only an elite offensive contributor with 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games this season, but he’s also improved tremendously as a shutdown defender. He defends top lines and logs a ton of high-leverage minutes on the penalty. Makar is the complete package and it shouldn’t be long before he’s the undisputed best defenseman in the NHL.
Some would argue they’d rather have a franchise centre than a franchise defenseman so the value gap between Pettersson and Makar may not end up being huge if the former can break out and take another step, but it’s hard not to think about how sweet it’d be to have the best right-handed defenseman in all of hockey.
2018 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 7 (dropped one slot)
Original player selected: Quinn Hughes
New pick without lottery: No. 6
Who Canucks would have taken at No. 6: Quinn Hughes
The Canucks had Quinn Hughes ranked significantly higher than the No. 7 pick they used to select him. They would have taken him higher than No. 7 and were frankly ecstatic that he somehow fell to their lap in the first place. Vancouver’s conviction in Hughes was so strong that Benning told the slick-moving defender’s agent and family before the draft that there’s no chance they’d let Hughes get past seventh overall if he ever got to them.
In 2018, the club only fell by one spot but Vancouver would still have taken Hughes at No. 6.
2019 NHL Draft
Original pick: No. 10 (dropped one slot)
Original player selected: Vasily Podkolzin
New pick without lottery: No. 9
Who Canucks would have taken at No. 9: Trevor Zegras
Drafting at No. 10, the Canucks were in a position to essentially take whoever was still on the board at the end of the top-10. In their view, selecting Vasily Podkolzin was a relatively straightforward decision.
“We were thinking that he was the last name, if he wasn’t there at 10, we were looking to maybe trade down and get another pick,” Benning said after the draft. “And there were some guys we liked after we picked, but when he was there, we’re making the pick.”
This tells us that the Canucks felt Podkolzin was in a distinct tier higher than the prospects drafted immediately after, including Victor Soderstrom, Matt Boldy and Cole Caufield among others. In the No. 10 hole, the Canucks essentially didn’t feel they had a lot of options.
If the Canucks stayed at No. 9 instead of falling to 10th, they would have had one more legitimate option to consider. In that scenario, they would have selected Trevor Zegras over Podkolzin.
This does come with an asterisk though, because even if the Canucks stayed at No. 9 where Zegras was ultimately selected, there’s still no guarantee he would have been available for Vancouver. In 2019, Chicago was the team that rocketed up to nine slots to win the No. 3 pick. If there was no lottery, you’d remove the Blackhawks from the equation, but Anaheim would still be selecting ahead of Vancouver, although the Ducks would have had another player drafted ahead of Zegras to consider as well.
2019 NHL Draft Order Without Lottery
It’s actually kind of impossible to know who’d be available to Anaheim and Vancouver because of the chain reaction of removing Chicago. Would Colorado have selected Kirby Dach ahead of Bowen Byram at No. 3? Would Detroit’s surprise Moritz Seider pick change if someone like Dach, Byram or Alex Turcotte slid to them? Would Dylan Cozens have fallen to Anaheim’s lap at No. 8 if he kept sliding as a result of the butterfly effect?
All of this is to say that while there’s a decent chance Zegras would have been available to Vancouver at No. 9, it’s impossible to know if it would have been him or another one of the top-eight prospects like Cozens or Philip Broberg available in addition to Podkolzin.
Either way, what I can say with confidence is that Zegras was ahead of Podkolzin and would have been Vancouver’s pick if both were available at No. 9.
Comparing the hauls
2014-2019 original selections: Virtanen, Boeser, Juolevi, Pettersson, Hughes, Podkolzin
No lottery selections: Virtanen, Boeser, Dubois, Makar, Hughes, *Zegras (contingent on availability)
These different hauls would have represented a significantly different outlook for the Canucks.
Having both Makar and Hughes on a blue line would have given the Canucks two of the best young defensemen in the entire NHL. Vancouver could have run them on separate pairs, basically ensuring that one of Hughes or Makar would be on the ice about 80 percent of the time. That’d go a long way in extinguishing the club’s current zone exit woes.
Obviously, that scenario would have also meant losing Pettersson but the Canucks would have at least had Dubois and possibly even Zegras. Dubois is a big, strong, 60-point player who can play both centre and wing. Zegras is obviously the wild card. If he’d still be available at No. 9, the Canucks would have a Zegras, Dubois and Bo Horvat punch down the middle in addition to Hughes and Makar on the back end. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Zegras would’ve still been off the board in which case the difference between fantasy and reality wouldn’t have been nearly as stark.
(Top photo of Cale Makar: Dustin Bradford / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)