PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Vancouver Canucks possess some of the NHL's biggest-name players, including the likes of Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Another name on that list is Roberto Luongo
The fact the Canucks' high-paid goalie is still on the roster might be one of the surprises of the two-day NHL draft that concluded Saturday, if only because it seemed Vancouver was eager to shed its longtime star, along with the 10 years and the more than US$53 million on his contract.
But it was evident after the draft swiftly wrapped up Saturday that being a name player wasn't important at all to the Canucks. They left Pittsburgh with a five-member draft class that only the most astute of draft experts could have identified in advance, and with Luongo's huge contract still on the books.
Brendan Gaunce, a centre with the OHL's Belleville Bulls, was no surprise at No. 26, but from there, the Canucks veered off course by choosing four players who weren't on some teams' radars.
Alexandre Mallet, a 20-year-old left-winger from the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic candidly said he expected to be taken in the "fifth or sixth" round, only to wind up No. 57 overall when the Canucks chose him late in the second round.
Mallet was one of four Canucks draft picks—they had only five overall—who wasn't selected during their initial year of eligibility, normally a criteria that pushes a player further down the draft boards.
The final three picks were Ben Hutton, a defenceman from Nepean (CCHL) who went in the fifth round; Victoria (BCHL) left-winger Wesley Myron and New Jersey high school left-winger Matthew Beattie.
There's a U.S. college theme here, too; while Mallet is projected to play in the AHL next season, Hutton is going to Maine, Myron is off to Boston University and Beattie will attend Yale. Beattie said education has always been important to his family but, "This is a new step."
And he grew up a Devils fan, adding, "I've never watched the Canucks."
He will now.
Immediately after the Canucks chose Mallet, the Phoenix Coyotes drafted Vancouver Giants (WHL) left-winger Jordan Martinook, who wasn't shown much interest by the Canucks, even though they presumably saw him play regularly. Martinook scored 40 goals last season.
General manager Mike Gillis said the Canucks want to get players who are on the fast track to pro hockey, if they’re not ready for it already.
"They're late bloomers," Gillis said. "But we know what we're getting. We're trying to get players who are ready. ... Kids grow up and they get better if they work at their game. If they have size and ability, get some structure, get more mature, they have an opportunity to make a significant jump."
And while the Canucks won't need another top-line centre for a while—not as long as Henrik Sedin stays healthy and productive—the six-foot-two, 215-pound Gaunce might not need long to fill that role.
Gaunce, who trains with former NHL forward Gary Roberts, was rated No. 13 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting after producing 68 points (28 goals) in 68 games last season. He also had 68 penalty minutes, a number that illustrates his willingness to mix it up physically.
An assistant captain for Belleville, the 18-year-old is seen as a natural leader, a trait he hopes will help carry him to the NHL perhaps a little faster than usual. He is a two-way centre who has shown an ability to play effectively in both defence-dominated and wide-open games.
"I'm lucky to have size," he said. "Now I need to work on the other parts of my game."
It appears the Canucks will keep working to find another place for Luongo, the longtime franchise focal point who has fallen out of favour thanks to Cory Schneider's progression.
Luongo's lengthy and formidable contract is an obstacle to any deal, as might Gillis' insistence that the Canucks get value in return for him. Gillis still considers Luongo to be a world-class goalie, and he's not ready to shed him for a seventh-round draft pick.
Asked what the problem is for working out a deal for Luongo, Gillis said, "I'm the problem" -- suggesting he won't take just anything for a player he considers to be one of the top 15 goalies in the world.
"I do anticipate making some moves over the course of the summer," Gillis said. "I'm not sure of the time frame."