“I want to pick Gunnarsson. I think he’s gonna play.”
That was Jim Benning at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft before he and the Canucks picked Swedish defenceman Kristoffer Gunnarsson in the fifth round. Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Gunnarsson will ever play in the NHL, particularly for the Canucks.
The Canucks have until June 1st to sign Gunnarsson or they’ll lose his rights, but the word was already out that Gunnarsson wasn’t likely to be signed. The news out of Sweden on Wednesday is that Gunnarsson won't be signing with his Swedish Hockey League club, Frolunda, either. Instead, he’ll be moving to the second tier of professional hockey in Sweden, the Allsvenskan.
Gunnarsson signed with Mora IK on Wednesday, who were relegated to the Allsvenskan from the SHL this past season. They will have eyes on returning to the SHL this coming season and likely feel that Gunnarsson, a defenceman with SHL experience, will help them towards that goal.
Since Gunnarsson was drafted in his third year of eligibility at the age of 20, the Canucks only retained his rights for two years, so he’ll be out of the organization.
Gunnarsson was always an odd pick for the Canucks at the 2017 draft. In his third year of eligibility, Gunnarsson wasn’t ranked by any of the major scouting services or, for that matter, the minor scouting services. He had played a few games in the SHL, but had never recorded a point and averaged just 8:36 per game in ten games with Frolunda in the 2016-17 season. In his first year of draft eligibility, Gunnarsson played 38 games in the under-20 SuperElit league, where he recorded no points.
That’s a lot of red flags. Even a defensive defenceman like Gunnarsson has to have the puck skills to put up some points in lower levels if he’s going to have an NHL future. He never really put up points at any level and was already 20 years old.
So, why did the Canucks draft him?
The Canucks weren’t the only team that liked Gunnarsson. Sweden picked him for the 2017 World Juniors, where he rotated with a 16-year-old Rasmus Dahlin when the Swedes wanted a little more size and shutdown defence. That tournament, along with his games in the SHL and Allsvenskan, likely put him on the Canucks radar.
The video from the 2017 draft provides some insight, as Benning discusses the possibility of picking Gunnarsson with director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett and assistant GM John Weisbrod. The most important thing to note is that they took a swing at Gunnarsson after trading down in the draft to acquire an extra pick.
The Canucks acquired a fourth-round pick in the Jannik Hansen for Nikolay Goldobin trade, then sent that pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for a fifth and a sixth-round pick. That made 2017 the only draft under Jim Benning where the Canucks made more than seven picks.
“I think it gives us another shot,” said Judd Brackett when they discussed trading down. “We’re late, at this point we’re only going to up our odds of getting someone and I’m okay with that.”
When it comes to later rounds in the draft, the odds of getting an impact player are about the same whether it’s the fourth round or the seventh. The Blackhawks used that fourth-round pick to take Tim Soderlund, an undersized forward that they signed to an entry-level contract earlier this month, but the Canucks got their own undersized forward with the sixth-round pick they acquired in the trade: Petrus Palmu.
Before picking Palmu, however, they took a shot at Gunnarsson. By trading down, they were able to take a gamble on a player that Benning and Brackett both seemed to like.
“Gunnarsson’s playing in the Swedish Elite League and we can leave him over there for two years,” said Benning.
“I’m fine with Gunnarsson,” added Brackett. “Even when we look at our American League depth, he could come over.”
“We’ll let him stay there another year and then we’ll bring him over the following year,” said Benning. “He can play in the American league.”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” replied Brackett.
The Canucks seemed a little less certain about his ability to play in the AHL the following season. Gunnarsson played 46 games in the SHL the season after being drafted and didn’t record a single point.
That meant Gunnarsson had played 69 regular season games and 14 playoff games in the SHL without even getting an assist by accident. No other player that season played more than 21 games without a point.
Gunnarsson finally got his first SHL point last season, scoring a pretty nice goal after a penalty expired, then added an assist later in the season, but that’s still not enough production to make anyone believe he has the puck skills and quick decision-making to make it to the NHL.
It was the one Canucks pick in 2017 that just didn’t make much sense. The Canucks got Elias Pettersson at fifth overall, took two wingers with upside in the second round in Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich, and nabbed one of the top-ranked goaltenders in the third round in Michael DiPietro. In the fourth round, they went with a puck-moving, smooth-skating defenceman that fits the modern NHL in Jack Rathbone. Palmu was a good gamble in the sixth round, as was Matt Brassard in the seventh round.
The only pick that didn’t really add up was Gunnarsson, who seemed more like a throwback to Benning’s first draft with the Canucks, when they picked Kyle Pettit and Mackenze Stewart, two players with limited upside, in the final two rounds.
When you trade down in the draft or acquire additional draft picks via other means, however, you can afford to take chances on guys like Gunnarsson, while still getting players with a higher ceiling like Palmu. The Canucks have two extra picks in the sixth round in the 2019 draft, but could acquire more picks in later rounds by trading down, allowing them to take a few more chances. As Brackett said, “We’re only going to up our odds of getting someone.”