The Habs were extremely busy at the draft and wound up leaving Dallas with 11 new prospects in the fold. Here is our early evaluation of their selections.
3rd Overall – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Let’s look at the player first. Even those who didn’t like the pick would acknowledge that Kotkaniemi fills a big role for this team moving forward. A player who many believe has a floor of a second-line centre is still going to be a core piece for the Habs long-term. If he can truly become a number one centre, then this is an A+ pick regardless of how some picked behind him perform. Filling a need that has been in place for the better part of a quarter-century is a huge home run…if he can reach his potential.
With regards to the idea that he’s a reach, I’m inclined to agree to a small extent. Most of Kotkaniemi’s rise in the rankings came over the last few weeks when word started to spread that the Canadiens were already looking at taking him here. I can’t help but think that may have eased him up a few notches on some lists. (Not all though; full credit goes to Recrutes who had him as a high pick and a serious option for the Habs for a long time now.) Without that potential bias, I think he’d have been around the 5-7 range.
That said, this was clearly a two-player top of the draft and it has been said for a while that from that point on, there wasn’t much difference between players in that next tier. So while he may have been a small reach with regards to the rankings, the positional difference alone makes it a reasonable one.
Some have wondered if the Habs could have traded down to still get him. I think Arizona put an end to that when they took centre Barrett Hayton, a consensus pick in the 9-13 range, fifth overall. If they’d have flipped picks, there’s a good chance the Coyotes would have taken Kotkaniemi. Ottawa was clearly locked in on Brady Tkachuk but once word got out that the Habs were leaning towards a centre, I don’t think there was really a deal to be made here. I can’t fault them for not trading back as it doesn’t look like it was a real option.
There’s some risk with this pick, especially if Filip Zadina blossoms into a real goalscoring threat as there’s no doubt that the Habs need help putting pucks in the net. Kotkaniemi will be a longer-term development prospect – there’s no guarantee he’s on Montreal’s opening night roster – but clearly, the Habs believe the risk is worth the potential reward. I’m inclined to agree.
35th Overall – Jesse Ylonen
With some of the players that had slipped out of the first round, there were some other notable players on the board. In particular, d-men Bode Wilde and Jared McIsaac come to mind. However, they clearly had their eyes on another defender (more on him shortly) and Ylonen is still a solid addition.
The Habs aren’t exactly the quickest of teams and players like Ylonen will change that. It’s also helpful that he’s a right-handed shot, something that this organization lacks in a big way from the big club to their prospect pool. He has legitimate top-six upside and a lot of fans have wanted to see the Habs take a shot at some more boom-or-bust type of picks. If his defensive game doesn’t come around, Ylonen could eventually fall into that category. Unlike his fellow countryman though, it will be a few years before he’s ready for the NHL one way or the other.
38th Overall – Alexander Romanov
If you were ever looking for proof that the draft board for an NHL team does not come close to resembling those of the public lists, this was it. Romanov was largely off the radar and those that had him on it had him as a third rounder or later. There’s no denying that this was an off-the-board pick.
Romanov’s style of play certainly checks a lot of boxes. He has a lot of offensive upside and is another strong skater. He also plays the left side which helps fill an organizational weakness. His play in his own end is ultimately what will make or break his NHL prospects and he has some work to do in that regard. Pure speculation on my end but I wonder if he’s a candidate for the CHL Import Draft – perhaps to a team whose owner happens to be affiliated with the Canadiens?
In his post-draft comments, Timmins indicated that the team didn’t believe he’d be there at 56. Even if that’s true, there are a lot of picks between 38 and 56 and it’s not like the Habs were against trading down as they demonstrated as the day went on. I don’t mind the pick itself – Romanov seems like a good prospect – but they missed out on an opportunity to move down a bit at the very least, even if they thought he’d be off the board by their next selection.
56th Overall – Jacob Olofsson
This is the first pick for the Habs where it can’t even possibly be argued that he was a reach. It’s also the first pick where there isn’t much of a risk factor involved. Olofsson was a candidate to be a late first-round pick and getting him late in the second round is something to be pleased about.
Olofsson has the size and smarts to be an effective checker at the NHL level at the very least. The question is if he can develop his offensive game enough to the point where he can make more of an impact than someone like Jacob de la Rose. Based on how far he lasted, the consensus around the league is that it’s not too likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, getting a centre with good size that is a fairly safe bet to have some sort of NHL impact at this stage is a good pick no matter how you look at it.
66th Overall – Cam Hillis
It’s rare that a CHL pick in his draft year could be called a bit of a late bloomer but that could be the case with Hillis who only has one OHL year under his belt. Suffice it to say, it was a pretty good rookie campaign all things considered.
The big knock on him here is that he’s undersized. It’s far from a guarantee that someone his size will be able to play down the middle in the NHL; I think he’s ultimately going to be a winger in the pros. We’ve seen energetic smaller players have more success in recent years and Hillis could very well be another of those players down the road. Next season will be a big one for him – if his offensive development takes off in his sophomore campaign, this pick could look a whole lot better.
71st Overall – Jordan Harris
I get that the temptation is there to compare him to now-former Montreal prospect Casey Staum. Both were high school picks and are strong skaters. The comparisons end there though and I don’t mean simply because Harris actually looks like he intends to play college hockey, unlike Staum.
Harris actually plays a decent all-around game and isn’t just known for his elite skating skills. While he has put up points at the high school level, that’s not going to be his strength as he moves up to higher levels. He’s a smart player and while he’s going to get overmatched physically at times, he should be able to adapt well which will give him a shot at being a pro down the road. He’s a long-term project, however; it could be four or five years (depending on if he starts at Northeastern next season or waits a year) before he’s ready to sign an entry-level deal.
97th Overall – Allan McShane
Not many of Montreal’s picks are viewed as below-average skaters but McShane is one of them and it likely played a role in him slipping this far. He’s a smart two-way player but a lack of size and strength hinder him at times in the OHL and there’s a good chance that will carry over into the pros.
However, there is certainly room for more development on the offensive side. He’s likely to ascend into the top centre role next season with Jack Studnicka on his way to Boston’s farm team which is going to give McShane more moments to shine and really be a focal point of their attack. Barring some injuries or a really odd setback, he’s a pretty safe bet for an entry-level deal two years from now. This is a safe pick but a good one.
123rd Overall – Jack Gorniak
While listed as a left winger, Gorniak has spent some time down the middle and that type of versatility can’t hurt even with the Habs going nuts on drafting centres. He’s another speedster who has shown some offensive touch at an admittedly weaker high school level. If you’re going to take a long-term project up front, getting someone who has these attributes seems like a good idea. We’ll see how the next three or four years go to know whether he pans out or not.
128th Overall – Cole Fonstad
The Habs have had some success drafting undersized offensive forwards who have slipped past their rankings in recent years and Fonstad could very well follow that trend. He’s a strong playmaker that plays in all situations although there are mixed reviews on his skating.
He’s another safe selection but I think he will need to take another step forward offensively and become more dominant before I put him in the same class as McShane where he seems like a safe bet to get a contract from the Habs. Considering the jump he took from his rookie to sophomore year though, he’s certainly shown he’s capable of major improvements from one year to the next. Fonstad is a solid choice here.
133rd Overall – Samuel Houde
Let’s get the good out of the way. Houde should have plenty of opportunities to develop next season as Chicoutimi’s top centre, Kevin Klima, ages out of junior hockey. He’s a gritty player despite his size and those types of players tend to at least become serviceable AHL players for a few years.
That said, he was not the best player left on the board at this spot. (Blade Jenkins, who went right after Houde, would have made way more sense here.) It looks like the Habs drafted by birth certificate and wanted to make sure they got a local player if for no other reason than to satisfy some complaints from some factions of the local media. That’s never the right way to go. Considering they were intending to trade into the seventh round again, that would have been a better spot for Houde to go. Failing that, trading down period would have been an improvement as well. He’s an okay prospect but the Habs could have done better here.
190th Overall – Brett Stapley
I have no issues with what seems to be a current strategy of the Habs to trade their seventh-rounder next year to take a gamble on someone. It looks like it’s going to work out well with their pick last year in Cayden Primeau (and it was this exact pick that was dealt for him) and while it’s not looking as good with their one the year before (Arvid Henrikson), it was worth the risk.
Stapley doesn’t really appear to be that type of big swing though. He had another good year in the BCHL but there is no real stand-out element to his game. Quite frankly, he’s a pretty safe pick overall, especially when you consider that he went undrafted last year. This is the round to be aggressive and this pick isn’t that. If I had to guess, the Habs are looking about three years down the road here with the hopes that by his junior year in college, he’ll be established enough to be worthy of a contract.
There were 14 pick swaps on Day Two of the draft and the Habs were involved in five of them (or a whopping 36%). I generally like moving down in general, especially in a draft where there seemed to be such a variation between draft lists. The decision to trade out in the fourth round for what should be a better fourth next year was a nice move although their attempt to do so again with one of their fifths may not work out that well.
However, there were a few at least potentially missed opportunities. They should have traded down on the Houde pick and I suspect they could have dropped a few spots on Romanov’s as well. On the flip side, I was at least hoping they’d look into trading back into the first round with Joe Veleno slipping as far as he did. Even if he’s not an elite centre like he was hyped to be a few years ago, I think he could still be a solid second liner and the late 20’s would have been a nice spot to get him. I know they said they tried to do so but evidently they weren’t able to find a taker.
There were three distinct needs I was hoping to see them fill and it’s clear that the Habs shaped their draft board with two of them in mind. (While they may have drafted their BPA at most spots, their needs clearly dictated their BPA.) They needed centres and they drafted a ton of them. Not all of them will be signed and not all of them will stick down the middle but at the very least, Kotkaniemi and Olofsson project as NHL middlemen. That’s not too shabby at all.
Another need was shoring up the left-hand side on the back end. Their top defensive prospects (assuming you count Victor Mete as graduated from prospect status) are all righties – Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, and Cale Fleury. (Even Brett Lernout, a fringe prospect at this stage, is a righty.) They’ve added quantity lately on the left side with Rinat Valiev, Michal Moravcik, and David Sklenicka but those are all fringe players at best. Who knows if Romanov and Harris will pan out but they needed to address that spot and they did so.
Let’s go back to the right-handed shots for a moment. The Habs effectively have two regular forwards that shoot right. Most of their prospects of any sort of consequence are lefties (Michael McCarron shoots right but he’s not exactly a prospect of consequence anymore) so there isn’t much help coming through Laval. Joni Ikonen is a righty but he’s years away from being ready. There are offensive constraints presented when you have three same-side shooting players on a line and we’ve seen how it can limit a power play as well; it’s a big reason why Andrew Shaw is there when he has no business playing on a power play unit. While the Habs did add three righty forwards (Ylonen, Hillis, and Stapley), the only one of those that has top-six upside is Ylonen. In other words, this need is still something that needs to be addressed in the not-too-distant future.
I’m a little torn on how to grade this draft class. With four picks that are an ‘A’ or ‘A-‘, that’s quite good, especially since two of them are in the first two rounds. That’s tough to overlook. On the other hand, they didn’t exactly finish the draft strong and appeared to have reached considerably on a couple of players as well. That’s also tough to overlook.
This draft class has solid ‘A’ potential if Kotkaniemi becomes a legitimate top centre and two or three other players pan out. I think Olofsson at the very least makes it and it shouldn’t be too tough for a minimum of one more to do so in some capacity as well. There are usually reaches in every draft class and while those have to be factored into the equation, it doesn’t completely wreck their grade either.
Montreal filled two big needs in Dallas and has their best shot at a top centre in a long, long time. That has to be considered a win. I’m not going to give it an ‘A’ just yet as we need to wait a few years to see if Kotkaniemi can really reach his potential but I don’t think it’s fair to put it in ‘B’ territory either just yet. That leaves it between a coin flip between an ‘A-‘ or a ‘B+’ and with four picks in that ‘A’ range, I’ll round it up.
Draft Class Grade: A-