The 2018 NHL Draft is almost here and although the Habs are picking third overall, they could go quite a few routes with that selection. Our writers offer up their thoughts on what Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins should do.
Terry Costaris: Who knows what’s going to happen here. There are a lot of moving parts. My assumption is that the Habs will hold onto their third pick and select Filip Zadina over Brady Tkachuk. This is the safest and surest thing to do. But with this GM and the recent head-scratching Max Domi trade, it’s now fair to “expect the unexpected.” Shocking trades like this loudly suggest that Marc Bergevin is not under as tight a leash as many of us expected.
My gut tells me that neither Zadina nor Tkachuk will be future Hall of Famers. They both should be good/very good players. Neither one is regarded as a generational talent. I see Zadina as a potential Alexander Radulov, Max Pacioretty, or Marian Hossa- not so much in playing style but as a top-sixer who can be that last, essential/final piece for a Stanley Cup contender. I also sense shades of Steve Shutt with Zadina. Again, this is just my gut speaking.
I get the love that some have for Brady Tkachuk. Perhaps he could be Montreal’s next Shayne Corson. He’s a big, strong player with potential. One of the red flags that I see though is that he’s failed to wow me in terms of his offensive stats.
Scoring prowess in the juniors/college ranks is usually a key indicator of what a player may bring to the NHL. Better hockey minds than me though say otherwise. But again, going on my gut, his lack of generating points has to be a red flag. Why swing for a home run and strikeout here when a double or triple seems very likely? I say play the odds.
Finally, I’d like to also address the family lineage/good stock argument that some analysts seem to over-emphasize. First of all, we are not talking horse racing here. Yes, Brady Tkachuk’s father was a very good player and so too is his brother – but family lines do not necessarily translate into greatness. Just look at Jarred Tinordi. Remember Marcel Hossa? Brother of Marian Hossa? Or Pavel Bure’s brother Valeri?
Montreal has chosen or traded for plenty of children and grandchildren of former NHL hockey players. It’s like a near-obsession for this franchise. Domi is just the most recent acquisition. There’s Connor Crisp, Kyle Baun, Stefan Matteau, Daniel Audette, and Christian Thomas – all of whom have not lit the NHL on fire. Kerby Rychel is fighting for his NHL life. Hayden Verbeek has promise but it would be a stretch to say that he has NHL scouts drooling over him. Mind you. Cayden Primeau looks like a budding talent – though his dad never played goalie.
So the decision to go with Tkachuk should not be even remotely be based on genetics.
As a side note, I’m starting to wonder if Bergevin is losing grasp of reality and believes that all of these players that he’s acquired are actually the same ones whom he played against. Just a thought.
Brian La Rose: For years, Bergevin has talked about how the only way to get a top centre is to draft one. With Jesperi Kotkaniemi rising in the rankings following a strong showing at the U-18s, he is now legitimately in the picture. If they believe he has the chance to be a number one centre, take him. Zadina and Tkachuk should both be strong wingers but if the scouts believe Kotkaniemi is at the same level, then they almost have to take him; there just won’t be many other opportunities to pick this high for a while (at least that’s what the hope is).
I think Montreal should look to move down a couple of spots but the question is if they can find a taker. If Ottawa and Arizona believe their guy is still going to be there where they currently sit, then they’re not going to be interested in moving up; there’s no guarantee that a trade down situation is going to be available. The Habs are doing their best to drum up a market at least with the various reports linking them to about four different players. That type of smokescreen can only help their cause if they would like to drop back a little and add an extra asset.
Kevin Leveille: My immediate answer when asked this question is to select Zadina. The talented winger plays on the right side, meaning that he could play opposite to newly-acquired Max Domi while Max Pacioretty can play on the opposing side to Brendan Gallagher. Even if Pacioretty is traded, the left wing is still fine with Artturi Lehkonen and Charles Hudon battling for 2LW/3LW ice-time. Having said this, the pick does not resolve the centre ice issues, but some rankings have a guy like Kotkaniemi ranked as far back as 18th! No way am I swinging that far with a third overall pick.
The second option would be to deal the pick for a package. I’m certainly uneasy about this idea considering Bergevin’s recent trade record. While the same could be said about the Canadiens’ ability to develop young players, I have much more faith in the newly appointed Bouchard-Ducharme-Julien regime than I did in the Therrien-Lefebvre tandem, so it would be wise to give them a chance to prove their worth immediately. Trading down would bring Kotkaniemi into to play for me, though the package would require much more to entice me to move away from the #3 selection.
Briefly, I pick Zadina with the third, unless a package can include Kotkaniemi plus an impact player/prospect that can get me better long-term value than the game-breaker Zadina appears to be. Ideally, pick Zadina and get aggressive with Pacioretty to perhaps draft Kotkaniemi also?
Paul MacLeod: Given the Habs dearth of centre depth, they should trade down to get two lower picks to select Kotkaniemi and Joseph Veleno. Failing that, they should take Zadina. Unfortunately, I expect Tkachuk.
Norm Szcyrek: Who to select at #3 for the Habs is a tough decision. The Habs have long chanted the mantra of drafting the “best player available” or BPA. To most experts that would be Zadina from the QMJHL. However, with Kotkaniemi, he’s the best centre available in the draft; I will coin a new acronym and call it the BCA. Jesperi is an excellent playmaking centre with great hockey sense, good skating ability, and is an excellent two-way forward. Those skills were put on display at the Under-18 tournament in April. He’s a safe pick for the Habs, who are beyond desperate to obtain a top line centre to help this franchise improve its biggest weakness. The closest NHL player I compare Kotkaniemi to is Kyle Turris or Aleksander Barkov. While he’s not rated by most draft lists at #3, it’s not too big of a reach to predict Montreal will select him there. Some say he may not be ready to step into the Habs lineup this fall, as he may require one more season in Finland to develop.
Dave Woodward: Before deciding on their strategy for the third overall pick, the Canadiens should settle on their long-term plan. That notion may seem simple but the Canadiens really have short-term and long-term objectives. In the short run, the Habs need a left-handed defenceman who can play with Shea Weber and a first and second line centre. In the long term, the Canadiens need to replenish their prospects and hopefully establish a steady pipeline of young talent that will make them perennial contenders. There is a tension between these objectives and the strategies to meet these objectives may well be irreconcilable. However, one thing is certain. The Canadiens’ current roster needs much more than tweaking or a short-term fix. In this pundit’s view, the only path to contention for any team is the drafting and development of young players, particularly in a salary cap environment. That is particularly true for the Habs, a team that is not very good. Younger players deliver value and are under club control until they become UFAs. They simply deliver more value than veteran players, particularly those veteran players that are acquired via free agency. Bergevin acknowledged this when he became GM in 2012 but he and his hand-picked team have not delivered. The Habs’ prospect pool is clearly deficient. As a result, Bergevin’s job is likely on the line in the next year. This situation represents a quandary for Bergevin and the team’s management team. They know the only path to long-term contention is the drafting and development of young players. However, the team’s long-term interests and their personal job security are at cross-purposes. It will be interesting to see how these competing objectives are reconciled over the next few weeks.
With that in mind, the Canadiens’ decision on the third pick really depends on whether they want to build a long-term contender or plug the above-referenced holes to try and compete for the playoffs where “anything can happen”. It is unlikely that any player selected with the third pick this draft will provide substantial immediate help with the possible exception of Zadina…and even he is unlikely to become a top-six forward next season. If the Canadiens want to address their short-term objectives for next season, they will have to trade the pick, trade down or trade some of their second-round picks. Unless they are intending to select someone other than Zadina, they should hold onto the pick and select him. Zadina is not a left-handed defenceman and does not play centre. However, he is the best talent available (assuming Dahlin and Svechnikov are off the board) and an elite sniper who will address the Canadiens’ chronic inability to score. In doing so, the Canadiens are taking the best player available who addresses a long-standing organizational weakness.
Remember that organizational needs evolve. In the 2017 Draft, Ryan Poehling was selected. He is projected as a second line centre and appears to be developing well, although he is likely a few years away. Jake Evans, another centre, just graduated from Notre Dame after an impressive collegiate career and will likely be in the AHL next year. However, Evans may be up with the Canadiens in a year or two. The Canadiens could also acquire a centre via free agency or even trade over the next few weeks. John Tavares is likely a pipe dream (and a very expensive one at that) but there are some other solid centres that could shore up the position in the short term. In other words, organizational needs change over a couple years and this draft class’s impact on the team will not be assessable for at least three years. The Canadiens should pick the best players available and then tweak their team via development, trade or free agency to make certain all the pieces ultimately fit together. The draft is not the time to acquire players based on short-term needs because the team’s needs will most likely evolve by the time the players drafted in 2018 are NHL-ready.
Of course, if the Canadiens do not intend to select Zadina and their target is rated much lower than the third overall selection, the Canadiens should explore a deal whereby they would trade down and get some assets back, whether those assets be in the form of picks, prospects, or roster players. The Canadiens are so far away from contention that this pundit’s preference is picks or prospects (see below). However, all options should be on the table and the best deal possible should be assessed. There have been rumours coming out of Montreal that University of Michigan left-handed defenceman Quinn Hughes is on the Habs’ radar. Hughes should be available outside of the top five (but of course anything can happen). If the Canadiens were to trade down for a later pick and acquire another first round pick, they may be able to acquire their left-handed defenceman of the future and add a promising prospect at centre. Such a move would be compatible with the objective of building a perennial contender.
As noted, any decision to trade down should ideally involve picks or prospects. The prospects will be of value based primarily on their talent level but also because they will not have to be qualified around the same time as this year’s selections. The deadlines vary depending on which league or country the draftee is from. However, with ten picks in this year’s draft, there may be a logjam of prospects/ players to qualify in two to five years’ time. It may be better to spread out the prospect pool so a decision does not have to be made on several prospects in the same year. This is a consideration for all picks and prospects acquired in any deals, on draft day or at any other time. On Draft Day, it may be wise to acquire picks in later drafts as part of any deals.
I will close with a quote from Sam Pollock, the Canadiens’ GM from 1964-78 who was the architect of nine Stanley Cup winning teams in his 14 years as the Canadiens’ GM: “A fool and his first-round draft pick will soon be separated.” Take heed, Mr. Bergevin.