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In all of the mock drafts he was going to be “the pick”. The experts on the television had him as “the pick” The media targeted him as “the pick”. The only question was, would he be available when the Canadiens picked at the twelfth spot. This led to even more speculation, would the Habs trade up to get him? What would the Habs have to give up in that trade?

And when the Habs brought him in for a closer look in the days before the draft, the speculation only increased. Add in the fact that he played junior for Patrick Roy, that he played in the Quebec League, and that he is speaking French. All signs pointed towards him being the Canadiens pick. As the draft progressed last night in Columbus, everything seemed to fall into place. Ranked eighth on the TSN board, Angelo Esposito started to fall down the draft. When the draft hit the eleventh spot, with the Carolina Hurricanes on the clock, the pick was going to be Esposito. Not only did Carolina have interest in Esposito, but their General Manager, Jim Rutherford had interviewed him one on one. This was not a courtesy extended by any of the league’s other GM. Then, the Hurricanes picked Brandon Sutter, and the speculation began. The Canadiens pick was going to be Esposito, but there was one wild card… the Russian prospect, Alexei Cherepanov. Ranked as one of the best players in the draft, Cherepanov had fallen down the board for a variety of reasons, the lack of a Russian transfer agreement, and questions about his commitment. So with both Esposito and Cherepanov on the board, the Habs picked neither. With the twelfth pick they chose Ryan McDonagh.

Unfortunately for McDonagh, at that moment, the first question was “Why didn’t the Canadiens select Esposito?”, and not “Why did Montreal select McDonagh?”.

Watching the telecast, the explanation from the Canadiens brass came quickly: Ryan McDonagh had always been “the pick”. According to Trevor Timmons, the Canadiens draft guru: “He’s the guy we wanted all along and we were surprised that we had a chance to get him, he’s already developed physically; he’s a horse.” According to Timmons, “he won’t need a lot of time to get stronger because he’s already there. He went to combine and blew everyone away on the physical and psychological tests. He also attracted a lot of attention playing with the U.S. under-18 team and we were worried that someone would take him.”

McDonagh had been identified by the Habs brass at their midseason draft meeting. From that moment on, he had been the pick. It’s a tribute to the Canadiens that their intentions did not leak in the weeks leading up to the draft. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear to see why the Habs chose McDonagh. The one constant during the Timmons era is that the Canadiens look for size, skill, and character in their draft picks. They tend not to look for the best player by position, but for the player who best fits the criteria (witness the selection of Carey Price, a couple of drafts ago).

For the second consecutive year, the Canadiens picked the winner of the prestigious Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award. Considered by many as the best defenseman in the draft, the McDonagh pick was in line with the Habs strategy. At 6’1′ and 200 pounds, and considered the drafts most mobile defenceman, McDonagh clearly fits the type of player Gainer and Timmons are looking for.

In today’s NHL, defencemen have in many ways become the most valuable commodity available. Scott Niedermayer wins the Conn Smythe trophy, Kimmo Timmonen signs a 6 year contract, and former Hab Craig Rivet signs a 4 year contract at 3.5 million dollars a year. One doesn’t need to look any further than Montreal’s pursuit of Andrei Markov to see the value of defencemen.

Montreal also seems to be making character a priority with their draft picks. Gainey seems to have grown weary of dealing with “issues” on his team. The trading of Theodore, Ribeiro, and now Samsonov were all ways of absolving the team of players with character issues. This explains why the Habs didn’t choose Cherepanov. Despite his obvious talents, there are numerous questions surrounding him. The lack of a transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL no doubt played a role in him sliding down the draft scale. The fact that Montreal has recently encountered difficulties with the Russian league no doubt contributed to Gainey’s decision not to take him with the twelfth pick. But another factor had to be his intangibles. According to tsn.ca, “The lack of a transfer agreement with Russia was a worry for many teams, as was a poor work ethic. He is tremendously inconsistent, maddeningly frustrating and a player who only turns it on when he feels like it.”

Sound like somebody Montreal already has?

When it comes to Angelo Esposito, the reasons are somewhat similar. No one is disputing his offensive skills, but his physical presence is in question. There were also some doubts about his work ethic, his skills in traffic, and his consistency. When looking at Montreal’s decision it becomes clear that McDonagh fit their criteria better than Esposito did. As Esposito fell further down the draft, the question became, would the Canadiens take him with their second pick at number 22 or would they trade up to get him? Neither took place, the Penguins picked Esposito with the twentieth pick and Montreal took Max Pacioretty two picks later.

Pacioretty brings a physical presence that Esposito lacks. On the flipside he lacks the offensive skills that Esposito has. According to tsn.ca, “There is no real mystery to Max Pacioretty’s game with Sioux Falls of the USHL. He is an up and down winger who goes hard to the net, provides some physical play and is not without some offensive ability.”

Pacioretty brings the size, and physical play that the Canadiens brass is looking to add. Needless to say the Habs haven’t had a player labeled as a “power forward” in many years. Unfortunately, the size and grit of Montreal’s forwards has been an area of concern for many years. Gainey tried to address this issue in last year’s free agent period by trying to sign Brendan Shanahan and Jason Arnett. Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful in bring either player to the Habs. Pacioretty meets the criteria of size, skill, and grit the Habs are looking for. And he does possess a scoring touch, with 21 goals and 63 points, in 60 games in the USHL.

That isn’t to say that Esposito won’t be a successful NHL player. He sure landed with in many respects the perfect team for his skills. Falling down the draft to play for Pittsburgh is not the worst thing in the world for his future. We’ll never know whether Esposito would have been picked by the Habs with the 22nd pick.

Now, of course the draft is just the beginning. It’s what happens next that will determine the Habs success in the draft. Did they make a mistake in not drafting Esposito? Chernakov?. Only time will tell.