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It just doesn’t seem the same this spring.

I can’t quite put my finger on it but there seems to be a distinct lack of excitement or enthusiasm amongst Canadiens fans regarding the upcoming NHL entry draft. Maybe it’s because the wound of the Habs elimination to the Flyers is still too fresh or maybe it’s because the finals are still going on. Or just maybe it’s because many fans are choosing to focus on the free agency period that starts next month.

If you’re looking for a sign that the Habs and general manager Bob Gainey have hit a new plateau in their rebuilding program surely this is it. Having finished in first in the Eastern Conference, many fans and prognosticators feel that the Habs are a step or two away from being legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Looking around all the various chat room and blogs dedicated to all things Canadien, you will find thread after thread dealing with free agency. Who should the Habs resign? Who should they let go? Who should they go after? And most importantly, in today’s NHL, what are the financial implications of each potential signing?

When one goes looking for threads about the Canadiens in the upcoming draft one can’t help but notice a decidedly lower interest level.

Granted a large part of this is due to the Canadiens number in the draft selection. By selecting twenty-fifth the Habs are picking from their worst starting position since the 1999 draft (where they didn’t even have a first round pick, thanks to the Trevor Linden trade, and if you want an indication of how far the team has come from those sad days you’d be hard pressed to find a better example).

When you’re picking twenty-fifth it certainly isn’t as sexy as being in the top ten. In the recent past when the Habs pick was in the single digits reams and reams of articles where written speculating on the potential picks with numerous scenarios involved. But when your picking twenty-fifth, it’s expected that you’ll get a decent prospect but one who is unlikely to make a major impact immediately with the team.

And maybe that’s why there has been so little interest in this draft from Montreal fan quarters. But for Bob Gainey and staff, this draft represents a new challenge. Having built a solid nucleus in the past few drafts it is now time to learn how to draft successfully for a team looking to build a winning tradition.

Taking a step back, to say that the Canadiens have drafted well in recent years would be a little bit of an understatement.

Mike Komisarek (2001 draft, 7th pick)
Tomas Plekanec (2001 draft, 71st pick)
Chris Higgins (2002 draft, 14th pick)
Andrei Kostitsyn (2003 draft, 10th pick)
Maxim Lapierre (2003 draft, 61st pick)
Ryan O’Byrne (2003 draft, 79th pick)
Jaroslav Halak (2003 draft, 271st pick)
Kyle Chipchura (2004 draft, 18th pick)
Mark Streit (2004 draft, 262nd pick)
Carey Price (2005 draft, 5th pick)
Guillaume Latendresse (2005 draft, 45th pick)
Sergei Kostitsyn (2005 draft, 200th pick)

Each of the above players made significant contributions to the Canadiens unexpected rise to the top of the East last season and figure large on this year’s upcoming team.

If last year saw the beginning of the Habs eventual youth movement taking charge, be comforted Montreal fans in the fact that it doesn’t look to be ending any time soon. As of the time of this article the Habs are ranked fourth by Hockey’s Future in terms of prospect strength. Ironically, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team thought of by many as a future dynasty, are ranked twentieth despite picking consistently higher than the Canadiens over the last few years.

Canadiens draft mastermind Trevor Timmons isn’t one however, to bask in his past accomplishments. For him the process continues as the Canadiens strive to maintain their current draft success.

That doesn’t mean however, that the Canadiens won’t be adapting to their newfound circumstances. The past few drafts have seen the Canadiens focus on two things mainly, building up their core of defensive prospects and raiding the United States for many of their higher selections.

In looking at the list of the Canadiens top prospects on HockeysFuture.com one sees that of the top fifteen prospects in the organization seven are defensemen. Both Ryan McDonagh and David Fischer (the Canadiens last two first round picks and both former winners of Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award) are projected by the site to be top pair defensemen in the NHL, while Mathieu Carle, Yannick Weber, and Alexei Yemelin are all projected as future top four defensemen. Keep in mind that this list does not include World Junior Champ and Memorial Cup participant P.K. Subban and Pavel Valentenko, perhaps the most NHL ready of the group after a solid season with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Realizing their depth at the defensive position throughout the organization, expect Gainey and Timmins to turn their attention towards fortifying their prospect levels at forward and in goal.

As strong as the Canadiens are on defense they are also thin in goal. While Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak are set as the Canadiens goaltending tandem for the foreseeable future there is precious little behind them. With Yann Danis heading for unrestricted free agency, that leaves Loic Lacasse and Cedrick Desjardins as the only two goalies in the system. Look for Timmins to draft at least one and perhaps two goalies in the upcoming draft as opposed to when the position was ignored this time last year. Don’t expect the goalies to be drafted high however, as forward depth seems to be the priority for the Habs this year at the drafting table.

Last season saw the Canadiens bring up many of their best potential forwards to Montreal. That does not mean the cupboard is bare with prospects like Mikhail Grabovski, Corey Locke, Matt D’Agostini and Gregory Stewart knocking on the door. One would be remiss not to mention Max Pacioretty (the second of the Canadiens two first round picks last year), who playing for the Michigan Wolverines showed that he may be the best forward prospect currently in the organization.

Expect Gainey and Timmons to attempt to follow up on the Pacioretty pick with a similar choice this time around. That being said every other team is also searching for potential power forwards as well.

So who will the Canadiens pick? With the twenty-fifth pick it’s almost impossible to even predict who will still be on the board come selection time. I strongly doubt that the Canadiens will make a pick to trade up, unless they absolutely fall in love with a certain prospect.

I believe that the pick will be a forward, again unless there is a defensemen or a goaltender that they fall in love (like Carey Price a few years ago). I would be very surprised if the forward wasn’t North American, and would be shocked if he came from Russia considering all the recent problems the league has had with the transfer agreement, and more specifically the Canadiens have had in bringing over Russian prospects.

But I guess none of us will really know until sometime on the night of June 20th in Ottawa.