Since the arrival of Jeff Gorton as executive vice president, the Montreal Canadiens have taken a vastly different approach to team building and their desired style of play. Upon hiring general manager (GM) Kent Hughes, he became part of a management team that emphasized transparency and a more modern approach to team management.
Hughes has not revealed who they will select at first overall as the team is considering all options with their draft picks, such as trading up, moving back, or using the picks to acquire other assets. Understanding what management wants will provide a road map for the advice they will take. That means it may be possible to predict their approach to the NHL Draft and make an educated guess on the players they will target.
Canadiens Road Map
Drawing on his experience dealing with GMs across the NHL, Hughes has been able to see what GMs do to be successful.
“They always have a plan. They always have the patience to not react for the short term, they have a vision for the organization. I really believe in an integrated organization. I mean that it isn’t just “hockey operations,” there are many divisions internally that all work together. And, I still believe [successful GMs] have a good eye for talent. And they know how to manage people, as well.”
Management has made significant changes to the front office by hiring diverse staff. Adding personnel to the scouting staff, the player development department, and also creating an analytics department to provide more information to make better decisions. These additions point to a cooperative style of leadership. One that values collaboration, and most of all, encourages each expert to share how their expertise to improve all other areas.
Using the New York Rangers, who reached the final four in the playoffs, as an example, we might be able to see the plan that Jeff Gorton has already put into action. The Rangers began a public rebuild, selling veteran assets to add quality futures such as draft picks. Winning two draft lotteries in four years didn’t hurt on that front. Another advantage: players like New York. Artemi Panarin signed as an unrestricted free agent, and Adam Fox was traded there because he refused to sign his entry-level contract anywhere else. While the Canadiens may not be able to rebuild as quickly without those same advantages, it does give us a sense of the approach the Habs will take.
Next is the team Hughes envisions, one that resembles the current edition of the Rangers:
“I envision a team that plays fast with the puck. That’s a possession hockey team. But, I also understand that you have to build a team around the players you have, and that’s going to be a process for us here as we move forward.”
This shows that the Habs want to be an offensive-minded club that can make quick decisions under pressure and play with possession. A style that requires players with high hockey IQ, skill and speed.
With that in mind, the team’s core foundation of youth is Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Alexander Romanov, who can all play at a high pace. Hughes has also inherited a prospect pool that has assets like Kaiden Guhle, Jesse Ylonen, Jordan Harris, and Jonathan Roy, who will also fit that style.
There is also the need to maintain Hughes’ rebuild mentality. He began selling assets to gain in futures, and he will remain in sell mode as he makes room to re-sign Romanov and prepare for Caufield’s extension.
With a team that is expected to remain in the bottom third of the NHL standings next season, noteworthy unrestricted free agents are unlikely to sign in Montreal. That is why the best tool they have at their disposal is the NHL Draft. Holding the first overall pick in 2022 is a good start. Having a late first-round pick and several other top 90 picks are also helpful.
But what are they missing to become a contender? A top pair defender who can move the puck, generate a transition game, and quarterback a power play. They also need a top-line centerman to compliment Suzuki and have as much top-six center depth as possible. Then they still need speed, skill and scoring on the wings.
2022 Draft Prediction
Given the direction the Habs are heading in, the team needs and the types of players that will fit, it is possible to predict who the Canadiens will target. The first question is, who will be selected first overall? While Juraj Slafkovsky provides much of what the Canadiens require in size, speed, and skill set, as a winger, he doesn’t provide as big of an impact as a center. That is possibly why teams have asked if he can play as a center.
Jean Perron’s cousin’s roommate’s ex-girlfriend’s hairdresser may have said that Slafkovsky will be the Canadiens’ pick, but the organization’s needs at center and the top-ranked players who play center point to Logan Cooley and Shane Wright.
With Cooley, the Canadiens would get a center with a dynamic offensive style and an underrated defensive game. At 5-foot-10, what may hold him back is his size. With Wright, the Habs could select a near NHL-ready center who is known for his high hockey IQ, ability to control the play, generate offence and adapt to the game or his coach’s desired role for him.
The choice comes down to one center (Cooley) who could be more familiar to Hughes (he has played in programs that Hughes scouted as an agent), who also provides more offence with flashy skillful plays, but may have a lower positive goal differential. The other (Wright) is a center who can carry the puck, create controlled zone entry and exits, make plays that lead to offensive opportunities and can score goals at a slightly higher rate. But he plays a more subdued style that focuses on high percentage plays. With all that in mind, it would be safe to predict Wright as the choice.
With the next pick, 26th overall, there is a high probability that the Canadiens trade up, with Jonathan Lekkerimaki, who is predicted to be selected around 10th overall, as the target. He is one of only a few players the organization took to dinner during the NHL Combine, which demonstrates their keen interest, and he fits their style.
It also doesn’t hurt that the 5-foot-11 Swedish winger is one of the best goal scorers in this draft class. Playing in Sweden’s junior under-20 league, he scored 20 goals and 35 points in only 26 games played. He also had an impressive performance at the under-18 World Junior Championships, leading the tournament in scoring with five goals and 15 points in six games, earning Sweden a gold medal. While he is a winger and not a center, if a center has already been selected, adding a top-flight goal scorer would fit well.
There may be much more wheeling and dealing by Hughes that lands him another first-round pick. However, if the predictions come true, he would have added a noteworthy addition to the Canadiens’ center depth, a position that has been dogging the franchise for decades, and a talented offensive player. That would be an exciting first day at the Draft for the host organization but also fill significant needs that would fall in line with the direction they are taking.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.