"I’ll listen, I’m open," Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said about his willingness to trade the third overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft.
He was holding court with the media last Saturday, mostly talking about his decision to trade Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Max Domi some 12 hours prior, when he let that comment fly and added, "I’ve told teams if they want to make me an offer, I’ll look at it."
On one hand, it was the type of standard comment any manager of a team holding such a desirable place in the selection order would make. On the other, it was a considerable departure from what Bergevin had said upon finding out the Canadiens had drawn the third overall pick at the draft lottery — comments he repeated practically verbatim in an interview with NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger at the NHL combine in Buffalo a month later.
"You pay a hefty price to get that pick," Bergevin told Zeisberger on May 29. "Obviously having the season we had (finishing 28th overall), that’s what gave us the right to pick that high. It’s certainly not the goal when your season starts. But after all the pain and suffering, people will say, ‘Will you ever trade that pick?’ You know what? I learned from a comment (then-Chicago Blackhawks GM) Dale Tallon made when I was in Chicago. He said: ‘You know what? You know how much we suffered to get that pick?’ And I believe at the time it was third overall and it was (centre) Jonathan Toews. And the next year, it was Patrick Kane (with the No. 1 pick). So it’s not a fun time for our fans to suffer the way they did this year, but we’re going to get rewarded in Dallas with a pick we feel will make our team better in the long haul. That’s the price to pay."
You have to think that if Bergevin didn’t believe that the player the Canadiens have targeted with the first of their 10 picks might be available a couple of spots down, he wouldn’t be changing his tune.
Speculation has been rampant the player the Canadiens covet is Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
He’s one of the youngest players available in this draft and he was largely projected to be a mid-first-rounder up until he put together a dominant performance at the U18 World Junior Championship in April. That’s when the conversation shifted about him being a top-10 pick.
Kotkaniemi’s stock has only soared since the combine. And now that draft plans for every team have been all but finalized, there’s a sense he could be among the first players called in Dallas on Friday.
We surveyed five NHL amateur scouts late last week and four of them had Kotkaniemi ranked among the top-six prospects available in this draft. One of them had him ranked as high as three, and none of them had him falling outside of the Top 10.
"You can make the case he’s the best player available after [Rasmus] Dahlin and [Andrei] Svechnikov," said the scout who was highest on Kotkaniemi. "I think what we learned after taking a look at the whole picture is that you can make that case for five or six guys right now, but centres are always at a premium.
"Things looked different than this at the end of the season."
They certainly did. Back in April, 44-goal man Filip Zadina of the Halifax Mooseheads was a consensus Top 3 pick and Boston University’s Brady Tkachuk was breathing down his neck at No. 4.
But now that Michigan University’s Quinn Hughes turned heads while skating among some of America’s best blueliners at the 2018 World Championship, now that defenceman Noah Dobson put together a dominant run with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titans, and now that Kotkaniemi has emerged as the consensus best centre available, all bets are off.
It’s why Bergevin has done an about-face on his original stance of holding pick No. 3 at all costs.
Assuming Kotkaniemi is his man — and that a team feels its player won’t be available by the time it steps to the podium — he will continue to explore a trade that might allow the Canadiens to take him lower down and acquire an established/NHL-ready player in return for giving up the third pick. Pulling that off would certainly ease the pressure to graduate Kotkaniemi, who’s still only 17, to the NHL as early as next year.
Easier said than done, though.
"As much as a team wants to move back or move up, if there’s no takers or buyers then you just sit where you’re at," Bergevin said on Saturday.
The good thing for Bergevin is that if he’s forced to stand pat at three, perception has enabled him to take Kotkaniemi and make a case that’ll hold water in the court of public opinion that he’s getting the third-best player available. That would help avoid the backlash that would come from Canadiens fans if he were choosing him purely to fill a decades-long hole the organization has had at centre.
Maybe he won’t do it. Maybe all the talk of Kotkaniemi and the Canadiens is a smokescreen. Maybe they’re most interested in Zadina, or in Tkachuk, or in one of the four or five defencemen locked into the Top 10 who all appear ready to step into the NHL as early as next season.
Either way, Bergevin’s options seem to be a lot more open than he let on just weeks ago.