When the Montreal Canadiens “won” the right to pick third overall in the NHL Draft next month, it was a bittersweet lottery victory. Sure, it’s a boon for the organization to be able to pick a highly touted prospect at that slot, but they’re only in position to do so because of the miserable season they had. Montreal’s 29 wins was its lowest full-season mark since the 2000-01 season.
The Canadiens chose Mike Komisarek seventh overall that summer, but seem to be in a spot where a winger is their most likely selection in 2018. Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina and Brady Tkachuk are all ranked in the Nos. 2-4 zone, and Oliver Wahlstrom is also in that conversation. They could surprise and take a defenceman, one year after trading blue chipper Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay, and in that case Noah Dobson, Adam Boqvist, Quinn Hughes and Evan Bouchard are ranked inside of most top 10s.
One thing Montreal won’t find at third overall, however, is the centre it so sorely needs. In Sportsnet’s most recent ranking of the top 31 draft prospects, Sam Cosentino’s top-ranked pivot was Barrett Hayton at No. 10. After Hayton was Joe Veleno, ranked 13th.
So would Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin trade the third overall pick to address his team’s most pressing need? Don’t count on it.
“You pay a hefty price to get that pick,” Bergevin told NHL.com on Tuesday. “Obviously having the season we had, 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.”
Bergevin received criticism last summer when he traded the organization’s top prospect, Sergachev, to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin, who hadn’t played centre with any regularity at the NHL level.
The blowback had less to do with Drouin’s skill set than it did with the position he played. After the Habs moved Alex Galchenyuk, who they drafted third overall as a centre in 2012, off his natural position to the wing, the team had a huge hole at the most important forward position. Moving their most attractive trade asset without clearly improving down the middle was viewed as a risky play.
Drouin scored 13 goals and 46 points in his first season with the Canadiens, both lower totals than his 2016-17 output, and a minus-28 rating. Drouin averaged 17:36 of ice time, second to Max Pacioretty among Habs forwards, and had significant power-play time. His move to centre wasn’t smooth, but Bergevin said he wasn’t ready to give up on the 23-year-old because it takes time, development and patience to mold a player at the position.
“As we speak today, there is a lack in the middle,” Bergevin said. “I would say in the first half he had a hard time adjusting to centre. As the season progressed, well, is he the perfect centreman? Is he Sidney Crosby? Of course not. But can he fill a role at times? Yes, he can. We’ll have to address some of our needs, sure. At the same time, there is a perception that (Drouin) failed there. I’m not ready to say that. He played some centre in junior and he played some there in Tampa. Other than goaltending, I think centre is probably the hardest position to fill. It takes some time and some mileage to play that position to a degree where you could really help your team win. So I’m not going to write him off there. But we have options we can look at as we speak.”
Bergevin could turn to the UFA market to find a solution at centre. This year’s crop of pending UFAs has some intriguing options, led by John Tavares. Quebec-born Paul Stastny is also in line to hit the market, as is Joe Thornton, though he indicated his desire to stay in San Jose. The Canadiens have a projected $13 million in cap space this summer, before adjusting for an anticipated increase on the cap ceiling from $75 million to between $78-82 million.
The Canadiens GM knows he has work to do this summer to adapt to the ever-changing NHL and its focus on speed, but just one year removed from an Atlantic Division regular season title, Bergevin indicated he doesn’t want to change the core too much. It will be important for the top players to stay healthy next season and for the guys who had off years to return to form.
“Obviously the game today is based around speed, speed, speed. Look at the teams that are having success; speed is the foundation of their game. In that regard, I don’t think we are that far off,” Bergevin said. “I think we do have a fast team, but we have to do some tweaking. Some of our top guys had down seasons too, so expectations are higher, both from the outside and on themselves. It’s important that they find their games again. If they do that, we’ll be back in the mix.”