Opportunity to draft a centre too good to pass up for Canadiens

Jesperi-Kotkaniemi-dons-a-Montreal-Canadiens-jersey-after-being-chosen-third-overall-in-the-2018-NHL-Draft

Jesperi Kotkaniemi dons a Montreal Canadiens jersey after being chosen third overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

Not even Filip Zadina was surprised when the Montreal Canadiens stepped to the podium in Dallas Friday night and called out Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s name with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

You could see this move coming from a mile away. A team with a need at the centre ice position—a need that has existed for the better part of three decades—holding a high enough place in the selection order to land the best centreman available in the draft? It was an opportunity that was too good for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to pass up, especially as Kotkaniemi surged up the draft rankings in the last couple of weeks and provided him with the ammunition to suggest that he was getting the third-best player available.

Time will tell if that’s the case. Either way, Bergevin and the Canadiens should have no regrets about obtaining a player who compares himself to Finnish superstar Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers. A player who’s drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Kings centre, Stanley Cup winner and 2018 Selke Trophy winner Anze Kopitar.

"He’s a centre," said Canadiens assistant general manager Trevor Timmins earlier this week. "He’s been a centre his whole life."

And there’s hope Kotkaniemi can be one with the Canadiens as early as this coming fall. He may be one of the youngest players in this draft—he turns 18 on July 6—but he was a standout player among men in Finland’s top league this season; a player who scored 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games with Assat; a player who was absolutely dominant in Finland’s gold-medal bid at the recent Under-18 world championship.

"It shouldn’t be that long," said Bergevin about Kotkaniemi’s NHL readiness before adding, "I’m really happy for the Montreal Canadiens moving forward. With [2017 first rounder and centre Ryan] Poehling coming and [Kotkaniemi], we will have a solid down-the-middle line for years to come. So the future of that position, which is a very important position, is bright."

And the opportunity to make it so wasn’t going to be skirted in order to make a quick fix to a roster that finished 28th in the standings last season.

Bergevin’s phone had been ringing off the hook with offers for the third overall pick, but he said none of them gave the Canadiens the opportunity to move down in the first round and have a guarantee they’d still get their man. Had they been interested in a cluster of players slated to go between third and 12th overall, perhaps they’d have taken their chances at a lower position.

The high-flying, goal-scoring, Halifax Mooseheads-leading Zadina fell to Detroit at six after the Ottawa Senators drafted Brady Tkachuk with the fourth pick and the Arizona Coyotes went off the board and took OHL centre Barrett Hayton fifth. Recently crowned Memorial Cup champ Noah Dobson, who was projected to be the second-best defenceman available in this draft after No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, dropped to 12th.

The Canadiens probably would’ve been happy to get any one of those players. There’s a possibility all three of them will play games with their respective teams before Kotkaniemi does. But none of that changes how locked in they were on this target.

"I heard they were looking for centres, so I hoped they would choose me," Kotkaniemi told reporters after he was selected. "I’m so excited."

Bergevin was elated, too. It’s believed his exhausting quest to find an elite player at the centre position was finally fulfilled on this night—almost six years to the day he had taken Alex Galchenyuk third overall and with his first pick as Canadiens GM.

Galchenyuk never developed into that big centre he was expected to be with Montreal and Bergevin inevitably traded him to Arizona just one week ago. No one capable of taking on the mandate came along in between.

"Centres—they’re rarely available through trade," Bergevin said in the summer of 2013. "When they are, you have to create a hole somewhere else just to get them."

"Do you want me to trade Carey Price? That’s what it costs to get a big centre," he said in 2015. "My reality, it might not be the same as the [Sony] PlayStation that I play at night. I made a trade last night [on PlayStation], called the GM this morning and he hung up on me. So, to get that top centre, I’d love to get him, but I don’t see that happening."

The opportunity to fill the void through free agency never really emerged for Bergevin.

"You have to draft them," he said early on in his tenure. It’s become a mantra of his ever since. So, when he stepped up to the podium with the third pick in this year’s draft, the biggest surprise would’ve been hearing him call out someone else’s name.

Don’t be shocked if a couple more pivots join the Canadiens before the weekend is up. With four picks in the second round, one in the third, three in the fourth and one in the fifth, there’s ample opportunity to draft them. They might even be able to use some of that ammo in a trade to bring one in.

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