BROSSARD, Que. — The draft begins in Montreal this Thursday, with the Canadiens currently in possession of the first-overall pick, nine more selections to be made before the fifth round, four picks between Rounds 5 and 7, and roster players, future picks and prospects to move.
Given all of that, general manager Kent Hughes is staring down his best opportunity to set his long-term plan for the organization in motion.
He’s approaching it with eyes—and mind—wide open.
In his pre-draft meeting with the media on Monday, the GM said all the things you’d expect to hear from someone in his position. He started with, “If the draft was tonight, we’d be drafting first overall,” but he also refused to strike the possibility of trading the pick if the right offer came along.
Hughes said there’s just as good of a chance of the Canadiens obtaining the second-overall pick in the draft as there is of him trading the first and not owning a top-3 pick at all, that there’s currently a better chance of pooling some of Montreal’s other picks in the draft to move up from 26th overall than there is of trading the first pick, and that the Canadiens are open to everything and not set in any specific plan. It all sounded quite generic.
But it was genuine, too.
The potential for the Canadiens to make big, bold moves—and take up that much more of the spotlight that’s already on them as hosts in possession of the top pick—is huge, and Hughes was talking like a man who’d be all for it.
Round 1: (1st, 26th), Round 2: (33rd, 62nd), Round 3: (66th, 75th, 92nd) Round 4: (98th, 127th, 128th), Round 5: (130th), Round 6: (162nd), Round 7 (194th, 216th)
Potential Round 1 Targets
There was nothing generic about Hughes’ response to a question about which players the Canadiens are considering using the top pick on. He could’ve refused to answer, as most would’ve, but he confirmed it will be one of Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky or Logan Cooley.
Wright is a cerebral centre. He’s been the consensus choice for analysts dating back to his entry to the OHL as one of the few 15-year-old players in CHL history granted exceptional status. He arrived with the Kingston Frontenacs under enormous pressure and thrived with 39 goals and 66 points in his first 58 games.
Then the world as we knew it stopped turning due to the pandemic, forcing Wright and most CHL players to the sidelines for an entire season.
If the 6-foot, 191-pounder gained detractors over this season, which saw him produce 32 goals and 94 points in 63 regular-season games and three goals and 11 points in 11 playoff games, concern over what was lost in development during the COVID-affected 2020-21 season played a considerable role.
But another reason Wright’s position atop most draft boards became precarious was that both Slafkovsky and Cooley narrowed the gap in their own ways.
Slafkovsky, who’s 6-foot-4, 218 pounds and plays like it, may not have lined up against the best players in the world at the Beijing Olympics in February, but he dominated against the best men available and led the tournament in goals (7) and points (7). Then he represented Slovakia at the world championships in May and posted three goals and nine points in eight games.
They were performances that lent credence to the idea that Slafkovsky appears to be the most physically prepared player in this draft to step into the NHL and immediately make an impact. Had they not been offset by an underwhelming five-goal, 10-point season in Finland’s top men’s league, he’d have probably overtaken Wright as the consensus choice.
But would anybody truly be surprised to see Cooley vault over both players come Thursday night?
Scouts we’ve touched base with suggest he’s got the highest offensive ceiling of the three players, and he showed it this season with 40 goals and 111 points in 75 games he played with the United States National Development Team.
“I think Cooley has upside to be a top point-producing centre and I see him as a player like (New York Islanders star) Mat Barzal,” said a top NHL executive we spoke with two weeks ago.
But the same executive wondered if some habits might prevent Cooley from seizing the opportunity to prove he can reach that upside, and more people would have Cooley ranked as the likeliest player to go first if they disagreed.
Still, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about the quality of all three players the Canadiens are considering.
As Hughes' special advisor—and a former first overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning—Vincent Lecavalier said on Monday, “They’re three different players, but they’re three very, very good players.”
Determining which one of them is best for the Canadiens will be based on much more than how they performed from September to now.
“In the end, we’re trying to predict the future of a player—where they’re currently at and what they can become as a player in the NHL,” said Hughes. “That’s really how our evaluations are being made. It’s not to figure out who the best player is at 18 years old but who can be the best at 22, 23, 24, so they can help us get to the path we’re on to become a team capable of winning year over year.”
Hughes said it’s a decision being made with a particular emphasis on character because, as he put it, “It’s probably almost harder to be the first-overall pick in Montreal,” and “We’re trying to evaluate their ability to deal with that kind of pressure on a consistent basis.”
The Canadiens will take as much time as they need before finalizing their choice.
“It’s not a question of hesitation; it’s about making sure we do all our homework,” said Hughes when he was pressed about not being resolved just three days out from the draft. “We want to speak to all our scouts. We’re starting to have meetings tonight, and we want them all to have a voice. For sure, we have some scouts in Europe who maybe didn’t see games in Ontario in person. But these days, with (scouting technology) and (analytics provider) Sportlogiq, it makes it easy to do all our homework.”
Last Year's Top Pick: Logan Mailloux
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound right-handed defenceman, who was controversially taken 31st overall by the Canadiens last summer after he renounced himself from the draft because he had been charged with a crime in Sweden, played just 12 games for the OHL’s London Knights this past season.
Mailloux served a suspension for the first half and debuted in January with three goals and nine points before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
He has since spent time in Montreal, rehabbing from surgery and getting acquainted with the Canadiens’ front office. It’s expected he’ll participate in the team’s development camp next week, though a contract with the club is anything but imminent.
“It’s not our intention to negotiate with him,” Hughes said on May 31. “Logan is still in evaluation — less so as a player and much more so as a person and a member of the community — and we’re going to supervise him doing all he promised to do to be a better person and be a better teammate and member of the London community.”
You’d have a much easier time listing what the Canadiens don’t need. Coming off a last-place finish in the NHL, it’s hard to even put what they need in priority.
For the better part of three decades, they’ve been lacking elite centremen, and it’s debatable they’d be getting that in either Wright or Cooley. It’s also unlikely that’s available to them through trade, unless a team comes calling with a Godfather offer for the first pick this week.
Is someone willing to give up a power/scoring winger? Because the Canadiens likely aren’t getting one if they don’t draft Slafkovsky.
That might not seem like a big deal to some who see Josh Anderson signed in Montreal for six more seasons and Cole Caufield oozing with star potential, but to suggest the Canadiens don’t have as much of a need for that kind of player would be completely inaccurate.
If you were making a list of Montreal’s top prospects, it would start with several quality defencemen.
But it’s a stretch to suggest any of them will develop into a star, and the Canadiens don’t have one on their current roster who fits the bill either. They’re also looking to trade their best defenceman in Jeff Petry.
So, that need could be getting a lot bigger by the end of this week.
Oh, and then there’s what’s happening in the net.
Cayden Primeau and Jakub Dobes are prospects who have shown they have the potential to one day be NHL starting goaltenders, but that day is not necessarily right around the corner and the Canadiens are heading into the draft without knowing whether or not the superstar who’s under contract to occupy their net will actually be in front of it ever again.
As Hughes said on Monday, when he has news on Carey Price’s health and future, he’ll convene a special press conference to exclusively cover that topic.
In the meantime, with so many picks at his disposal for Friday’s portion of the draft, he might want to start stocking the Canadiens’ cupboard with goaltenders.
Simultaneously, it’s an organizational need—perhaps the most pressing one—to create the cap flexibility to sign Alex Romanov, Caufield and others who can help down the line, and Hughes will focus plenty of his energy over the next week on doing exactly that. Meaning Petry might not be the only member of the current roster who finds himself elsewhere.