Canadiens’ Hughes says no urgency to decide on first overall pick before July

Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

You didn’t expect Kent Hughes to come right out and say it, did you?

More than a month out from his Montreal Canadiens picking first overall in the 2022 Draft, live from the NHL combine in Buffalo, the GM hosted a brief media availability via Zoom and said the decision of who to pick hasn’t yet been made.

He added, there’s no urgency to make it now.

“I don’t expect it to be made before the beginning of July at the earliest because we have time to do all the research possible, to review all the video from this year again,” Hughes said. “We have time to do the research and we’re not pressed to make the decision. We’ll take advantage of the time we have.”

The combine is the direct focus right now.

“It allows us to know the person and not just the player we’re drafting,” Hughes said. “We all know talented people who aren’t necessarily team players, so it’s important for us to know what kind of person they are and what kind of athlete they are through the testing. We’ll talk, spend a lot of time together from here to July 7.”

And then they’ll step up on the stage at the Bell Centre and reveal which player they’ve chosen to help them usher in a new era of Canadiens hockey.

Hughes said the decision will ultimately be made by co-directors of amateur scouting Nick Bobrov and Martin Lapointe, that it will be influenced by himself, executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, the scouting staff and newly appointed director of hockey analytics Christopher Boucher, and that it’ll be largely informed by the meetings with prospects that took place Monday, continued Tuesday and will be ongoing later this week.

The Canadiens have 13 picks on hand — it’ll be 14, with a second rounder coming to Montreal via Edmonton if the Oilers don’t advance past the Colorado Avalanche and into the Stanley Cup Final — and lots of mulling to do. Not only have they not decided who they’ll take first overall, they’re still a week out from figuring out how they might handle the rest of the draft.

Hughes was asked about the large bank of prospects already in the system and whether or not he’d use this draft to put a greater emphasis on quality by moving up or trading to defer picks to what’s expected to be a stronger draft in 2023, and he said everything is under consideration.

“I think those are all options that we will discuss here once we have our meetings next week in Montreal,” he said. “Based on how firmly or strongly our scouts believe in certain players at different ranges, then we’ll start to think about the possibility of moving up, moving back, trading out, those are all things we’re going to explore.”

But for now, the Canadiens are focused on what’s directly in front of them. So much so that the contract negotiation for interim head coach Martin St. Louis, which was expected to be completed and announced shortly after the season ended in April, has been put on the backburner up until now.

“As I explained before, I’m not worried about negotiations with Martin,” said Hughes. “It’s more that we’re focused on the draft that’s coming. We were in Europe, and Martin left for a tournament with his kids. I expect over the coming days to be able to settle the contract.”

Over the coming hours, it’s all about the kids eagerly awaiting their NHL dreams to be realized.

On Monday, Hughes and the Canadiens met with the one who’s been projected to be at the top of this class and came away “impressed.”

“He’s a mature young man,” the GM said of Shane Wright.  “And he’s a very intelligent young man, too.”

That much was gleaned over dinner, which provided an opportunity for the Canadiens to get to know Wright a bit better than the 15-minute interview at the combine would allow them to.

“It was good to just chat with Shane, and not just to ask him questions we had but to know what kind of person he is,” Hughes said.

He’s scheduled to do the same with Logan Cooley — another projected top-3 pick — this Thursday, and he’ll interview Europe’s top prospect, Juraj Slafkovsky, (among others) as well.

Hughes knows Cooley quite well already, with his son Jack (another projected first rounder in this year’s draft) having played on the same team with him prior — and he has a good sense of what Slafkovsky is about on the ice, having just watched him live at the world championships in Helsinki, where he scored three goals and nine points in eight games.

But as he mentioned on Tuesday, what’s revealed off the ice is perhaps even more pertinent.

“This is my first time through from the club perspective,” said the former longtime player agent. “But I would put more weight on the interviews to the extent that I think some players come very prepared by others, but where we can kind of get below the surface and get to the know the player a little bit better, know the personality, characteristics that we covet or concern us, those are important things.

“The physical testing is a bit harder to quantify in some ways because some guys have access to training all year, some guys have been out of the playoffs for a long time, some guys are going to come here on the doorstep of their season having concluded. So, the information? All of it’s helpful, but if I were to value one over the other, it would be the interview process.”

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The Canadiens will continue with it and then narrow their search over the coming month to identify who the best player available is to choose first overall.

Hughes said the decision will not be based on position or need, that there’s no urgency to rush that player to the NHL and that the Canadiens will choose the one with the most potential to eventually make it and thrive for several years.

We’ll find out who that player is when Hughes and the Canadiens step up to the podium on Friday night of the draft.

Carey Price’s future still uncertain

When Hughes was asked if the Canadiens have clarity on the franchise goaltender’s knee injury, which limited him to just five appearances in Montreal’s net this past season, he said they do not.

We asked if it would be pertinent to know before the draft if Price could continue his career.

“I don’t know that by the draft is necessarily critical,” Hughes said. “I think the only way we would have complete clarity on it is if somehow we learn that he could not play. Otherwise, we have to go into the season and see how the knee responds once he’s back to the rigours of a regular-season schedule.

“But the draft itself? Probably not as critical as maybe July 13, (in terms of ) knowing his situation from if he’s not playing then we would have LTIR that we could use and without it we don’t. Without that information, we don’t have the luxury of using it.”

Price is under contract for four more seasons and counts annually for $10.5 million on the salary cap, so knowing whether or not he can return to play will essentially determine how Hughes shapes the Canadiens’ roster next season.

It might be more important to know ahead of free agency, but it was at least a bit curious Hughes would downplay the importance of knowing ahead of the draft, when major trades — which impact free agency plans — are typically made. That he doesn’t have clarity on Price yet and doesn’t feel it’s pertinent to know ahead of the draft suggests he’s at least preparing for the possibility he won’t know.

“He went and saw a specialist in Pittsburgh at the end of the year,” Hughes said of the soon-to-be 35-year-old goaltender. “Beyond that, no he has not seen additional doctors. It’s sometimes just the situation of how will his knee respond to additional treatment?”

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Report Canadiens won’t draft Russian players denied

When Hughes was asked about this report, given Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine and various sports teams and leagues banning Russians, he said, “We haven’t discussed Russian players,” and added the team was scheduled to meet with a Russian prospect at the combine.

On signing Logan Mailloux

Hughes said the team had no plans of putting pen to paper on a contract for the first-round selection in 2021.

Mailloux, who had renounced himself from the draft after it was discovered he was charged in Sweden for filming a sexual encounter and sharing it with teammates without consent, was taken 31st by the Canadiens a year ago. He served a suspension from the beginning of the OHL season until January before returning to play 12 games with the London Knights and finished on the injured list.

The right-handed defenceman continues to work with the Canadiens, his agents and management in London to learn about respect and consent and prove up his character.

“It’s not our intention to negotiate with him,” Hughes said. “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 better teammate and member of the London community.”

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