MONTREAL — It won’t be Connor Bedard, but the Montreal Canadiens are going to get their hands on a special player at the 2023 NHL Draft when they step to the podium four picks after Bedard’s name gets called out by the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks won the lottery on Monday, capturing the ultimate prize — a phenom; the first player to gain exceptional status in the Western Hockey League; the most dynamic prospect since Connor McDavid; a player labeled “generational”; a dominant force in his league and on the international scene; and the undisputed consensus pick at first overall.
But Bedard won’t be the only special player available in Nashville, in what draft experts and prognosticators are suggesting could become one of the most memorable first rounds in NHL history.
One of ours here at Sportsnet, Jason Bukala, ranked Ryan Leonard as the fifth-best prospect available and, should the Canadiens choose him, Bukala says they’ll be getting a “top-line NHL scoring forward.“
United States National Development teammate Will Smith is considered one of the purest offensive talents in the draft and is being ranked fifth by most evaluators, even if Bukala has him sixth.
Down at eight on Bukala’s list is Austrian-born defenceman David Reinbacher, who projects as the best blue-liner available and perhaps the most NHL-ready prospect behind Bedard and Adam Fantili, who’s expected to go second overall to the Anaheim Ducks.
No matter whom the Canadiens choose, general manager Kent Hughes is betting on receiving an impact player.
“I think we’re going to get a really good player at five,” Hughes said during a Zoom call directly following Monday night’s lottery. “In fact, I’m very, very confident of that. Whether that player becomes a franchise player? Listen, maybe you can say that — and it’s probably easy — with a Connor Bedard. I think with all the other players there’s a certain belief going into the draft but, until they arrive, until they live the rigours of an NHL schedule from year to year, it’s really difficult to say that. But it’s a really talented group and we’re confident we’re getting a really talented player at five.”
He had Smith for three years as coach of the Boston Junior Eagles from 2018-21 and is well aware of what he’s capable of.
Hughes just finished watching him, Leonard and other tantalizing American prospects capture gold at the World Under-18 Championship in Switzerland.
The GM will have a chance to see Reinbacher play at the upcoming Men’s World Championship, and he and the Canadiens scouts will thoroughly evaluate the player and weigh his performance as part of a much larger body of work, as he said recency bias regarding all prospects competing in tournaments like these will be countered by, among other things, a lot of video work between now and the draft.
Hughes and Montreal’s scouts will have their hands full evaluating forward Matvei Michkov over the coming weeks.
The GM wouldn’t close the door on the Canadiens using their pick on him, even if the player is under contract through 2026 and playing in Russia, where the country’s attack on Ukraine persists and further accentuates the risk factors in the decision.
Hughes knows the reward of Michkov — even if the Canadiens have to wait for him — could also be enormous and said that, now that it’s clear the Canadiens aren’t drafting first overall, the dive on the player will get much deeper between now and Day 1 of the draft to get a better handle of whether he’s worth the risk.
Hughes then said that risk-reward quotient will be weighed against whether or not, in the final evaluation, the Canadiens view Michkov as a player who has that much more upside than one of the others they might be considering — provided he’s still available at five.
“If you’re considering Michkov and another player that you deem very, very comparable in terms of talent and potential, then those factors (of him being in Russia and tied up contractually for three more years) are going to probably weigh him down,” Hughes said.
He had a similar take on drafting the best player available versus drafting one to fill a need.
“I would say that we will draft the best player available in terms of long-term potential. If we see two players being of very equal potential and they play two different positions, I could see a scenario where that’s the tiebreaker,” Hughes said. “But it would really be the tiebreaker, not we’re going to take a lesser player because it addresses a need.”
He said there will be other ways of addressing needs.
The Canadiens’ second first-round pick, which could fall at 17th overall — if the Toronto Maple Leafs pull off an improbable comeback from down 3-0 in their series against the Florida Panthers — but is more likely to be between 29-32, could be used for that very purpose.
Hughes didn’t discount trading it for a player who could help the Canadiens now or even trading it for another pick that would fall sooner or later in the draft order.
He made it clear all options are on the table and didn’t altogether deny the possibility of even trading the fifth-overall pick — though Hughes did say that’s “improbable.”
As for what he and the Canadiens are looking for at five, Hughes said, “We certainly value hockey sense, character. Those are two that are going to come out all the time.”
“Compete is another one,” Hughes added before cautioning the Canadiens would still choose a player who excels above his peers in other categories than the three he specifically mentioned.
With that, he wasn’t exactly letting on as to which way he’s leaning with the upcoming decision.
But Hughes did say the Canadiens aren’t vacillating between 10 players.
Their focus is far narrower, with Hughes saying they’ve been preparing to land between five and seven in the draft order since the season ended.
They’re going to get a really good player at the upper end of that, without question, and that’s their reward for finishing fifth from the bottom of the standings.
The Canadiens did not try to be worse, like the Blackhawks, and missed out on landing Bedard.
But, as Hughes rightly pointed out, they also missed out on dropping to sixth or seventh, which was more probable than them staying at fifth.
He’s excited, and Canadiens fans should be too.
“We want the most talented player and the player we think can have the biggest impact over the course of his career for the Montreal Canadiens,” Hughes said. “I can’t say if it’s a big player or a small player or a defenceman or a forward or goalie. It’ll be a decision we take between now and when we’re on the stage in Nashville.”