Building through the draft. It hasn’t always been a recipe for success for teams around the NHL, but many Stanley Cup contenders have relied on the strategy effectively. They drafted their core and showed patience as those players developed together inside the organization.
Patience is important when a team is in the early phases of a rebuild, but also when the new lineup first starts to have success. Selling the future to fill current holes can result in falling short of the ultimate goal. If the pieces acquired in a gamble prove not enough to propel the organization to top status, it can end up setting it back, as the young elements who could have come in to bolster the team aren’t there anymore.
The Montreal Canadiens’ current place in the standing brings the hope of playoff success, and could tempt those making the decisions to stray from the recent change in philosophy. But despite the incredible story that the team represents, it doesn’t inspire full confidence in a post-season run — if they do manage to make it that far. The recent stint of games against the powerhouse teams in the Atlantic was a testament to how strong their immediate competition is.
Montreal is not at that level yet. But they can be with time.
Their 2018 draft class has already proven to be very successful, rewarding the organization for their change of philosophy: using the draft as their main source of talent rather than treating picks as trade currency. In Jesperi Kotkaniemi, they have a player who could finally be the answer to a decades-long search for a number-one center. He has continued to show improvements and has given no reason to doubt his high ceiling. Alexander Romanov is improving in the KHL, and some late-rounders are interesting prospects to follow as well, like Allan McShane.
Montreal shouldn’t modify their approach. They have changed the air surrounding the team and brought in younger talents. The team is clicking, their veterans are maintaining their level of play, and, overall, the retool seems to be working. It’s surprising, and good news that the turnaround came so quickly, but not a reason to press on the accelerator and derail the entire thing.
This doesn’t mean that no moves should be made in the coming months. What the Habs should do first is accumulate assets and re-evaluate where the team is at leading to the 2019-20 season. This will give time to the organization to see what they have in some of their top prospects as they join the professional ranks — players like Nick Suzuki, Josh Brook and Ryan Poehling.
The market will also have evolved by then. A young left-handed defenceman could become available, one who doesn’t have a place in his current team due to salary cap reasons or the coming expansion draft, which is more and more of a concern for NHL teams.
Montreal can then trade from a position of strength, or at least on equal terms. This way, they could avoid the high price of buying from sellers who often hold most of the cards at the deadline.
And maybe, with just a bit of luck, solutions to shore up the left side of the blue line could fall directly into the Habs’ lap at the draft, which would be the ideal scenario. The recent track record on draft weekend inspires confidence in their scouting, and they should have enough chips in 2019 to strike more gold.
At the beginning of this week, only 17 of the top 50 point-producing NHL forwards were drafted afer the 15th overall pick. But looking at defencemen, more than half (28 out of 50) were picked latter than that. It’s the same number going by time on ice, which is an approximation of the most trusted defenders in the NHL.
Marc Bergevin has repeated again and again that it is hard to draft top forwards (referring mostly to centres) with later picks, but it’s slightly different for defencemen. Blue-liners are harder to project in general, and some solid talents tend to fall. The top defencemen of the Habs in the past years — Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban — are good examples of that. In the current era, Shea Weber was acquired in the second round, and the same for Jeff Petry. We could do the same exercise across the NHL and come up with a long list of names.
The downside of going through the draft to fill needs is that players, on top of not being sure bets, take a few years to develop. The old adage also says that it takes defencemen even longer to grow their game and adapt to the NHL. But the league is an evolving one. It gets younger with each passing season and prospects are more and more ready for the pro ranks, as Junior hockey is striving to emulate the NHL environment and its resources. Players like Samuel Girard and Charlie McAvoy, who required just one year before making the big jump, and Jakob Chychrun who went from the draft straight to the NHL, are exceptions right now, but cases that will become more and more common in the future.
The 2019 draft is not touted as an amazing class for defencemen, but there are still plenty of options that could prove very interesting for Montreal and fit the profile of defencemen the team’s brass has been looking for in past years. Thomas Harley, Matthew Robertson, Philip Broberg, and Tobias Bjornföt are players to keep an eye on.
Winning a championship might look like a one-season affair, but it’s often not. Behind the scenes, it’s years of careful preparation that culminates in a win, balancing following the long-term plan with a dose of adaptability.