Moving beyond the top 5 or 10 prospects, the waters become a little muddier, and there is more disagreement between ranking services. In the continuation of our four-part presentation of the latest episode of Habsent Minded, Elite Prospects writer and Eyes on the Prize alumnus David St-Louis joins host Patrik Bexell to discuss the Montreal Canadiens’ other first round selection.
Patrik Bexell: Montreal also has the 26th overall selection from the Calgary Flames due to the Tyler Toffoli trade. Hypothetically, if you could trade up from there to somewhere between 10th and 20th, who would you target in that range to perhaps fill a need for the Canadiens?
David St-Louis: There are a lot of factors involved. For example, Brad Lambert is the most skilled player in the draft, and he could fall to 20th. Would the Habs take him? They tend to value character and players who play a more active game. I’m not sure that he’s really their type. However, Lambert will represent a sound investment at some point during the draft. Yes, he carries more risk, but his skating is elite, and elite is rarely used around Elite Prospects. Lambert is one of the better skaters not just in this draft class, but in the last few drafts. In terms of agility or quickness, he can beat any defender one on one if he gets a little bit of a head of steam going. Some parts of his game are not really projectable — he needs more space to operate than others. His decision making is a bit problematic at times, but like [David] Jiříček, he has flashes of anticipation, fast processing, and awareness, so I don’t worry about too much about this and I think it’s one of those things that will get fixed if the player is willing and is receptive to coaching. So if he does slide to around 20th or so, he’s a pretty good investment there.
Frank Nazar is another name who might slide — and many public outlets are projecting him to slide. I would try everything in my power to trade up to get him, even if it means going up as high as 15th or something and the price is very steep. [Elite Prospects] has him at 5th overall. We do player comparables as part of our draft guides, and of course it’s a little bit of a grey area — he’s not going to be an exact clone of a comparable — but we compared him to Brayden Point. Frank Nazar is kind of a weird player. He’s smaller, at 5’9”, but he plays a really physical inside game. He’s not afraid to cut in front of defenders in the slot to get his stick on pucks, he’s really good along the walls, in that he uses body position to protect the puck and then find a way to move it to a teammate. He’s really good under pressure, he has creativity, he has playmaking; he’s just a very complete player who really progressed during the year.
In September, we thought of him as more of a second rounder, but then he just kept adding to his game, just kept improving. This type of massive improvement from a prospect [over the course of a year] is really rare, but he started the year trying to dangle everyone, and then became a really efficient playmaker in the second half, which is something that almost never happens. Moreover, he was injured in the last part of the year, so he didn’t really stand out at the U18 World Championships. But he maintained good progression even while injured, and his game now projects very well to the NHL, arguably even more so than Logan Cooley. Cooley has the higher ceiling, but he needs to add more to his game to be NHL-ready.
In addition to Nazar, there are also a bunch of other players whom I’d target. We really like Calle Odelius, for example. Owen Pickering is a player who has massive upside but is really far from the NHL; he just grew four inches in the summer or something, which affects his coordination. If he adds to his frame, he has top pairing potential. There are a lot of interesting options, and one of them might even fall to the Habs at 26th, they may not need to trade up.
Patrik: So then, who would you take at 26th overall? There are a few interesting players in that range, and even some interesting names ranked a little bit lower. It’s interesting especially for me because there are quite a few Europeans of interest.
David: At 26th, there’s one player whom we think is going to be there, and its Owen Beck. Now, Beck might not work out for Montreal because he’s very similar to Shane Wright. He’s an efficient centre with a really sound defensive game who also shows flashes of really high playmaking skill (just not often enough this season). In fact, if he had displayed that playmaking more frequently this season, he would have probably risen to top 15 on our board. He’s just such a complete player, and his game projects easily to the NHL. He’s really smart positionally when he doesn’t have the puck both on offence and on defence. He, like Wright, finds pockets of space; he can anticipate the game and support plays. He’s also very physical. He can protect the puck and move the puck out of scrums using his body. I think he’d be attracting more attention from [NHL teams] if he had scored at a point-per-game pace, and he fell a bit below that [at 0.75 PPG]. But his point total doesn’t reflect his talent. I’m sure of that.
Patrik: Assuming Montreal picks Wright and therefore isn’t interested in Beck, what about players at other positions? For example, Matthias Hävelid is a really interesting defender and one of the leaders of Sweden’s U18 team at those World Championships. What can you say about him?
David: I really like Hävelid, but I think [Elite Prospects] has him a bit too high. That said, when we were making our [draft] board, it was still hard to find players to put above him. Usually, when we look at prospects, we like to balance predictability and upside—it’s not just purely based on who has the most upside. That’s why we have players like [Marco] Kasper and [Liam] Öhgren ranked high, and why we like Beck so much. They all have projectable games along with upside. Hävelid, on the other hand, is more of a pure upside pick. There’s a chance that he won’t make the NHL.
In the offensive zone, Hävelid is a pure blue-line shooter. He just fires puck after puck on net all the time. But what really impressed both myself and our Swedish scout Jimmy Hamrin about him down the stretch was his puck moving ability. At the U18 World Championships, he was really good at moving pucks off the back wall to his teammates. He was able to hold off forechecking pressure, evade it, and find teammates. Interestingly, he’s not an elite skater, but his puckhandling skills are really high. He was able to hold the puck for a few extra seconds to let his teammates create a bit more space for themselves before feeding them. He was really great about using his backhand, which is something that you can’t say for a lot of defencemen in this draft class. Despite being a smaller defender, he’s pretty good at leveraging his weight on the boards to either pin or get under opposing players. It’s just that sometimes he doesn’t pick up attacking players and lets them skate behind him. For all of these reasons, we project him as a puck mover who might struggle a bit on the defensive side. We gave him average to above-average scores in all our technical categories, so there’s a lot of upside there. There’s just also more uncertainty.
Keep your eyes peeled for part four, coming soon, when Patrik Bexell and David St-Louis talk about the rest of the draft and who the Habs could look at in terms of home-grown talent.
Readers looking for part one, explaining both why Shane Wright is the top ranked prospect and where Juraj Slafkovský has sown the seeds of doubt, can find it here.
Readers looking for part two, looking at some of the other top names in the draft class, can find it here.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The full, unedited conversation that serves as the source for all four parts is available below.