We finally come to the later rounds, and whether there are any diamonds in the rough that the Montreal Canadiens should move towards. In the conclusion 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 Habs options beyond the first round.
Patrik Bexell: To wrap up our conversation, I want to ask a broader question. Who are your favourite players in the second and third rounds? Can you give us a pick who you think would be a later-round steal?
David St-Louis: Yes, definitely. Even before that, still looking at the 26th overall, there are players who could fall like Jagger Firkus, who’s 149 pounds, 5’9”, and a really great shooter…
Patrik: Doesn’t Montreal already have one of those?
David: Haha, yes, but he’s a bit bigger than Cole Caufield. He has some playmaking elements too. He’s just further away when it comes to maturation and physical development than other guys in this draft class, so he’s a high upside pick who might fall to the second round. Danila Yurov, as a [citizen of the Russian Federation], he’s probably going to fall to the second round. Noah Östlund, who is kind of a shifty rusher with the puck — he’s a bit like [Brad] Lambert in some aspects, but he’s also a really smart player. He’s just really light, and he doesn’t have a physical or inside game right now — he’s a guy who sticks on the periphery. But if and when he adds weight, maybe he can change his game, because he’s pretty great at supporting the play. He can already beat defenders one-on-one, he can get the puck in the offensive zone, and he’s a pretty good playmaker too. So there’s upside there.
One player whom I really thought was hidden from most other [prospect] lists is Hunter Haight. He’s an OHLer who didn’t score, a bit like Owen Beck. But he flashed some insane skill this season and showed some of the best sequences we’ve seen from a draft eligible player. I don’t really remember his point totals [editor’s note: 41 points in 63 games] but it didn’t get close to that point-per-game mark that we usually like for draft eligible players. So he’s likely to be selected sometime in the second round, but this guy could really explode next year. He’s pretty good defensively. Offensively, he’s good at supporting the play, but really, it’s his playmaking skills. He can manipulate defenders, deceive them, and he had some really slick passes this season. Again, consistency is the big question mark, and we didn’t see it enough to put him in the first round. We have him at 34, which is pretty high for a player whom most people project to be selected a bit lower than that. But he’s really a secret, I think, that someone should bet on.
Patrik: I guess he’s not a secret any more. But to turn back to Europe again, you and I have a different opinion when it comes to Lian Bichsel. I think he’s just a big guy who hits everything that he can, and there’s been some really dirty plays from him over the last season. But I know that you like him a lot more.
David: I think it really depends on what you value. I think we see the exact same player, but it’s a matter of how one projects him. You don’t like him as much because of those [dirty] plays, but also because the decision-making is sometimes suspect and the puck skills are just average. But he’s a big guy who mostly defends, and he defends really violently — I’d go beyond the word “edge” in describing it, it’s almost dangerous. NHL coaches are going to love that.
Patrik: I get that, but I just think his decision-making, his hockey IQ, it’s limited.
David: It’s not very high. We gave it a five, where five is average, and I could even justify giving him a slightly below average grade there. The question is whether it will matter. Does he have to make decisions or can he just follow a system? He can already make simple passes when he has open teammates, and he just rims the puck on breakouts when no one is open. It’s safe, and it’s relatively smart. As long as he plays a shutdown game, he might be alright.
To elaborate on that a bit, Bichsel has projectable average skating ability, and he’s 6’4” or 6’5” with a really long reach, and he’s very physical. So he covers a lot of ice just with his presence. I can guarantee you that attackers are going to want to move to the other side of the rink and not take him on directly, because there’s a chance that they might get hurt. He also has good engagement—he’s not a player who just likes to hurt people and puts himself out of position in order to throw hits all the time. While he does slip in that regard now and then, I think that will go away as he develops. He’ll get smarter about when to use his stick and when to use his frame. It’s important that he cares so much about his defensive game, and it’s notable that he’s already so good at it for such a young player in the SHL. If he becomes a good enough shutdown player, then that’s going to reflect in terms of possession stats, because he’s going to break up plays really fast, which is going to help all of his teammates switch to attack. That’s my view of Bichsel, but I can understand the other side, where his play with the puck is not going to develop sufficiently and he’s going to hurt his team. It’s also possible that his upside is limited to a bottom pairing role. I personally see him as anywhere from a fourth to sixth defender. Just the fact that some facets of his game are so close to NHL-ready, that’s why we have him in the first round.
Patrik: I can see him going in the first round. I don’t think he should be there, but I can see it.
David: I think he’s going top 20.
Patrik: I won’t bet against David. But another thing is that if he’s a first rounder, he can be placed in the AHL, whereas if he’s a second rounder or below, he has to play in Sweden because he’s contracted to Leksands IF until the end of the 2022-23 season. Leksands is a really good team—[Emil] Heineman comes from there—but playing in Sweden might limit Bichsel’s progress when it comes to adjusting to the North American game.
David: Yes. He has a game that’s more tailored to North American ice, since attackers have less space to skate along the boards on the smaller surface, so maybe he’d be better off in the AHL. One way or another, I do think that he’s going to find his way to the NHL. It’s just a question of upside and what role he’ll play at that level.
Patrik: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is Montreal’s backyard. You’re an Elite Prospects scout for the QMJHL. What player would you consider out of the Q this year?
David: I wasn’t a big fan of the Q this year. We have Nathan Gaucher at 25 right now, after having him a bit too low at the start of the year. So he’s a really good target for Montreal’s other first rounder. That said, I think someone will take him top 20. [Gaucher is] very projectable. The upside might be a bit limited to say, more of a third-line or middle-six guy, but he has physicality, above average skating, above average size, and can make some really nice passing plays. I always come back to the ability to get the puck to teammates out of pressure situations or scrums, and he’s really good at that too. He can work in front of the net, he can work the boards, and all that makes him easy to project, which in turn makes him attractive to NHL teams.
There’s a player whom I’ve been predicting will fall. Tristan Luneau really didn’t have a good season in terms of showcasing his upside to NHL teams. I think he focused mostly on defence this season, because last season he had some really nice flashes of offensive ability [that weren’t built on.] He’s very agile as a defenceman, he can walk the blueline or use those “ten-and-two”/heel-to-heel pivots against approaching players and beat them that way. He’s really good at this already, but it’s even more effective when he has speed. That said, despite his agility, his straight line speed is not great, so we gave him a below-average mark when it comes to skating. Also, he—I wouldn’t say he’s heavy on his skates—but he doesn’t have that lightness that we like from puck moving defencemen. Continuing, he wasn’t very good on breakouts this season. He was good when he has options in front of him, situations like regroups when the puck escapes the offensive zone, or when he has the puck at the point and he can see his teammates’ movements for creating lanes. But when he’s got his back turned, say, for puck retrievals, his game wasn’t very efficient. He had trouble evading pressure this season, partially because of his skating, but also because of a lack of awareness. These things are fixable, but they do mean that he’s a little riskier than some of the other players. I think there’s a possibility that he falls to the end of the second round.
I really like Maveric Lamoureux, he’s one of my favourite players in the draft. He’s at the end of the second round on our board, because again, his game is pretty uncertain. He’s a 6’ 7” guy who, just like Owen Pickering, grew a lot over the past year. [That rapid spurt] made it hard for him to find his footing and handle the puck as smoothly as he did last year. There were still the same flashes of playmaking ability where he was able to beat opponents one-on-one. He’s very physical, and maybe even mean, as a defender. He knows how to use his size, and he’s not afraid to use his stick on the back of a player in order to win the puck back. His game is still really far away from NHL-level right now. He has some awareness issues, sometimes the puck gets away from him, his defensive footwork [is problematic], and sometimes he really commits defensively to the puck carrier and loses someone else as a result. So [a team] will have to work with him on reads, both with and without the puck, and on technical ability. At the same time, he has more room in terms of physical development compared to a player like Gaucher who is almost fully developed already. If he balances his frame and has more time to settle into his final form—get adjusted to his height—he might turn into a top four defenceman with good [NHL organization-level] development. It’s possible, although it’s just more of a long shot than some of the other defenders available.
Finally, there’s a guy whom I know you guys like at Eyes on the Prize, and that’s Jordan Dumais. He’s a small forward at 5’ 9” who’s not a great skater, but he’s really smart. We talk about [Shane] Wright’s ability to position away from the puck, and Dumais has the same, maybe to a slightly lesser extent—it’s close. He can link plays together because he’s properly positioned inside the right spaces, at the right areas, at the right time. His passing game is also pretty advanced. This means he can both move the puck quickly but also hold it when necessary to create passing lanes. The question is whether he will be able to play his game at the NHL level as it is? Absolutely not. That said, he’s scoring a lot, and that always hides some things about his game that we may not understand right now. Maybe he’s a more projectable guy than I give him credit for. There’s certainly enough intelligence, hockey sense, playmaking ability, and energy in his game to create a foundation for him to build upon and create an [NHL-projectable] game. Right now, he’s really far from that, which makes him a third rounder in my eyes, but a really good one who’s really fun to watch.
This concludes a four-part presentation of the latest episode of Habsent Minded, featuring David St-Louis.
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.
Readers looking for part three, discussing who the Canadiens could possibly take with their other first round pick, 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.