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Three-year review: Reassessing the Montreal Canadiens’ 2017 NHL Draft class

After several seasons of development, we check back in with the prospects selected in 2017.

The NHL added a new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, just ahead of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Not only was Marc Bergevin preparing to add several new prospects to the organization, but he was faced with losing a roster player as well.

In the end, the club based in Nevada opted to select Alexei Emelin from among Montreal’s unprotected players. The claim capped off a week of decisions that left the Canadiens organization’s defence — specifically the left side — in disarray.

The dominoes started to fall when the general manager traded the previous year’s first-round pick, Mikhail Sergachev, to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Jonathan Drouin. A decision to allow Nikita Nesterov to head to the KHL was followed by the trade of Nathan Beaulieu to the Buffalo Sabres shortly afterward. The end result was the loss of four left-handed defencemen from the organization from June 15 to 21, 2017. We would later learn that Andrei Markov had played his final game in the NHL as well.

It happened to be the first year of the current strategy to load up on high draft picks. For several years Bergevin has treated his mid-round selections as currency to boost the Canadiens’ playoff chances. The team had made no more than six selections in any draft from 2014 to 2016, and had a total of just three picks in the opening two rounds in those years.

A strong year for the Canadiens, with 103 points to head into the post-season as the first seed in the Atlantic Division (the last playoff appearance the club has seen), meant their own picks would be coming later in each round. Even so, Trevor Timmins and the amateur scouting staff stepped onto the draft floor with five picks for the first three rounds in hand to begin refilling the prospect pool.

While defence was the area that clearly needed significant attention, the centre position (which the acquisition of Drouin hoped to address) was also a big concern throughout the organization.

Organizational depth chart
Organizational depth on June 21, 2017, immediately after the Vegas expansion draft

Alex Galchenyuk wasn’t seizing the role expected of a third overall pick. Phillip Danault was looking like a very competent centreman after his first full NHL season, but looking more like a middle-six option, while Tomas Plekanec’s career was drawing to a close after his least productive NHL campaign to that point. In the prospect pool, hope was placed on the broad shoulders of Michael McCarron to become an NHL option, Jacob de la Rose to round out his game, and seventh-round pick Jake Evans to continue his upward progression in the NCAA to help out the organization in some capacity.

Given the need for a quality centre — a hole that had existed in the organization for much longer than the depleted defence corps — the Habs turned to that position with their first selection, and again in the second round, before turning their attention to defencemen with later picks.

Now, three years after the draft, there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding most of these players, even the best of whom are just beginning their professional careers. The organization has made decisions on whether to keep investing in the majority of them, offering contracts to only the most likely to become NHLers. We can investigate how far they’ve come since joining the Canadiens organization, and how accurate initial impressions were for each new prospect.

Ryan Poehling

Picking near the end of the first round, the Canadiens watched as most of the other NHL franchises plucked the top players off the board. If the goal was to take the best centre available when they were called upon to make their selection, they watched as 13 prospects classified at that position went in the first 21 selections.

Even so, they managed to grab a centre who had been ranked several places higher by many of the scouting services. Bob McKenzie’s poll of NHL scouts identified Ryan Poehling as a top-20 player, and Hockey Prospect had him just a few spots lower.

The value wasn’t perceived to be in his ceiling. Not many expected him to become a top player for the organization that drafted him, and his skill level wasn’t on par with the forwards ranked above him. Instead, his ranking came from the high floor he had; a shoo-in to claim an NHL role in the future, even if that was in the bottom six.

Poehling had just finished his freshman year at university, so the long road to the professional game for prospects going the NCAA route was already shortened by a season when he became draft-eligible. He graduated from high school early to become the youngest player in the collegiate system in 2016-17, and was therefore just a maximum of three years away from turning pro. Once that term was up, with a bit of improvement to his defensive game and perhaps a more rounded offensive toolbox, an NHL team was expected to have a player challenging for a roster spot.

Nearly three years after Poehling’s name was announced, his projection remains largely the same. Had we done this exercise after two years, following his exceptional performance at the 2019 World Junior Championship and then a hat trick in his one and only NHL game before the off-season, his likelihood of claiming a second-line role in the NHL probably would have been higher. Indeed, those games heavily factored into his ranking in last summer’s Top 25 Under 25, when he jumped up to number four in our annual series.

After seeing him play most of his first full professional season in 2019-20, that original third-line projection seems to be the most accurate, though some struggles in the AHL have lowered his floor slightly.

Whether adding a bottom-six player was the appropriate strategy was, and remains, a matter of debate. Virtually ensuring yourself an NHL player so late in the first round would be a sound plan in most situations, and one unlikely to backfire. At the time, what the Canadiens needed most at the forward position was skilled, offensive prospects to join what was a good mix of two-way players on the existing roster.

Poehling’s draft peers

Selection Team Player Pos 2019-20 Status NHL GP
Selection Team Player Pos 2019-20 Status NHL GP
20 STL Robert Thomas F NHL 156
21 NYR Filip Chytil F NHL 144
22 EDM Kailer Yamamoto F NHL 53
23 ARI Pierre-Olivier Joseph D AHL 0
24 WPG Kristian Vesalainen F NHL Call-up 5
25 MTL Ryan Poehling F NHL Call-up 28
26 DAL Jake Oettinger G AHL 0
27 PHI Morgan Frost F NHL Call-up 20
28 OTT Shane Bowers F AHL 0
29 CHI Henri Jokiharju D NHL 107
30 NSH Eeli Tolvanen F NHL Call-up 7

Looking at the players taken around the 25th overall position, few of the peers that were available when Montreal took the stage in Chicago have established themselves as breakout players. The one EOTP selected in the 2017 SB Nation NHL Mock Draft, left-handed defenceman Urho Vaakanainen, was taken off the board at 18th by the Boston Bruins. He currently plays in the AHL, with seven games of NHL experience. The other player we were considering at the time, left-winger Isaac Ratcliffe, started his pro career in 2019-20, contributing 15 points in 53 games for the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

It’s apparent that even three years later there’s still plenty of development and preparation happening for all of those selected; only eight players have played 82 or more NHL games so far. Only one of those — Buffalo Sabres defenceman Henri Jokiharju — was selected beyond 21st overall. In hindsight, perhaps selecting the left-handed Finnish defenceman would have been the best option, though very few outlets had him ranked as a first-round prospect, coming in at #32 in our 2017 consensus rankings.

Selecting Jokiharju, who played two seasons for the Portland Winterhawks in preparation for the draft, certainly would have fit the overall theme of the 2017 event for the Canadiens. Four of Montreal’s next five selections were defencemen out of the Western Hockey League.

Josh Brook

A round after making the safe pick of Poehling, the Canadiens opted for a player whose NHL future wasn’t nearly as guaranteed with a wider range of possible career trajectories, but also one with a better shot of becoming a top-of-the-lineup player in the best league.

Josh Brook had posted a 40-point draft season, ranking fifth among first-year draft-eligible defenders in the WHL, and was a point-per-game player in the Moose Jaw Warriors’ short post-season appearance.

His defensive game was the area that needed the most attention, as is the case for nearly every defencemen in a particular draft. The next few years after his selection were set to be ones of gradual improvement as he got up to a professional standard.

His draft-plus-one season performance was a bit of a concern. He was limited to 45 games after sustaining a wrist injury that required surgery while playing with the Habs prospects during the 2017 Rookie Showcase. He registered just 32 points in 2017-18, though that still ranked first among Moose Jaw’s defence corps. A more expected season the next year, with 16 goals and 59 assists in his fourth and final Junior campaign, allayed any fears that his offensive game was veering off course.

He was given a long look by the Canadiens in last summer’s training camp as the team had an open spot to fill on the defensive roster. Despite the improvements he made in the WHL, it was obvious that his defensive game still needed major work for him to become an NHL blue-liner.

The good news is he’s been receptive to growing that aspect of his game under Jöel Bouchard. The offence that will serve as his ticket to the NHL took a back seat in 2019-20, but he’s a much more reliable player after 60 games with the Laval Rocket than he was to begin the year.

That initial wide range of career possibilities has been tightened up somewhat three years later. We know the offensive skills are there, and with his quick progression in the minors there’s still a decent chance he can become an impactful NHLer. How long that improvement continues before he plateaus will determine what role he plays if he does make the top league.

Brook’s draft peers

Selection Team Player Pos 2019-20 Status NHL GP
Selection Team Player Pos 2019-20 Status NHL GP
51 PIT Zachary Lauzon D Retired 0
52 CAR Luke Martin D NCAA 0
53 BOS Jack Studnicka F NHL Call-up 2
54 BUF Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen G ECHL 0
55 VAN Jonah Gadjovich F AHL 0
56 MTL Josh Brook D AHL 0
57 CHI Ian Mitchell D NCAA 0
58 MTL Joni Ikonen F Liiga 0
59 TOR Eemeli Rasanen D KHL 0
60 ANA Antoine Morand F AHL 0
61 NSH Grant Mismash F NCAA 0

In 2020, even players selected in the final third of the second round are just beginning to take their first steps in the professional ranks. There have been a combined two NHL appearances so far for players selected from 51st to 61st. Such peer comparisons are premature at this point, as there’s still plenty of opportunity for these players to have NHL careers.

Joni Ikonen

That’s certainly the hope for the prospect selected two positions after Brook. Many outlets had Joni Ikonen ranked just outside of a first-round selection, and his fall to the tail end of the second round was a welcome development for the Canadiens.

Ikonen had been a point-per-game producer at every level leading up to the draft. He outgrew Sweden’s under-18 league as a 16-year-old, and so played his draft season with Frölunda’s under-20 team, leading the development program of one of the world’s top organizations with 41 points (22 of them goals) in 40 games. He even earned some time up with the parent club, dressing for 10 games in the SHL.

The 2017 Draft may have been defined by its overall focus on adding WHL defencemen, but at EOTP it was highlighted by a debate over which of Ikonen or Poehling was the more valuable player. It was agreed that Poehling had a much better chance of actually playing in the NHL. Ikonen’s skill set gave him a higher ceiling of a top-six player, though he’d be climbing a rickety ladder to get there.

Our general opinion was that Ikonen was the better prospect immediately after the draft. In the voting for our 2017 Top 25 Under 25 series that ranks the top young players in the organization a few weeks after the draft, Ikonen was ranked 11th, while Poehling came in at number 14.

The initial hope for Ikonen’s future has taken a big hit in the three years since. The first blow was his off-season departure from Frölunda to join Kalpa of Liiga — the reverse of the development path Artturi Lehkonen took to the NHL. The promise of a skilled player improving within an top-quality organization (which definitely factored into my decision to rank Ikonen so highly in 2017) turned into some uncertainty after a move to a lower-calibre league.

Ikonen’s draft-plus-one season was a disappointment. He put up just 14 points in 52 games, ranking 13th on the team. It was still just his first full professional season, leaving plenty of time for him to improve.

That was the theory, anyway. In the two seasons since, injuries limited him a total of 13 games. His entire 2019-20 campaign was wiped out by an injury sustained in the final Liiga pre-season match.

His play in those 13 games helped to restore some confidence in his projection. Dropping into the action midway through the 2018-19 season, he responded with five goals and five assists, close to the point-per-game pace he’d been accustomed to throughout his hockey career ... before another injury knocked him out of action. That disastrous chapter in his story has now wrapped up, as he moves on to a new organization for next season.

The 2020-21 year will be the last for Ikonen on the Canadiens’ reserve list. If he’s not signed to a contract by June 1, 2021, he’ll no longer be part of the organization. If he is to get that contract, he will need to not only push the point-per-game mark with Ilves, but prove that his injury concerns are behind him. At this point his chances of making the NHL are slim, but his skill set leaves a bit of room for that possibility.

Scott Walford

With the pick the Canadiens acquired for Beaulieu, they opted for a left-handed defenceman whose skill set was typically described as ‘safe.’ Scott Walford had enjoyed a fairly productive draft season, with 30 points in 60 games. Many of those points came from passes in his own zone to allow forwards to break up the ice, or stationary slapshots when his Victoria Royals were established in the offensive zone.

His style of play was about the polar opposite of the player traded to acquire the pick. Walford was a stay-at-home type, focused on keeping his side of the crease area protected, rarely venturing from that position in defensive presences. He wasn’t a confident puck-mover, and rarely handled the puck in the neutral zone.

Despite being chosen with one of the first picks of the third round (looking at the draft rankings, it appears the Canadiens went well off the board to do so), there was never much confidence in an NHL projection, and a limited skill set would likely prevent him from being a top player at even the AHL level. His package of talents wasn’t diverse enough to give him a high ceiling.

He didn’t make our Top 25 Under 25 in 2017, and proceeded to slip down toward the bottom of the overall list the next year with a modest offensive progression. With his rights up after two years in the organization, the Canadiens opted to leave him unsigned in June of 2019.

He spent 2019-20 playing an over-age season in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades, where he posted his best Junior season with 12 goals and 42 assists in 61 games. A future in professional hockey isn’t out of the question for him. Perhaps he can become a player like current Laval Rocket defenceman Ryan Culkin, who straddles the line between top-pairing ECHLer and AHL depth. Or, since we’ve already established that no definitive conclusions can be drawn at this point, maybe he does pull off a surprise and realize his dream of playing the NHL.

Such a long-shot hope was always the best-case scenario for Walford, and is why most outlets projected him as about a fourth-round option. With the Canadiens holding plenty of picks, and clearly making a point to select defencemen, there was no reason to spend so high a pick on a player who didn’t possess a dynamic skill set. The approach they were committed to was best executed by collecting several players with high skill levels and hoping one or two developed into NHL players. Using a high third-round pick on a limited prospect makes this decision the worst judgment Montreal made at the 2017 Draft.

Cale Fleury

The Canadiens got back to the more effective strategy with their own assigned pick 19 spots later. They were probably lucky that Cale Fleury was still available at 87th as several outlets had him going closer to their selection at 68th. Fleury had finished just two points back of Brook in 2016-17, and was second only to Juuso Valimaki (selected 16th overall) in goals among draft-eligible WHL defencemen.

He also ended the season with a league-worst -61 goal differential.

If you’d only looked at those stats, you’d come to the conclusion that he was a deeply flawed player, perhaps one who should be playing forward instead. Much of his play was more like a forward in his draft year, aggressively trying to stop cycles in his own end and leading rushes through the neutral zone.

He happened to be playing on the worst team in the WHL, the Kootenay ICE, one that spent the vast majority of its games in its own zone. Rather than just hoping to survive the onslaught, Captain Fleury was pouring his energy in getting the play going in the other direction. The results of his efforts were 11 goals, many of them off self-created rushes, to rank as the team’s fourth-highest individual producer.

In the odd cases when his teammates were in good defensive position, his defensive approach was more in line with what one would expect from a blue-liner. He was physical in net-front situations, and aware of his outlet options when the puck changed possession.

His transition and offensive games were already well-developed (thanks to all the practice they’d received), so, similar to Brook, the remainder of his Junior career would best be spent honing his defensive skills. Already looking like at least a solid AHL player, those improvements would significantly help his NHL aspirations.

It was obvious early in the next season that such development wasn’t possible in Kootenay on what remained a embattled club. Fleury was once again the offensive catalyst, contributing six goals through just 17 games, but it was difficult to make any meaningful progress on defence. A trade to the Regina Pats was just what he needed, and he was able to work on his defensive game while also retaining his offensive touch. In 51 games with his new team, he added another six goals and 35 assists, while also finishing third on the team with a goal differential of +23.

A combination of having a late birthday and four years of WHL experience completed allowed Fleury the rare chance to start in the AHL while still a teenager in 2018-19, signing his entry-level contract two days before the Laval Rocket’s season began. That allowed him to take a more advanced course in defensive play just one season after being drafted, and one that moved him closer to an NHL career.

The open spot on the Canadiens’ roster to start the 2019-20 season seemed to be coming down to either Brook or Fleury. In the end, that extra work on his defensive game (something Brook hadn’t really received when playing out his Junior career with Moose Jaw), plus the big advantage of already playing a season of pro hockey allowed Fleury to make the opening-night roster.

He showed he has the tools to play in the NHL. His play wasn’t always perfect, and at times it was clear some more experience was needed to become a reliable defender, but we saw some of his physicality, and even some glimpses of explosive offence when he’d jump up into the rush on a delayed penalty.

With 41 games in the top league already, only two other players selected beyond the 50th pick in 2017 have played more: Emil Bemstrom of the Columbus Blue Jackets (56 games) and Ottawa Senators prospect Drake Batherson (43).

Fleury’s projection has risen significantly since he was drafted, showing that an NHL future is his most likely outcome. At this particular time, he has leapt above Brook in that department, though that is by no means a final result with Brook still in his first pro season, and (not to be overlooked) seven months younger.

Fourth-round pick

Montreal didn’t have their fourth-round pick in 2017 as they had packaged it with Greg Pateryn to acquire Jordie Benn from the Dallas Stars. Looking at some of the initial projections around this point of the draft, giving up a mid-round pick to help add an established player to a contending roster (and one under contract for an additional two seasons) was a good use of the asset.

Jarret Tyszka

Called upon again in the fifth round, Montreal picked their fourth defenceman with the final pick they held in the event. Jarret Tyszka had enjoyed a good season with the Seattle Thunderbirds and a long run in the WHL post-season before joining an NHL organization.

Many of the draft services liked Tyszka’s aggressive game at both ends of the ice. He would steal possession when pucks got on the wall in his own end and jump up to keep them in the offensive zone. His assertive style tended to mask the fact that his on-ice awareness wasn’t on par with some of the top young defencemen, and it was also his default strategy even in tight-checking situations.

Like Walford, Tyszka was an incomplete blue-liner, both relatively one-dimensional in their styles. Neither was overly creative on the offensive side of things, and had big flaws in how they dealt with play in their own zone.

After the draft we felt they were both fairly close in terms of their projections, for different reasons. Walford’s lack of offensive instinct would likely block his path to a key role, and while Tyszka’s style was a bit more intriguing, he had just as much work to do in rounding out his game.

While both players addressed their issues somewhat in the two seasons following the draft, the progress wasn’t great enough for them to maintain the optimistic ceilings granted to drafted prospects. Tyszka improved his puck-moving game, becoming more aware of his surroundings to aid his team in transition. His skating stride remained a concern, and his offensive game never really blossomed. His final season with Seattle, one limited to just 41 games after being stretchered off the ice with an injury sustained in the 2018 Rookie Showcase (those really have been dangerous for the Canadiens in recent years), came with just 30 points in 41 games.

When the year was done, the Canadiens didn’t extend him a contract, giving up his rights and allowing him to become a free agent. His first season following up his Junior career was played with the University of British Columbia as he opted to pursue a post-secondary education.

It wasn’t a surprising decision for a prospect who had required so much improvement, and the expected outcome for a player taken so late in the draft. Tyszka was a good project to take on with the selection — Walford would have been as well at 149 rather than 68 — having some elements that would have provided a base to becoming an NHL player.

Had the Habs not had two other quality defencemen in the system from the same draft, they may have opted to sign Tyszka and see if that gradual improvement could continue. With Brook and Fleury holding better projections, they could afford to part with a player unlikely to contend for a spot on the NHL roster.

Sixth-round pick

Montreal had given up its sixth-round pick several months before the draft to turn AHL defenceman Jonathan Racine into NHL blue-liner Nikita Nesterov. The defender acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning played limited duty for the remainder of the regular season, 13 games, and then two more in the post-season.

Again, at a stage of the draft when the optimistic outlook for prospects is that they will become contributors to the AHL team, acquiring an NHL player for a playoff run is the better use of the pick.

Cayden Primeau

The Canadiens were out of picks after selecting Tyszka in the fifth round. They had parted with their seventh-rounder at the previous draft in order to add a player highly regarded by the team’s European scout. As the 2017 event was drawing to a close, they made a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers to add one more lottery ticket, and used it to select Cayden Primeau, the son of former Flyers star Keith.

Primeau was the first goaltender selected via the draft by Montreal since Hayden Hawkey in 2014. The organization had been going the free-agent route in the years since, using that method to add Charlie Lindgren and Michael McNiven to the organization.

Primeau had had a rough draft season as he was preparing for an NCAA career. With the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, he posted a save percentage of .895 while allowing more than three goals per game. Despite some great numbers in all competition leading up to that year, perhaps he wasn’t cut out for the professional game and the increase in competition exposed some critical flaws.

Nineteen goaltenders had been selected before the Canadiens made their move. The majority of NHL franchises had added a netminder to their organization, and all had passed on Primeau through nearly the entirety of the event.

Given how late he was taken, there wasn’t much faith in him becoming an NHL prospect, and even an AHL future seemed far-fetched. In that summer’s Top 25 Under 25, he came in at 35th on the list — three from the bottom — generally disregarded in the prospect pool.

That all changed very quickly. Northeastern University continually posted highlights of incredible saves he was making to open his first season of collegiate play in 2017-18, and it was only a few weeks until he became the number-one option for the Huskies. Given the start in 32 games in his freshman year, he won 19 times (four of those via shutout), allowing under two goals per game with an exceptional .931 save percentage. At the end of the season he wasn’t just named to the All-Rookie Team, but the Hockey East All-Star Team, and voted the conference’s goaltender of the year.

His 2018-19 season was even better. While he did allow more goals, he was also facing more shots behind a team that had seen several of the top players move on to professional hockey. The result was a .933 save percentage as a sophomore, an MVP award for pulling his team to a Hockey East Championship, and the honour of the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in the entire NCAA. During that collegiate performance he had also been named to Team USA’s World Juniors team, where he once again wrested the starting role from another goaltender, backstopping the US to a silver medal.

He made the surprising decision to turn pro at the end of that campaign. After showing off his skills in training camp, even impressing Carey Price with an amazing save in the opening seconds of his first pre-season action, he headed to the AHL to play the season in Laval.

A rocky start to his pro career followed, alternating winning streaks with long stretches of defeats, and struggling to reach a .900 save percentage. Despite the up-and-down performance — or maybe because of it — he was recalled to the Canadiens in early December. He got two starts in his short stint, losing his debut but rebounding with an overtime victory over the Ottawa Senators for his first big-league win. His NHL efficiency stood at .931 as he went back to play with the Rocket.

The three-goalie system Laval’s head coach, Joël Bouchard, was attempting to juggle wasn’t working for any of the netminders involved. Primeau was still losing more games than he was winning, and the Rocket were stuck several points out of a playoff position. When the logjam was finally cleared by first sitting Keith Kinkaid and then assigning him to another NHL club, Primeau responded with much more consistency. When the AHL season was brought to a halt by COVID-19 concerns, he had won seven of his last eight starts, surrendering one goal or less in five of them. With the games ramping up in importance ahead of the playoffs, he showed off his top form and quieted some creeping doubts about his standing in the organization.

After starting out with very low expectations, Primeau now seems destined for a big role in the organization. He still has to prove he has the ability to play consistently at the NHL level, but there’s a good possibility that he will. From the lowest outlook immediately following the draft, the seventh-round selection is now the one with the greatest chance of reaching the top level at his position from the Habs’ 2017 class.

In hindsight, we should have trusted the initial draft rankings more. All the outlets who had him ranked placed him relatively high, with Hockey Prospect projecting him as a second-rounder, and sites that ranked goalies separately slotting him just below the very best. We factored in his pre-draft season too highly in our initial impressions — as did every NHL team until the Canadiens finally took that last-minute chance. Correcting that initial misjudgment has seen Primeau skyrocket up our Top 25 Under 25 in the past few years, already holding our record for largest rise from his debut, and probably not done climbing yet.

Discussion

Nearly three years after we were introduced to these players, they’ve made various advances in their development. Some have addressed their main concerns (or shown that those concerns were unfounded), others are still working on improving them, and a few never really progressed far enough to keep the organization interested.

While we try to have an immediate reaction to all the picks following the draft, we also have the annual Top 25 Under 25 series soon afterward, with initial impressions still fresh in mind as we slot the new prospects among the young talent that had already been in the system. Below we can see how the 2017 draft class has ranked relative to one another over the years.

Relative orders for the 2017 draft class in our Top 25 Under 25 series

Opinions can change dramatically from one year to the next with a great season from one prospect or a poor campaign from another. Other than Ikonen with all his injury woes, the other four prospects who remain in the system have risen each year, and by a total of at least 10 spots each.

It’s too soon to make any definitive statements about those who remain. We saw in Brook’s peer comparison that even the second-rounders are working their way up through the ranks, and our Top 25 will probably look different once again after another season for everyone. Holding rights for just two years on North American Junior players has forced the club to already make decisions on Walford and Tyszka, but at this point not signing them seems to have been a reasonable decision. On the other hand, the Habs have seen enough from Poehling, Brook, Fleury, and Primeau to present them with NHL contracts.

The decisions that have been made can be evaluated a few ways, looking at the quality of the players added and how the outlook of the franchise was changed by the draft. From an organizational needs perspective, things didn’t exactly go to plan.

The team had parted with four left-handed defencemen just before the event, making an already sparse section of the depth chart even more barren. It wasn’t until the third round that they chose a prospect at that position, and they went off the board to do so on a player with a low ceiling. The two players released by the organization from the draft class happen to be the two left-handed defencemen selected: Walford and Tyszka. With nothing to show in that section for their handful of picks in 2017, Montreal needed to essentially dedicate the 2019 NHL Draft to filling out that column of the table.

At the centre position, which had been a more long-standing issue for the club though not the most pressing one in 2017, they did add two highly regarded prospects in Poehling and Ikonen. With their first pick falling at 25th, it was unlikely that they were going to land the top-six talent required, but they at least attempted that with Ikonen one round later. Maybe the Finnish pivot will become such a player, but there wasn’t a high chance of it then, and there’s a much lower chance of it now. As they would in 2019, the Canadiens largely devoted the 2018 draft to addressing a singular position, choosing six centremen among 11 total selections.

Three of the prospects who turned out to have the best projections were right-handed defencemen and a goaltender; two of the positions in the least need of talent injections. If one was expecting the team to shore up some areas of weakness with the handful of high picks in 2017, he was surely severely disappointed with the outcome.

Someone just hoping to land good players was left feeling much more satisfied. Three of the seven players have earned time in the NHL, a fourth is working his way to that goal, and a fifth still has a slim hope of achieving that dream based on the talent we all know he possesses. Looking at the Top 25 Under 25 list for 2019 above, you notice that the 2017 draft class — one of seven eligible for the rankings each year — comprised one-quarter of the top 20. You could argue that having more depth at positions already strong at the NHL level allowed them to go into the next two drafts with tunnel vision to address the shallow pools at centre and left defence.

At this stage, there were few obvious misses; players chosen a spot or two before a prospect who has proven to be a better option (though the Walford pick remains the most confounding and most likely to fit this bill in the future). In fact, right now other organizations will be the ones kicking themselves for missing out on Fleury and Primeau. That can all change in the near future as more prospects begin to make NHL debuts, so opinions could be very different in another three years’ time. A six-year review will allow for more determinate answers on who the best prospects actually were, and we’ll see how that played out for the Canadiens’ 2014 draft class in an upcoming feature.

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