A few weeks ago, it seemed relatively sure that the prospect of choice at third overall for the Montreal Canadiens would be Filip Zadina. The young sniper rose through the ranks this season and installed himself comfortably at #3 on most lists after the World Juniors.
Zadina projects to be a great goal-scorer in the NHL. He has one of the most impressive shots in the draft — likely the second best after Oliver Wahlstrom — and is a player that oozes offensive talent. He has shifty hands, he can protect the puck in motion at an NHL level already, and has a natural ability to manipulate defenders, opening space for himself and his teammates.
Due to his early birthday and what he has shown this season, he also is one of the few prospect that looks ready for a jump to the NHL as soon as next year.
But recently we have been given reason to believe that the Canadiens may, in the end, opt to select one of the other top-ranked prospects.
There's the centre, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who shot up on the list of many after his dominance at the Under-18 World Championship, and the other winger in Brady Tkachuk who plays a gritty, effective game, and a few other candidates that just started to emerge as we get ready for the draft.
Elliotte Friedman’s point in 31 Thoughts offered the possibility of Montreal wanting to misdirect other teams by putting up a smokescreen surrounding their third overall pick, but, some teams, seeing through it, have the belief that the Habs could possibly be interested in “one of the d-men” and not in selecting the highly touted forwards.
The organization has been known to get on board with the changes in the NHL a tad late over the past few years. Valuing the top defencemen in this draft, the potentially good to great puck-movers, over other top prospects would be following that same trend.
Some of their selections in the 2013 draft, notably Michael McCarron, Jacob de la Rose and Connor Crisp in the first three rounds, were made following the playoff dominance of teams like the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings who used size to their advantage, hit hard and played a strong forecheck and cycle game.
The same aim for prospects continued in following draft years as the NHL was changing. The organization was not really avoiding skill, but envisioning great contributions in players who were limited in their handling of the puck or the plays they could make with it.
Trevor Timmins himself alluded to the organization drafting those players at the time to model the Habs after what was perceived as a successful team in the NHL. He also admitted that, out of their drafting at the time, the best choice in hindsight was one of the smaller players in Artturi Lehkonen.
Advancing to the last few years, puck-moving abilities were not one of the clear priorities of the organization, made clear with some of the moves made despite many teams having success building their defence with this aptitude in mind.
The rise of Victor Mete last year, who unexpectedly filled a hole on the blue line and injected much needed mobility and transition ability in the Habs’ defence that lacked those qualities might have opened some eyes, and not just of fans.
“Size isn’t as much of an issue anymore. You have to play the game fast and you have to have skill. Even on defence, who would have guessed Victor Mete when we selected him would have been playing in the National Hockey League as a 19-year-old?” - Trevor Timmins at the NHL Combine.
Lately, with what has transpired in interviews, it seems like Montreal are now ready to build a team adapted to the current NHL, going through the draft to acquire low-cost talent and at least semi-rebuilding to change the face of their team. Not banking on a “quick fix, but long-term assets to help build for the future.”
In light of those comments and what has been said of the interest of the team's target at the draft, while also considering the holes in the Habs’ lineup, I think it’s very possible that the Habs are, in fact, looking to select a defenceman on June 22.
Despite saying otherwise, Montreal has showcased a slight tendency to draft for perceived needs in the early rounds. Last year’s selection of Ryan Poehling and Joni Ikonen, two centers at the top of the draft, is one example. A defenceman with great transition ability would surely be a priority for the organization.
Would selecting a blue-liner at third overall be so bad? Not to me.
While I think not every top defenceman is a good candidate for a pick this early in the draft, Quinn Hughes stands out from the rest of the pack this year. Even if the Habs decide not to trade back for him, he still represents a great bet at third overall.
Trevor Timmins' recent interview with TSN690 would make it seem like the Habs wouldn't be interested in the small defenceman, saying "he would have trouble defending in the NHL."
But this apparition on the radio and those very specific comments on the top prospects a few days before the draft are suspicious for a team that seems to be actively looking to trade back. The organization has all the reasons in the world to be deceptive leading to the draft.
Hughes will never be able to box out players like Shea Weber can. That's a given. But the defenceman could very well be, with some time, a great defenceman and the best player out of all of the remaining names on the board when the Habs are called upon to make their pick thanks to his plethora of qualities.
Much has been written about Hughes' abilities, and especially his skating. 'Best in the draft'' is a well deserved qualifier for it. It fuels the defenceman's whole game on the ice, and makes him project as a very impactful NHLer despite his smaller size.
For a team in great need of smoother transitions from their end and better support on the attack, Hughes represents a great answer. He can shake forecheckers very effectively due to his explosiveness. As soon as he makes an opponent overstep in one direction, Hughes is gone the other way, immediately pushing the play up the ice.
His style of play also makes him one of those players that are very hard to hit because of their elusiveness; good news considering his stature. He feels pressure well, doesn't panic, and can go from standing still (a rare state for him) to full speed with the puck in a second.
The defenceman also reads and reacts very quickly and possesses great hands in tight, allowing him to play around pokechecks and feed the puck to nearby teammates after having attracted the opposing team to him; a tool that complements his skating ability on the breakout.
Due to those same qualities, Hughes can keep the pressure on the other team at all times, as he can retrieve the puck in the neutral or defensive zone after a dump-out and get it back across the offensive blue line without skipping a beat, turning his shifts into continuous offensive presences.
The clip below is a great example of Hughes' skill, his ability to control the game, and what he can bring to a team.
As he is handling the puck in between blue lines, he makes it seem like he is turning his body to get the puck to his winger on the left-side boards, causing the forechecker to close that lane. But as soon as the opponent moves in to cut the pass, the defenceman pivots his right skate, drops his body into a turn and accelerates through open ice, escaping the forecheck while controlling the puck with his hands high and his head up to find exploitable seams in the opposing defence.
He easily slips into the offensive zone through the middle of the ice, and makes a hard cut, shaking the only opponent that followed him to the goal line.
He then doesn't rush his play. He doesn't have good options since all his forwards have moved to the slot and into coverage. So he fakes the pass to the top of zone, moving #9 of Northeastern University into a lane along the boards that he has no intention of using, and instead lifts the puck to his defence partner who came through the middle, creating a shot opportunity with heavy traffic in front.
Misdirection, or playing with opponents’ expectations, is an integral part of the defenceman's game, and he grew very effective at using it as the season went on.
Leaving any kind of open ice to Quinn Hughes is a bad idea for the other team. So the fact that he is so skilled at creating it himself makes him even more dangerous.
He is the full package offensively. His playmaking skills might not equal some of the players most versed in that category in the draft, like Ryan Merkley, but he is a special talent who is able to act as the primary quarterback of a team's offence.
He showed this talent at the World Championship were he was used on the main power play despite a lineup that was full of NHL players. His mobility and passing ability made him very effective there.
Hughes wasn't exclusively used with a man advantage. He was also given the opportunity for five-on-five shifts against professionals. And this is where we got a chance to see what he could potentially do at the NHL level with some time and refinement.
He can be all over the ice in a single shift, acting as support to all of his teammates. He can defend off the rush, orchestrate the breakout, jump on the attack with his forwards, get back on defence to break up a play after a turnover, carry the puck out of his end again, try for a backdoor play all the way near the opposing net, and finish his shift by ripping a wrist shot on net after sliding back along the offensive blue line.
His defensive game is a work in progress, but progress there was this season. This is also why he got the opportunity he did to play for the US team at the World Championship.
He will never be an imposing player, but he is a smart defender who anticipates opposing plays well and is quickly learning to be consistently positionally sound. The tools he possesses — his outstanding skating ability and his great stick — led him to be effective at defending off the rush, prevent access to his blue line, and pick the pocket of opponents to quickly take the play the other way.
Considering the development he had this year in this facet of the game, it is now possible that Hughes could make his debut in the top league in the world as soon as next season.
He has the tools to potentially hold his own even against tough competitive and get up to pace with the game as the year goes on, while, not unlike Zadina, contributing to an NHL power play. It’s not an unrealistic consideration by any means.
That being said, more time to work on his game in the NCAA wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Hughes. On the contrary. This option is more likely as the team drafting him wouldn’t have the luxury of a main training camp to evaluate their new star asset (t is not possible for college players to have had professional experience while playing in the NCAA).
A 2018-19 season with the Michigan Wolverines is where we could see an explosion for the diminutive player, not unlike what Habs fan saw with Ryan Poehling as a sophomore this year. Hughes had already made large strides during the year and he could very well be the top blue-liner in the NCAA in just a few months’ time. It will be the next step toward becoming an impactful defenceman as soon as 2019-20.
Even if the Habs go against the projections of most scouting services out there and select Quinn Hughes at number three, they won't be making a mistake.
Hughes projects as a top-pairing defender. He wouldn’t be a traditional one, but due to outstanding abilities, could act as the main piece in a team’s transition game for years to come, which is what today’s NHL is all about anyway.
He is not a perfect player, but none of the prospects remaining after the first two selections will be.
Filip Zadina has to work on his quickness and was not often used for defensive zone starts in Halifax. His underdeveloped two-way game could pose some problems in the NHL.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has to fix his skating stride to reach his projected NHL top-6 potential and needs more experience at centre; a position he didn’t really play in Liiga, only internationally.
Brady Tkachuk has the more NHL-ready game right now, but there are concerns about leaving more skill on the draft board by selecting him so high.
If you are looking long term, you have to bet on the player with the most upside.
And that could very well be Quinn Hughes.
Views from across SB Nation
“Hughes’ track record this season has been nothing but spectacular.” - [Winging It In Motown]
“He is one of the most naturally talented players in the draft and has all the makings of a high-end puck-moving NHL defenceman.” - [Mile High Hockey]
“In terms of talent, Hughes is one of the most elite upside players in this draft” [Canes Country]
“He’s the quintessential puck-moving defenceman who can push the defense back with his skating prowess alone.” [Broad Street Hockey]
Read more on the draft-eligible prospects in SB Nation’s draft hub.
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