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Thoughts on the Montreal Canadiens’ draft and development camp

Evaluating not just the players, but the decisions to pick them over other options during the draft.

NHL: JUN 26 Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

More than two weeks have passed since the draft and I have had time to go back to take a look at the latest additions to the Montreal Canadiens’ prospect pool. Most of the players selected I knew from the draft preparation that led up to the event, but there were definitely some surprises. After a bit more research, here are some thoughts on Montreal’s 2019 draft class.

15th overall - Cole Caufield, RW, USNTDP

In some ways, this pick was even more exciting than Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s last year. Kotkaniemi was somewhat expected going into the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft. We didn’t know for sure that Montreal would target the centre after the balls fell in their favor and gifted them the third overall pick, but multiple sources pointed to that outcome. In Kotkaniemi, the Habs got the fifth-ranked player on my draft board last year, a player I thought would be a good addition at selection number three.

This year, the team again got my fifth-ranked player — but at 15th overall.

Concerns over size and Caufield’s game lacking the multiple dimensions of many of the other top drafted players probably led to his fall. That, and many scouting staffs banking on certain players like Moritz Seider who showed less in their draft years but have interesting tools.

Scouting staffs are under a lot of pressure when they have a high pick — they can’t miss. It’s something Trevor Timmins stated in interviews before to the draft. Under that light, it’s easier to understand why teams would pass on Caufield, who is inherently a higher-risk pick, and choose players like Seider or even Cam York. They will probably play in the league, and should that eventually happen their selections will be viewed as a success, but they might not end up being top-pairing defencemen from what they showed this year. Caufield, in the eyes of many scouts, will either score goals in the NHL, or not make it to the league at all.

What led me to rank Caufield fifth overall is that I think he will score. Pure tools are not what I base this prediction on, but more on the diminutive winger’s natural ability to find space, position himself advantageously and generally be one step ahead of the play. His shot is one of the better ones in his draft class — arguably the best — but it’s Caufield’s anticipation that is the pillar of his goal-scoring. He is smart enough to turn his size into an advantage, sneaking behind and in between defenders.

Caufield is the polar opposite of many top Junior scorers. Goal-scoring based around standing around the blue paint for extended periods of time, or outskating the defence and beating them wide en route to the net won’t translate as well to the big league for the majority of prospects because it’s not proof of professional ability, but rather preying on the lack of physical development of young defencemen. In the NHL, everyone is strong and fast. You get pushed out from the front of the net and gaps are closed quick and effectively.

Caufield is already scoring from a “disadvantageous position.” Defenders should be able to box him out or close on him to nulify his scoring attempts, as he also isn’t the most mobile skater for his size. Yet he scores more — a lot more — than everyone else in his draft class.

The forward’s size should be just as big a reason to be confident in his ability to evolve into a threatening shooter at the next level. And who’s to say he can’t adapt and change his game a bit to become a well-rounded threat, adding more playmaking chops and using a solid defensive game as a way to spend more time on the attack?

The development camp scrimmages aren’t the best time to judge prospects. The games are played in June, in a stressful environment, with and against unfamiliar players. On top of that, they are not even at five-on-five. They are just that: scrimmages. But, they can provide insight into a prospect’s ability to adapt.

Caufield spend the first two days firing every puck on net. He wanted to score badly and for good reason: it was his first time on the ice in a Montreal Canadiens sweater in front of fans, so he wanted to impress. He also tried to take steps toward the attack in defensive sequences to try to create more chances for himself offensively. It worked at times due to the loose nature of the games, but those tendencies didn’t lead to sustained pressure for his “line,” and in turn cost them a few dangerous chances against, as well.

In the third showing, however, the winger changed his game almost completely. He became a playmaker, and a pretty good one. He assisted on two goals, was at the centre of extended offensive sequences for his group when he was on the ice, and because of that managed to show his prowess as a shooter. He didn’t score on the release below, but the threat of the pass across helped him get closer to the net and mask his firing point better.

We shouldn’t expect Caufield to turn into a dual-threat offensive player to the same extent as some other impactful NHL players, but honing his playmaking skills will help him remain more deceptive and score more goals — his number-one objective. I think he grows into more of a multi-dimensional player in his road to a top-six NHL role, and that’s another reason why I didn’t share the concern of many NHL teams on draft day, why I ranked him fifth overall on my board, and why I think he will be labelled as a steal in a few years.

46th overall - Jayden Struble, LD, St. Sebastian’s School

Timmins never goes into specifics regarding how the team creates its draft board, but he often states that “asset value” is a big part of it. The team seems to choose to rank players not only by overall projection, from best to worst, but also by position, with priority given to centres and defencemen and to what their NHL team’s prospect pool lacks the most at the moment.

Looking at the way they conduct their drafting gives weight to the theory. Last year, the scouting staff needed centre depth, and six of their 11 picks ended up being centremen. This year, Montreal’s biggest need at the NHL level (and generally in organizational depth) was left-handed blue-liners, and half of their picks came from this specific category of players.

It’s a safe bet that the Habs aren’t the only team operating this way, but some others still seem to aim for the best player available. It’s what I consider to be the best strategy at the draft, no matter the circumstances.

At 46th overall, I would have selected Nicholas Robertson, who went a few picks later to Toronto. The Maple Leafs seem to be one of those teams still selecting the highest-upside player at their slot. Even with their NHL team overflowing with forward talent, they still aimed for the dynamic and creative, but diminutive, winger.

The other side of the argument, and probably how Montreal views it, is that they are not at the same point in the contending cycle. The Leafs want to swing hard on draft day on players with more risk as, unlike Montreal, they don’t have the high pick necessary to add high-end talent to their pool. So the Canadiens went on with their plan and emptied the 2019 class of its left-handed defencemen, starting with Jayden Struble.

Looking at it through the Habs lens, keeping in mind their strategy, Struble remains a very interesting pick. He ranked 53rd on my draft board. While there were a few blue-liners with the same handedness ahead of him on the list (they all went shortly after Struble), the 46th overall selection of the Habs demonstrated an intriguing upside due to his great tools, despite playing in a high-school league this season.

He is one of the better skating defencemen in the class, and his mobility should remain an advantage even at the NHL level. He is also a confident and skilled handler in puck possession, and possesses a characteristic that the organization loves in their defencemen: a physical edge.

Alexander Romanov, arguably the best left-handed back in the prospect pool (also picked in the second round) is similarly engaged in the defensive zone. He and Struble routinely use their body to separate opponents from the puck and can clear the front of the net with surprising strength for their young age. Both project to hold their own in close quarters even at the highest level.

Another good sign is that Struble performed well in the scrimmages at development camp. There, he showed the same flashes of offensive capabilities he displayed with his team this season before getting injured.

The structured environment of the NCAA could do wonders to harness the defenceman’s edge and help him put together his numerous skill to develop him into a puck-moving and consistent offensive driver.

64th overall - Mattias Norlinder, LD, Modo

I admit Mattias Norlinder isn’t a player I watched enough of before making my draft board. I won’t go back to change my list, but if I did view more of him, he would probably have been somewhere around the 50th spot, close to Struble.

Norlinder has become an acquired taste for me. He can skate fluidly in all four directions and has enough speed and quickness to separate from opponents. That said, he isn’t as dynamic as he could be with his mobility. His puck-moving and offensive games are based on his vision and ability to identify options under pressure. That shone more in the HockeyAllsvenskan, probably due to options being more readily available there than in the SuperElit J20 league.

The defenceman is older than most of his counterparts in this 2019 class, but being a draft re-entry is compensated for with his solid showings in a pro league last season. He was one of the top defenceman for Modo in the Allsvenskan and this experience against men at what is still a young age bodes well for his NHL projection.

Norlinder was the player Montreal really wanted with their third pick of the draft. The fact that they were able to move back, add a pick, and still grab him is a testament to the work of the team’s scouting. Their abilty to identify talent — Norlinder is just as interesting as the defencemen picked around him — and recognize an opportunity to get their guy later and add value in the process.

This is once again with the perspective that Montreal looked to add left-handed defencemen with most of their picks. Without trading back, the team would have had the option of picking Nicholas Robertson (again) or Robert Mastrosimone, players with lower “asset value” being wingers, but who are smart and offensively talented.

77th overall Gianni Fairbrother, LD, Everett Silvertips
126th overall Jacob LeGuerrier, LD, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

The Habs continued going down their list of left-handed defencemen. At this point in the draft, all players drafted usually have some major flaw in their game, or a collection of smaller ones that make them harder to project to the NHL level. So the team continued to bet on skating ability, size, and physical edge.

Fairbrother isn’t as tall as Jacob LeGuerrier, who stands at 6’3, but he uses his body more effectively. On the other hand, LeGuerrier might be the more mobile player of the two. Both defencemen have puck-moving upside, in that they can find readily available options under pressure or use the boards, but aren’t the players you see creatively shaking the forecheck to hit teammates up the ice. Similarly, they can jump up from their position to support the attack, but weren’t drivers of it by any stretch, even if Fairbrother’s shot — which he displayed at development camp — remains an interesting offensive tool if he can become more accurate with it from the blue line.

Meanwhile, prospects like Alex Beaucage, Pavel Dorofeyev, Anttoni Honka, Maxim Cajkovic, Matias Macceli, Michal Teply, Tuuka Tieksola, Anti Saarela, Arseny Gritsyuk, Leevi Aaltonen all left the board in between these two picks or after the LeGuerrier selection. Not all those players were favourites of mine, but Dorofeyev, Honka, Cajkovic, Tieksola, and Gritsyuk all occupied late spots in my top-62 ranking due to standout attributes and general ability to break games open in a given shift in their respective leagues.

This is the point in the draft where the Habs should absolutely be swinging for these kind of players. Montreal already fulfilled its internal mission. The team acquired all the depth they needed on the left side of their defence with the Norlinder pick in the third round.

Struble, Romanov, and Norlinder, along with Jordan Harris, already made for one of the better prospect pools at the position in the NHL. The inclusion of Fairbrother and LeGuerrier is not what moved the needle for them on that, and swinging for high-upside forwards could bring much more asset value in the future.

131st overall Rhett Pitlick, LW, Chaska High

Thankfully, Montreal immediately went in that direction with their second fifth-round pick. Pitlick didn’t make my draft board mainly due to his tendency to force play after play at the high-school level, but it is undeniable that he has dynamic qualities with the high-churning motor that fuels one of the better skating abilities in the 2019 class. He is a long-term project, but his on-ice work ethic is a good sign for the development of the prospect.

At development camp, Pitlick made some solid defensive reads, even stealing the puck from the most dominant player at the event, Ryan Poehling, more than a few times.

He should be a very useful player for the University of Minnesota on arrival. The maturity gained with a season of more competitive hockey in the USHL next year will only help him in that regard.

138th Frederik Nissen Dichow, G, Vojens

It’s probable that few apart from members of the Habs scouting staff really know who exactly was selected with 138th overall pick of the 2019 draft.

What I can say is that athleticism is important for top netminders, and the 6’5” Nissen Dichow seems to possess it. Goalies are also a bit of a mystery and it applies even more to the draft. So why not go with a bit of an unknown? After all, Pekka Rinne, who was mostly scouted in practices in his draft year, turned out to be one of the better goalies in the NHL years later.

170th Arsen Khisamutdinov, LW, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
201st Rafael Harvey-Pinard, LW, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

This is a new strategy from Montreal’s management: using late-round picks on prospects who could be highly touted free agents a year from now. With Montreal often losing out on signing standout veteran Junior players in particular — even in the QMJHL — this approach has some merit. They are gaining the exclusive rights to prospects with interesting development and players who could realistically fill Laval’s ranks in the next couple of a years. Harvey-Pinard even has a chance to make the squad as soon as this season.

Still, Khisamutdinov and Harvey-Pinard don’t have a ton of perceived upside. The first has an NHL release and the second can set up plays with impressive vision at times, but their game is either average or noticeably below average in a lot of other aspects, especially skating ability.

The issue with drafting older players is that they have less room to improve as they are already more physically mature than first-year-eligible players. Were the Habs still in the mood to swing for the fences — which they seemed to have a limited appetite for at times in this draft — there were still a few prospects with notable flaws, but with both very interesting tools and more possibility to grow their game around them.

Two examples that comes to mind are forward Daniil Gutik, one of the youngest players in the draft who also possesses some of the best hands in the entire class, but with a skating lagging far behind his counterparts, and Billy Constantinou.

Constantinou was invited to the Los Angeles Kings’ development camp right after the draft and was one of the standouts. His showing was enough to earn a place at the Kings’ rookie camp in a few weeks. He has offensive potential and is an exciting puck-rusher due to his quick feet.

206th Kieran Ruscheinski, D, Calgary NorthStars AAA

Ruscheinski is massive and skates well in a straight line, but this selection doesn’t have the makeup of some of the recent seventh-rounders the Habs drafted. Brett Stapley (2018 class) had some clear identifiable elements that would translate to the NCAA: his vision and playmaking abilities. It was the same case for Jake Evans who was the last selection of the 2014 class. Both players weren’t the best skater, but knew how to generate offence. In 2017, Cayden Primeau was a very athletic goalie with the experience of pro hockey through his lineage.

Rushcheinski is a pick that reminds you more of Nikolas Koberstein or Arvid Henriksson; players with impressive physical attributes, but whose profiles don’t give them more than minuscule chance of ever touching NHL ice. Rushcheinski, who spent most of the season in Midget AAA, even played in a tier below Koberstein in his draft year.

This is definitely the case of a Habs scout really believing in the player. But for a profession based so much on experience and comparing players through time, it is interesting that leaps of faith like Ruscheinski still come out from time to time. There are no comparables to him, but there are more than a few individually very skilled, but very raw players — again, like Constantinou — who end up falling to the very end of the draft or passed over in the more well known leagues like the CHL and still made the NHL.

Before being traded to one of the worst teams in the league this season, Constantinou was on a 0.68 points-per-game pace with Niagara. Even accounting for his full season, his 0.50 point-per-game mark is still way more than the 0.33 Ruscheinski managed in Midget AAA. There is obviously more to scouting than numbers, but when the statistical difference is this massive, playing the odds and going by the profile most likely to make the NHL should be the best approach.

It’s often said that getting one or two players from a given draft is a success for an NHL team. I definitely think the Habs get at least two from this class. Even considering my doubts on the latter-rounds picks and my disappointment with the organization not swinging for some potentially dynamic forwards, I have high confidence in the first three selections made by Montreal. I also believe Caufield has the potential to be on the goal-scoring leaderboard of the NHL in a few years’ time. This alone could carry this draft into becoming one of the better ones for the Habs in recent memory.

Many of the prospects added will be very exciting to follow, some of those because of the mystery surrounding them and others because of impressive attributes and even game-breaking talent at their level.

All of them will be covered in our Catching the Torch series for North American players and the European Prospect Report for the overseas prospects come September. It should be another great year to follow along with the players at their various levels.