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Reviewing the Montreal Canadiens’ 2020 Draft class

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Opinions on all the decisions made by the Canadiens over the two days of the draft.

Prince Albert Raiders v Kelowna Rockets Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

To properly evaluate a draft class, at least five years have to pass, sometimes more. Only after prospects complete their Junior or college paths, only through the benefit of hindsight and with seasons of data can their draft selections be fully and correctly evaluated.

But who has that kind of patience? It’s much more fun to judge harshly now and be wrong later.

Some prospects have a base of skills that scale better to the NHL and respond better to specific coaching. They are the ones you draft. By looking for projectable NHL elements, it is possible to evaluate the Montreal Canadiens’ 2020 class, and do so now, while keeping in mind the uncertainty of the forecast. Some prospects will surprise and others will disappoint.

These assessments will be based on my view of the players. I spent the past season following QMJHL players closely for EP Rinkside, the new draft division of Elite Prospects. Every weekend, I drove to arenas, sat in the pressbox, and then high in the stands when I realized I liked the point of view better. I watched many games on video and even more when the season was cancelled, getting familiar with the prospects selected in the early rounds, and most of the Russian draft-eligibles. Then, through multiple meetings and discussions with the members of the EP Rinkside staff, my picture of the 2020 Draft class started to fill.

I won’t pretend to know all draft-eligible players, and I won’t speculate on key information Montreal might have gathered through interviews. But as much as possible, I’ll try to provide an honest evaluation of the 2020 Habs class. The article won’t contain video, however; we will have plenty of time to dive into all the strengths and flaws mentioned.

Kaiden Guhle, LD, Prince Albert Raiders

Guhle going to Montreal wasn’t a big surprise. In fact, it wasn’t one at all. The prospect checks all of the Habs’ boxes and I’m willing to bet that, even if they had a slightly earlier pick, say between 11th and 15th, Guhle would have been the selection anyway.

Unless a winger significantly more talented than his peers falls (someone like Cole Caufield for example) the Canadiens tend to draft centremen and defencemen at the top of the draft. For them, those prospects have more inherent value and make for better assets. Montreal also wants those high picks to skate at a projectable above-average level, to demonstrate high character, and play a type of game that, at face-value, translates well to the NHL.

Guhle fits the Habs mould.

Of course, as the team prepared to annonce their selection, I was in the process of rapidly piecing together Dawson Mercer highlight clips. The QMJHL forward remained on the board and a small part of me thought they might select him. Mercer is more skilled than Guhle while also having an equally likely path to the NHL. But of course, the defenceman featured higher on the team’s list. Mercer might move to the wing in his rise to the league and needs to work on his skating. Guhle? You can already picture him playing his exact type of game in the NHL.

That is both what is great and unappealing about the defenceman. With his aggressive, quick, and controlled footwork, and his ability to hone in an opponent, he will shut down both the opposing rush and cycle early and then help his team’s attack pick up steam and break into the offensive zone by activating up ice.

But Guhle’s tool-base overshadows his mental one (a theme in the early parts of the Habs’ draft). Even against lower-paced WHL opponents, he lacks poise and only inconsistently shows the scanning, timing, and faking abilities that characterize the best puck-movers and shutdown defenders. He seems aware of his downfalls and could work to build strong transition plays step by step, but he currently has a lot of ground to make up.

Due to those same underdeveloped skills in possession, I doubt Guhle becomes an offensive generator in the NHL. In his next couple of years in the WHL, he will continue to score more and more points due to an increase in usage, power-play time, and his sheer physical dominance. However, production coming from disproportionate opportunities and advantages in Junior doesn’t translate as well.

That said, even if there are a couple of reservations with the pick, I think it was a very good one. Guhle will play in the NHL. His drive and above-average skating ability should lead him to top-four minutes and his impressive reach and physicality is coveted by coaches. Flashes of deceptive plays over the course of the season also suggest that the defenceman will learn to dominate opponents in other ways than just his physical tools.

Luke Tuch, LW, Boston University

NHL teams and EP Rinkside have drastically different views of Luke Tuch. It seems like a few different organizations wanted Tuch in the second round — the Habs ultimately picked him there — while the winger didn’t feature at all on EP’s draft board.

The NHL values Tuch’s power-forward archetype very highly. The interest in Josh Anderson and the $38-million contract ultimately given to him proves this. Simply put, few forwards combine high mobility, physicality, and skill. The laws of economics tell us that when something has low availability and high demand, the price rises on the market. and also the draft.

While Tuch’s season might not exactly have warranted a second-round pick, teams are competing with each other for the same players, so the Habs didn’t wait to snatch the winger. More than anyone else, they believed in the flashes he showed last season.

Tuch played on a weaker version of the US National Team Development Program. There was no Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, or Trevor Zegras to feed him passes. But it’s not like he didn’t get opportunities to score, getting top-six minutes on the wing of another clever playmaker in Thomas Bordeleau. He was set up for a successful season.

His fine, but not exceptional, 0.63 point-per-game rate can be explained by decision-making issues and a lack of skill refinement.

He handles the puck better than most USHL players. Even under pressure he can protect it with his body, move it around sticks, make slip-passes with his forehand and backhand, and shoot it precisely in-stride with appropriate footwork. But he plays with blinders. He doesn’t always shoulder-check before making passes, often gets absorbed in the movement of the puck when away from it, and fixated on trying certain plays even when they have little chance of working.

If he is going to move ahead of the play at the NCAA level, his skating also needs work. His extension is short and his recovery wide; his stride projects as below-average in the NHL. His physical interventions also lack timing and structure. He doesn’t yet know how to effectively use his body to separate opponents from the puck.

So while Tuch does have two of three elements that make a great power forward — size and handling skills — his game has to develop in many other facets (awareness, skating, effective use of physicality) to transform him into that elusive top-six NHL menace.

With so many elements to develop, the deck is stacked against the prospect, but if Tuch can significantly improve at least one of those facets, a spot at the bottom of Montreal’s lineup might open up for him at the end of his college career.

Jan Mysak, C, Hamilton Bulldogs

Mysak developed quickly and put himself on NHL teams’ radar early. As a 16-year-old, he dominated the Czech Junior leagues, the under-18 tournament, and played games in the Czech Extraliga. When his ice time stayed limited, he moved overseas to the Hamilton Bulldogs and scored at more than a point-per-game pace centring OHL star Arthur Kaliyev.

Mysak dominates his Junior peers through pure skill. He drives past defenders, shoots in stride or off passes, and fluidly moves the puck through sticks while coming up the wall in the offensive zone. The centreman’s feet never stop moving. He hunts the puck, lays the occasional big hit, and jumps on the attack as soon as his team establishes control of the puck. But unless Mysak’s game gets an influx of creativity, his skill won’t be enough to carry him at the professional level. His skating and handling skills only project as NHL-average and they will need to be supplemented by better habits to generate high point totals.

Instead of driving up ice in a straight line to beat defenders wide with his speed, Mysak should add more weaving patterns to manipulate the feet of opponents. Instead of trying to challenge them one-on-one with handling moves, the forward should attack space, keep his head up to find teammate, and turn his back to opponents to protect the disc in order to avoid turnovers.

Even if Mysak doesn’t improve his offensive habits, his pace and defensive engagement (even if it lacks refinement right now) could still give him a professional role, but a lesser one than he should aspire to. He risks being utilized by coaches only as a checking forward.

That being said, in the middle of the second round, Mysak is the kind of bet you take. He has several NHL qualities and a fall-back game, meaning that even if he can’t maximize his tools, he could still become a useful every-night player in other ways.

Trade - 57th overall for 123rd overall and a 2021 second-rounder

At the 57th overall slot, many prospects with top-six and top-four potential remained; players like Daniil Gushchin (a shifty, dual-threat USHL forward), and Jérémie Poirier (one of the best playmakers from the back-end). But those players obviously all have flaws that range from size to skating ability. Plus, they wouldn’t make the Habs lineup until at least the 2022-23 season.

Montreal hopes to compete for a playoff spot for the foreseeable future and the trade gives the organization flexibility and buying power to improve the lineup within their newly opened competitive window. An extra 2021 second-rounder could turn into an immediate addition of talent at the next trade deadline.

Considering that the three 2020 second-rounders were in the latter half of the round, I also doubt the team could have packaged them to move up into the late first round. Although for me, Swedish defenceman Helge Grans, who went to the Los Angeles Kings at 35th overall, would have been worth the two prospects drafted by Montreal at 47th and 48th, and maybe even the extra pick given to the Lightning.

With the amount of draft capital and young players that the team has accumulated, overpaying to steal a top prospect isn’t as much of a risk anymore. Montreal might also run into issues with contract limits in the next couple of years, and trading up or transferring picks to later seasons helps prevent that problem.

Trade - 97th overall for Washington's third-rounder from San Jose

This trade serves a bit of the same purpose. The organization is adding assets to use in trades and also spreading their picks over multiple years so that prospects don’t all have to be signed at the same time.

Jack Smith, C, St. Cloud Cathedral

Minnesota’s high-school hockey system is a smaller but relatively fertile ground for NHL talent. Every once in a while, one prospect pops up at the famous interschool tournament, dazzling scouts with his majestic flow and dominant on-ice play.

The 101st player drafted in 2020, Jack Smith has been a regular at the Class A tournament, winning last year with the St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders, and losing in the quarter-final this season to Blake Biondi (the Habs’ 108th overall pick).

Unfortunately, Smith escaped the relatively wide net of EP Rinkside. He was injured for part of the season and didn’t feature on our board due to a lack of viewings. After watching many of his games from last season, however, he should have.

Like many other high-schoolers, Smith’s has a few bad habits, like an inconsistent pace and a tendency to attack in straight lines and force certain plays, but his tools project as NHL-average and he uses them in creative ways. He attacks with speed, handles the puck deceptively at his hip, looks off his intended pass targets, attracts defenders to his position to set up teammates, and attacks the middle of the ice.

Smith won’t get as many puck touches and scoring chances in the USHL, but if he becomes more efficient and maintains a consistently high tempo, the points will come for him next year with the Sioux Falls Stampede, and the year after when he joins the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Considering the talent left on the board at this point in the draft, and the fact that the Habs will be able to oversee Smith’s development for the next five years, the St. Cloud Cathedral forward was a smart pick at the start of the fourth round. He possesses the necessary foundation to build himself into an NHLer.

Blake Biondi, LW, Hermantown

Blake Biondi is Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey 2020. That award is given to the most outstanding high-school hockey player in the state. He received it after producing at a ridiculous 3.04 points-per-game rate over the season and finishing as the runner-up in the State Tournament.

Despite the award and the high production, however, Biondi’s path to the NHL is quite hard to see.

His skating suffers from a slew of mechanical issues, every part of it needs tweaking: the uncontrolled upper-body movement, his kicking and wide skate recovery, his inconsistent ankle, knee, and hip bend, and the extension of his pushes. Some prospects rely on crossovers when their forward strides lag, but even if Biondi can pick up more speed by crossing his feet, his strides remain short and ineffective. He doesn’t lean into them, and as a result, hops on the ice.

The forward compensates for his mobility problems by staying in motion and reacting at a fast pace. He creates scoring chances by intercepting passes on the forecheck with timely reads and by ragdolling opponents with pure strength when he can close on them along the boards. His ability to support teammates in transition by skating along the right paths at the right time also helps him consistently generate shots.

Due to his skating flaws, however, that kind of rushing and forechecking game might not translate to higher levels. Biondi’s imprecise footwork also affects his shooting (he often fires by twisting his body instead of stepping into his release to activate the flex of the stick), and his ability to protect the puck. When he rushes up ice, the puck tends to spring off his blade due to the rocking movement created by his uneven strides. He further compounds the problem by handling way in front of him with his top hand locked to his hip, exposing the disc to pokechecks.

On top of all that, Biondi misses plays due to an inconsistent awareness of teammates and defenders, and a general lack of feel for the space available to him.

Evidently, Montreal sees a lot more in the prospect than I do. The organization is probably hoping that Minnesota Duluth develops Biondi’s skill and vision habits to the point where the prospect’s pacey forecheck and support game translate to the NHL.

Sean Farrell, LW, Harvard University

Farrell is by far the class’s best playmaker.

The winger makes plays at his top speed that most other prospects don’t see while standing still. He attacks through the neutral zone at a high pace, breaks through the wide or centre lane (depending on what is available), downshifts to create space, and finds teammates in the middle of the ice with multiple different kinds of passes. When there are no available options, Farrell doesn’t force plays; he holds on to the puck and springs away from defenders with deep, timely cutbacks until a linemate can separate from his coverage. He can also open passing lanes with head-fakes and by slipping the pucks under sticks.

Away from the puck, Farrell shows qualities that could make him a more prolific scorer given time. When teammates control the puck below the goal line, he sneaks behind the back of defenders and attacks the slot when he senses a pass coming, avoiding stick-checks and creating catch-and-release or one-timer opportunities. He also works through traffic to get his blade on the puck when it sits in the crease.

Due to his multiple offensive talents, the winger rose all the way up to the 42nd spot on EP’s board. It was then a surprise to see him slip to the fourth round on draft day.

That being said, a few factors can explain it, including his autumn birthday (he was one of the older first-year players in the draft), his smaller size (5’9”), and the fact that he played on a stacked Chicago Steel team. Scouts may not have believed that his numbers represent his true talent.

Farrell also overwhelmed opponents with his speed, but he won’t be able to generate as big a momentum difference at the next level. To beat defenders, his rushes will have to become more creative with patterns and changes of speed.

Still, I think Farrell could easily end up as the second-best prospect in the Canadiens draft class. I would have comfortably selected him with the Habs’ 47th overall pick. His tools, vision, adaptability, pace, and his desire to get to the net (away from the puck) should more than make up for his smaller size.

Jakub Dobes, G, Omaha Lancers

I won’t pretend I know how to analyze goalies. Everything that happens in the blue paint is as mysterious to me as the Bermuda Triangle. Instead of spewing a bunch of clichés, I will just say that using a pick on a re-entry goalie probably points to a significant progression in his game.

Alexander Gordin, LW, SKA-1946

Gordin is my favourite pick of the Habs’ 2020 class. I advocated a lot for the Russian forward over the course of the season and finally managed to get him included on EP Rinkside’s last draft board in the 124th spot. His game isn’t nearly as projectable to the NHL as Farrell’s, but Gordin is fun. Extremely fun.

At the time of writing, the winger had already scored 11 points in six games for SKA-1946 in the MHL. He is simply too talented for the Junior league. He knows all of its inner workings and really needs an upgrade in competition.

Gordin is smarter than everyone else on the Russian Junior ice. His skating projects as significantly below NHL average, but it doesn’t really matter against his peers because he barely needs to stride. He anticipates where the puck will move and glides to scoring areas to present himself as a pass option. His shot cleanly beats all goalies at that level. He can fire off either leg, change the angle on his releases, and one-time pucks from awkward positions.

He is an equally talented playmaker, but again doesn’t push the pace of the game in any form. He uses give-and-gos, moves defenders out of the way with fakes and timely handling moves, and holds them on his back until he finds a seam to the slot.

In other words, Gordin has learned to maximize his assets and play around his flaws. That is not necessarily a good thing, however, as his current style of game will not translate to the NHL.

SKA’s coaching staff has to challenge him more. He needs to change his style of game, raise his tempo, and improve his skating. Hopefully he is given a chance to test himself in the KHL over the course of the season.

Even if it is unlikely that he moulds himself into an NHLer, I believe in Gordin. As a general rule, I would sooner bet on a prospect with superior hockey sense than one who possess interesting tools but lacks the foresight to use them to full capacity.

Trade - 187th overall for Chicago’s 2021 seventh-rounder

This trade is another case of the Habs spreading their picks over multiple years to not bust the contract limit. Trading a seventh-rounder is also kind of a Habs tradition. Maybe even a superstition at this point.

Draft Overview

My one gripe with Montreal’s draft is that they once again went into it with a certain player archetype in mind. They always half-deny approaching drafts in this way in interviews, but it is quite clear when looking at the classes after the fact. The team wanted to add size and strength to their pool — a theme of this off-season — and they accomplished it with the selection of Kaiden Guhle and Luke Tuch, and to a lesser extent with Jan Mysak and Blake Biondi. Those players all have quite a physical component to their games.

To add that physicality, the team passed on potential high-upside playmakers and scorers like Dawson Mercer (18th overall, New Jersey), Mavrik Bourque (30th overall, Dallas Stars), Theodor Niederbach (51th overall, Detroit), and Jérémie Poirier (72th overall, Calgary). All of those players have sizable flaws (skating, pace, defensive game), but due to their uncommon skill set and their potential to boost the core of a lineup, they earned first-round grades from EP Rinkside.

That being said, it was a pretty good draft for the Canadiens. They still added skill, rightfully banked some of their picks, and should get at least one full-time NHLer out of the class, which is a relative win considering the poor track record of teams at the draft. Guhle will surely make the big league at some point in the next three years and one of the forwards could get there, too. Sean Farrell would be my bet.

Time will tell.