Predicting the later rounds of the NHL Draft is an extremely hard exercice. Teams rarely select players with clear patterns. They want to fill certain needs, balance their selections, and sometimes jump early at the occasion to snatch lesser-known players that they love. Maybe they caught them for a few games at minor tournaments or (in previous years) saw them perform at a private combine. I bet the Midget AAA Calgary Northstars U18 didn’t expect to hear the name of one of their players last year. The Montreal Canadiens, especially, are full of surprises.
Even if eyebrows are sometimes raised when the Habs speak on draft day, specifically in the sixth and seventh rounds, the organization still has laid out a track record of preferring certain leagues and types of prospects.
So, based on tendencies and past connections, here is a list of names we could see the Habs select on Wednesday.
After impressing at the World Under-18 Championship in 2019, Yevgeni Oksentyuk didn’t get drafted — probably because he played in the relatively obscure Belarus leagues for most of the season. But the Canadiens extended him an invite to their rookie camp, showing that the shifty, diminutive forward had sparked their interest.
Well, the team was right to be intrigued, and maybe they should have picked him up in the late rounds in 2019, because now Oksentyuk will likely feature on the list of most NHL teams after a 78-point season with the Flint Firebirds.
Oksentyuk picked up right where he left off at development camp. After flashing his one-on-one abilities, beating many of the Habs’ drafted defenders outright in the summer, the winger proceeded to do the same to OHL opponents. His combination of skill, motor, deception, willingness to attack the middle, and ability to find soft spots in coverage turned him instantly into a dominant player in the league.
The Canadiens love their hard-working, small forwards, especially the ones who can supplement high energy with skill. They would have kept an eye on Oksentyuk throughout the season. If the organization believes he can continue to improve his speed, we could see them use one of their first few selections on the second day of the draft on him.
Merisier-Ortiz is another 2019 camp invite who had a great season. He went from an effective QMJHL defender to arguably one of the very best defenceman in the league. The Drakkar were outmatched in most of their games last season, but when he anchored their back end, they remained competitive.
The prospect is a very advanced defender for his age. He is aware of all threats around him, closes on them quickly, adopts the best positioning to limit risks, and helps teammates in their own coverage when needed without losing sight of the whole defensive picture. His explosive position allows him to quickly counter the moves of the opposition. When he gets the puck, he uses the same superior skating ability coupled with timely fakes to elude the forecheck and move the play up ice through short and long passes.
Altought he always involves himself in the play, the defenceman likely won’t be a point-getter at the next level. His offensive play is often limited to walking the blue line and shooting from there. But projecting the rest of the defenceman’s game to professional play is only getting easier and easier.
The Canadiens would be right to circle back on Merisier-Ortiz. He has shown continued improvement and could add to their defensive depth in a few years.
Trevor Timmins always attends the Junior A Challenge in December. It’s a way for him to gather information on some prospects playing overseas, especially the Russian ones. It’s where Alexander Romanov first caught his interest in 2018. Well, this year, the best player on Team Russia was Vasily Ponomarev.
Ponomarev started the year as one of the top prospects for the 2020 Draft, so he isn’t exactly a ‘‘late-round’’ target. But since his year in the QMJHL with the Shawinigan Cataractes fell short of expectations, it’s possible that the Russian forward slides down to one of Montreal’s second-round spots.
The centreman fits the Canadiens’ style of play very well. He was one of the best forechecking threats in the QMJHL, both due to a skating ability that projects as slightly above NHL average and due to an unrelenting motor. He also angles opponents and anticipates passing lanes effectively. He isn’t as effective defensively in his own end as he is up ice currently, but his forechecking mechanics should allow him to stop the cycle in time, too.
On top of showing some advanced off-puck elements, Ponomarev is skilled and confident with the puck. Primarily a playmaker, the Russian winger supports teammates well and uses precise one-touch passes to create tic-tac-toe plays with them. When passing lanes aren’t open, he can also take on the defence himself, beating them with creative handling moves, or leaning on them to attack the net.
A lack of ability to manipulate defenders and quickly adapt his plays against a defensive response probably limited his production in the Q this year — that, and the relatively weak state of the Cataractes — but his production should increase significantly this year. He might not end up as a surefire top-six player, but he could drive the play on a third line in the NHL.
What do Kieran Ruscheinski — the Midget AAA prospect mentioned above — and Arvid Henrikson have in common? They are both seventh-rounders who tower over everyone else on the ice. Considering the Habs’ penchant for drafting those kind of defencemen in the late rounds, 6’8” Louis Crevier could very well be a target of the team on Wednesday.
Crevier took massive strides in his development this year after getting passed over in the draft last season. He might not ever be an NHL average skater, but he moves very well for his size. Really, when you possess the reach he has, there is less of a need for agility and explosiveness. Attackers think they can escape him with a tight turn, only to see his stick poke the puck away from them anyway.
On top of possessing physical gifts, Crevier has the mental aspect of defending down. Even if he still needs to work on his gap control off the rush, he switches assignments and anticipates passes reasonably well in his zone. With the puck, Crevier is pretty much only a big shot. He can score from the point and occasionaly jumps down for slapshots.
The defenceman is a project, but arguably a more interesting one than the large defenders Montreal added at the end of the draft in recent years. There’s a good chance that Crevier doesn’t even make it that far this year.
In the past two drafts, the Canadiens have selected defencemen out of high school, first Jordan Harris from Kimball Union and then Jayden Struble from St. Sebastian’s. Those prospects are often quite raw due to only being exposed to a low level of hockey, but the college route gives them time to develop and round out their game. The team also retains their rights for longer.
Ian Moore could be another interesting target for the Canadiens. Not unlike Struble, Moore has superior physical tools. He stands 6’3”, skates at a projectable above-average level, loves to carry the puck ... and has times where he tunes out of games completely and makes risky decisions.
Moore will play a year in the USHL and then join Harvard University. He is another long-term project with a large upside.
I am not sure you can call Samuel Johannesson a surprise pick anymore, especially if you have followed Eyes On The Prize throughout our draft coverage. The smooth-skating defender follows a pattern set by Montreal with drafting Swedish over-agers, such as Lukas Vejdemo and most recently Mattias Norlinder. Both seem to be picks that have paid off; Vejdemo has scored in the NHL, and Norlinder is one of the highest-ranked prospects in Montreal’s system.
Johannesson has played his way into Rögle’s lineup, where his hockey IQ and skating have shone, especially toward the end of last season and the start of the current one. He will not be ready to cross the Atlantic directly, but would follow the same pattern as Artturi Lehkonen and the two previously mentioned players, building up his physique and working on his deficiencies for three-to-four years before being ready for the Canadiens. Once that is complete, he could fill a role on the second or third pairing on an NHL team.
The short forward had a successful year in the Junior leagues in Sweden. He played for both the U18s and U20s in Malmö, albeit only one game for the U18s. He dominated the U20 lineup, and scored a whopping 48 points (22G, 26A) in 38 games. While his skating isn’t elite, it’s not bad. The question lingers if he can work on it in order to get to the level where it offsets his stature.
His hockey IQ is strong. He keeps his head up, so he sees a lot of the ice and can distribute passes to where teammates will end up and not just were they are. He has a good shot, which he can change directions on late thanks to his strong wrists.
Montreal seems to pick a few of the small-statured forwards with good sense of the game, given the likes of Martin Réway, Joni Ikonen, Cam Hillis and Rhett Pitlick, and it would not be a surprise to hear Magnusson’s name being called up by Timmins.
The big forward made his SHL debut last season, and in the 11 games that he played he earned two assists. He is the same kind of player as Jacob Olofsson, someone who can play more or less any role on the team due to his understanding of the game. Heineman has strong skating attributes and he works hard all over the ice. As Marc Bergevin would say, he is a “character player.”
He isn’t afraid to use his body along the boards, be it to protect the puck or to deliver a hit to the opposing player. He is already averaging over 12 minutes a game in the SHL, which is impressive as Leksand’s top forward line averages around 24 minutes by itself. Just like Olofsson he lacks a bit of offensive upside, and especially his shot is not as strong as it should be. It is, however, safe to say that Heineman will have a long career in professional hockey, and if he works hard and improves every year it could take him to the NHL down the line.
We have already profiled Öberg in a separate piece leading up to the draft, but that was before he started his sophomore season in the SHL. If he was largely an unknown before, he has strengthened his status now. Through four games, he has five goals registered to his name, including a hat trick against Leksand last Friday. Interestingly, this means that he has already outperformed the goal-scoring results from his rookie campaign.
Öberg is a tough and gritty winger who is not afraid to let his body do the dirty work. His shot is one of his greatest assets, but he can score both from afar and when he’s placed as a pest in the crease. His stamina is extraordinary as demonstrated when he thrashed the club record in the Cooper Test this summer, right before his 20th birthday.
He has grown a lot these last few years, both physically and especially mentally. He could very well become the latest in an impressive line of over-age Swedes taking the long and winding road before one day ending up in the NHL.
For additional information about Öberg, listen to our interview with him and his coach Niklas Eriksson below
I find it difficult to explain why Puutio is being slept on by so many. A good skating, puck-moving defenceman with an above-average slapshot should be intriguing enough to at least be worth a mid-round pick. Yet most draft analysts don’t seem to have him on their radar. Future Considerations for example, have him ranked as number 188 on their draft board. If he falls that far, he would be a steal for whomever picks him up.
Puutio played last year in the WHL, splitting time between the Swift Current Broncos and the Everett Silvertips. In total, he registered 28 points in 56 games before choosing to return to his home team, Kärpät. They were solid numbers, but nothing out of the ordinary.
His step over to North America rather seems to have diminished his draft status, all of a sudden ranking below compatriots Eemil Viro and Joni Jurmo. I find this odd, considering he was the first overall pick in the 2019 CHL Import Draft.
Puutio is not a finished product by any means, nor should he be as a mid– to late-round guy. He has a tendency to overwork his defensive game and become overly active with his stick in his own zone. He also tends to take chances in the transition game, which sometimes works out brilliantly while other times putting his team at risk for turnovers.
Still, with his shot, his skating and his hockey sense combined, there are tools to like if you are an NHL franchise in search of a puck-mover on the blue line. If Montreal doesn’t end up drafting a right-handed defenceman with one of its first four picks, Puutio could be a name to look out for when we enter rounds three and four.