The Montreal Canadiens had a ton of quality picks in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. With that said, their first three picks have looked great so far, as all three players picked in the top 40 have already looked very solid at the pro level. This includes two of the three already being regulars in the NHL.
The best part is that those two players (Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alex Romanov) were supposedly reaches when the Habs drafted them and now look like solid NHLers. Saying that this draft could be the best in over 30 years is a very bold prediction, especially with the 2007 Draft the team had. But if these three players continue to progress and become the guys they can potentially be, it really could challenge the 2007 Draft. This would especially be the case if the Canadiens get another player like Jordan Harris or Cam Hillis to develop into an NHL regular. That would be what would take this draft above the one in 2007.
A good draft is when you can get two regulars from it, which the Habs already have. That alone is rare, but three or four NHL players would make this an absolutely amazing draft, which their first three picks are making a case for.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 3rd Overall
Sure, there are questions that Kotkaniemi was the right pick at 3rd overall, but he was a project when drafted, expected to only make his debut about two years after being drafted. However, he made his debut at 18 and had a strong rookie campaign, showing that he indeed could play right away.
Unfortunately, his sophomore season was full of injuries and slumps, which resulted in him having a stint in the AHL with the Laval Rocket. The stint was the best thing for the young Finnish forward, as it allowed him to dominate his competition. But his 2019-20 season ended early when he injured his spleen.
Luckily for him, the whole world hit pause as the COVID pandemic started, and with that, it allowed him to return to the Canadiens for the playoff play-in. It was here that Kotkaniemi proved that he really can be the two-way centre the Habs were hoping for when they drafted him. In just 10 games, he finished tied for the team lead in goals with four and led the way in hits, showing a power forward style of play.
This season, Kotkaniemi has re-found his playmaking game that was visible in his rookie season and his 12-game stint in the AHL. Through 23 games, he has put up 9 assists and 11 points. His offensive has especially gotten better this past week since Alex Burrows took over the power play coaching duties. This will only help the 20-year old going forward as he continues to develop into his body.
Jesse Ylonen, 35th Overall
The second pick of that draft, Jesse Ylonen, is in his first pro season in North America and has already proven to be one of the best players on the Laval Rocket. In eight games, the Finnish winger has scored two goals and 6 points, which ties him for the team lead in points with third-year player Lukas Vejdemo and veteran Jordan Weal. Ylonen has proven that he can drive play on a nightly basis in the AHL.
It shouldn’t be long before he gets a shot to show what he can do in the NHL. It wouldn’t be a stretch to actually project him onto the Habs opening night roster next season. This will especially be the case if the Habs decide to move on from fellow countryman Joel Armia, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Both players are big body forwards who play a similar power forward game. With Ylonen emerging as a possible NHL-ready prospect and being the cheaper option, it could make sense for him to replace Armia. The only thing is that it is a downgrade a bit defensively, but it should come as he develops.
He may not be in the NHL yet, but there is a tremendously high chance he’ll be with the Habs in the very near future.
Alexander Romanov, 38th Overall
Romanov was a pretty unknown defenseman on draft day back in 2018, but he has since become a very solid player in the Canadiens organization. Drafted 38th, he was projected by many scouts to be picked more in the 100th pick range but has proven why he just may be the ultimate second-round steal.
After the Habs drafted him, Romanov proved many scouts wrong, as he won the Best Defenseman honours at the 2019 World Junior Championship for Russia. Once he showed up at the tournament, he was put on the map as an elite NHL prospect. Not to mention, he was also playing for CSKA Moscow as the youngest player in the KHL during the 2018-19 season, which definitely shows he was above his age group.
However, CSKA never really gave him the opportunity to flourish in the KHL, and it was his two World Junior performances that made him stand out. It has been argued that the KHL often doesn’t give young players who aspire to go to the NHL much ice time, as Romanov wasn’t the first and nor will he be the last in this situation.
Nonetheless, he’s had a solid first season in the NHL with the Habs thus far. Not without any rookie mistakes, but he has held his own pretty well in his first 23 games in the best league in the world. It will only be a matter of time before he continues to get more minutes and have a more prominent role. This season will continue to serve as a great learning experience for Romanov as he adjusts better to the North American game.
Nick is a journalism student at Concordia University. He has been writing about the Habs and hockey for almost 7 years now for websites such as AWinninghabit and Last Word on Hockey. he hopes to one day work TSN.