With the Montreal Canadiens and their fans looking ahead to the NHL Entry Draft, everyone is doing their best Santa Claus impersonations by making their lists and checking them twice, looking to find out if their top pick will end up being nice. Yet beyond their top-five pick, there is uncertainty surrounding their other first-round asset.
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The Canadiens are now waiting to see exactly where the 2023 Florida Panthers first-round pick ends up. There is a certainty now that it will be between 29 and 32. Now, general manager (GM) Kent Hughes will need to decide if he will hold onto the pick and select a prospect to add to his very large pool or use it to add to his roster for the 2023-24 season.
Canadiens Decide to Keep Pick
There is always the option to trade the pick. Hughes could package the Panthers’ first to either trade up or down, if he does, he could use it with the 37th pick to move up to the 20-22 range. But in this scenario, they choose to hold onto the pick to add to a very deep prospect pool, which includes two-time World Junior Championship gold medal winner Joshua Roy.
Who could they select? There is no shortage of quality prospects, as the 2023 Draft class is seen as elite, especially in the first round. The Canadiens have a need for scoring forwards and right-handed puck-moving defensemen. The prospects projected to be available around the 29th pick could fill those needs.
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If they choose to go with defense, Hughes could decide to target Tom Willander, who scored eight points in seven games at the Under 18 World Championship for Sweden on their way to a silver medal. Despite his need to build strength and refine his defensive game, he is an excellent puck-moving prospect with an excellent shot and great vision who could help an NHL power play in a few years. Like Willander, the right-handed Tri-City Americans defender, Lukas Dragicevic, will need time to build his defensive game. But his skating, transitional play, and offensive skills (15 goals and 75 points in 68 games played) make him an intriguing prospect.
Perhaps they can look to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) to select some homegrown talent. Starting with a feisty, gritty two-way forward in Mathieu Cataford, who projects as a good middle-six winger. Or instead, Ethan Gauthier, who has an unwavering desire to forecheck and pressure his opponents into making costly errors. He also has a willingness to attack the “dirty areas” around the net and pay the physical price to be there.
Canadiens Trade the Pick
Hughes is just as likely to choose to dangle Florida’s 2023 first to add a proven player to his NHL roster. Yes, yes, Pierre-Luc Dubois is an obvious choice, especially with the rumor mill working overtime, but who else could make a difference for the Canadiens?
Alex Turcotte – Center/Left-Wing
Alex Turcotte was the Los Angeles Kings’ 2019 fifth-overall pick. Habs fans may recognize him from his time playing on a line with Cole Caufield at the University of Wisconsin and with Team USA in their draft year. His multiple injuries at the start of his professional career have caused him to miss time over the last two seasons, slowing his development and allowing several other prospects to surpass him on the depth chart.
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When healthy, Turcotte’s numbers in the American Hockey League (AHL) were good. For him, health, not skill, is the issue. He’s a smooth skating two-way forward with a high compete level and work ethic who is searching for an NHL opportunity that he likely will not get with the Kings. With the Canadiens however, he could get an opportunity to get playing time at the NHL level and develop into a top-six forward, perhaps as a complementary winger on the top line allowing for Kirby Dach to remain a full-time centerman next season.
The cost to acquire Turcotte will be lower than what would be expected of a former fifth-overall draft pick, as he will likely never live up to his draft status. Beyond the Florida 2023 first, Hughes would need to add, perhaps, a roster player.
Jesper Bratt – Left Wing / Right Wing
Jesper Bratt, a 24-year-old restricted free agent with arbitration rights, is due a new contract and it will be a raise on his one-year, $5.45 million deal last season. He is coming off a career offensive season, 32 goals and 73 points playing in all 82 games. He is an undersized forward at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, however, he makes up for his lack of size with a high hockey IQ, excellent speed – especially on the rush in transition – and high-end offensive instincts. Despite his budding reputation as an offensively gifted winger that plays at a high pace, it’s his improvement away from the puck that has made him a reliable top-six forward.
The New Jersey Devils are certainly not in any dire straits with an expected $34 million in salary cap space, but they do have a need to make space on their roster. With Timo Meier’s arrival, ice time will become harder to come by. Also, there is a need for a spot for their 2020 seventh-overall pick, Alexander Holtz. His North American professional rookie season has garnered similar criticism to that of Habs forward Juraj Slafkovsky in that the approach to his development was questioned. Holtz was a healthy scratch for 31 of the Devils’ first 49 games in the 2022-23 season, but once sent down to the AHL dominated his competition at that level.
Hughes would need to package more than just the Panthers’ first-round pick to acquire Bratt, but it may be worth dipping into his stockpile of futures to add an offensive weapon to help not only add scoring at five-on-five but also a power play that finished the season ranked 29th with an anemic 16.1 percent success rate.
No matter what Hughes decides, the Panthers’ 2023 first will provide the Canadiens with an asset that should have a much larger impact long-term than Ben Chiarot (the player traded to Florida for the pick) could have ever provided.