Canadiens Should Trade Up to Improve Prospect Pool

The Montreal Canadiens, led by rookie general manager Kent Hughes, are entering an important offseason that will solidify the foundation for the organization’s future as either a Stanley Cup contender or a playoff hopeful that will have to rely on a career performance by a key player to make a deep playoff run.

Improving the Canadiens’ pool of prospects by adding what is missing – more top-end skill, speed, and size in every position – will provide the club with the best possible players to help build a Cup-contending team.

Canadiens’ Prospect Pool

Different publications set their rankings slightly differently but are generally close in their assessments. Before the 2021-22 season, EP Rinkside ranked the Canadiens’ prospect pool sixth, and The Athletic ranked them eighth in the NHL (from Scott Wheeler, “Wheeler: 2022 NHL prospect pool rankings,” The Athletic, 9 Feb, 2022). However, those rankings were so high because of players like Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, and Cole Caufield, who are already in the NHL or will be very shortly. As things change, especially with teams in transition such as Montreal, their prospect rankings will change too. Because of that, The Hockey Writers reassessed the NHL’s prospect pools at the beginning of the 2022 calendar year, and the Habs dropped to 17th.

Related: Canadiens Prospect Pyramid

Despite the slide, Hughes has a strong base to build on with 14 picks in the 2022 Draft and nine in 2023, 11 of which are in the top 90, including four first-round picks. The goal for the new management team is to add players with the ability to utilize their skills at top speed. He confirmed this during his end-of-season press conference stating:  “In a perfect world, we’d be an offensive-minded club. I envision a team that plays fast and plays fast with the puck. That’s a possession hockey team. But I also understand that you have to build a team around the players you have, and that’ll be part of the process as we move ahead. We’re going to create a modern organization that players want to be a part of.”

Canadiens’ Draft Day Trade Targets

With that style in mind, and using Peter Baracchini’s THW draft rankings as a basis for the general area the targetted prospects should be available in the first round, an educated guess will be made on the value of that pick. To determine trade value, we will use the chart, created by Micheal Schuckers, shared below.

These values aren’t exact, as each trade has its own unique set of circumstances. Having said that, the chart does provide a framework to build proposed trades. The issue is whether the players mentioned are worth what it would cost to move up? At 26th overall (based on Baracchini’s rankings), the Habs would get to select Denton Mateychuk from the Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL), who is a (near) point-per-game, left-handed, puck-moving defenceman. So anyone selected would need to be able to fill a larger need or potentially be more impactful as an NHL player. The following prospects could help the Canadiens and be worth using assets to trade up.

Cutter Gauthier – LW USNTDP

According to Baracchini’s rankings, Cutter Gauthier of the United States National Training and Development Program (USNTDP) would be ranked 13th overall, held by the New York Islanders. Using the chart above, a trade to move up to 13th would cost a value of 481. To reach that value, the Canadiens would need to use the 26th-overall pick, acquired from the Calgary Flames in the Tyler Toffoli trade (297) and 33rd overall (237).

Cutter Gauthier USNTDP
Cutter Gauthier, USNTDP (Rena Laverty / USA Hockey’s NTDP)

What makes Gauthier worth the cost is that he is a 6-foot-3, 208-pound power forward who is defensively responsible. The Boston College commit is an excellent skater who can play at top speed, which fits the Habs’ plans for the future. He uses his size to his advantage on the forecheck and to gain position in front of the net, as well as win puck battles along the boards. His top weapon has to be his shot, though, as it is accurate and powerful, and his release is deceptively quick, a skill set reminiscent of former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty.

“Gauthier is a power forward with higher-end skill than your average player of his cut. His presence is felt on every shift, throwing his body around and getting involved in every scrum he can.… Gauthier has a very intriguing package that NHL teams should start to look at in the middle of the first. He likely becomes a contributing bottom-six forward but does have the tools to be a player that moves up and down the lineup and performs.”

Josh Bell, FC Hockey

Gauthier will need time in the NCAA to polish his skills, but he already has the size required to compete in the NHL. He also showed at the NHL Draft Combine that he has NHL speed and agility by placing in the top 10 in five categories.

It would be difficult to pass up an opportunity to add a mobile player of that size with a scoring touch. Fans can look to New York Rangers’ power forward Chris Kreider for comparison. The Canadiens missed out on an opportunity to draft him at the 2009 Draft held in Montreal, so it would be almost poetic if Hughes could trade up to select comparable player in front of the hometown crowd.

Frank Nazar -C/RW USNTDP 

Another USNTDP prospect that could entice Hughes to trade up is Frank Nazar. Committed to the University of Michigan for next season, the center/right-winger is poised to play a top role in one of the NCAA’s premier programs. The time developing there will give the 5-foot-10, 181-pound forward the opportunity to add strength to his frame ahead of his NHL debut. Using the draft list and table above, Nazar is ranked 16th overall, which holds a value of 413. To reach that value, the Canadiens would need to trade the 26th-overall pick (297) along with the 62nd-overall pick acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in the Brett Kulak trade (176).

Nazar was a key piece of Team USA’s World Junior Championship Under-18 silver medal team, scoring three goals and nine points in six games. This season, in 80 games as a member of the USNTDP, he scored 43 goals and 105 points. 

Nazar has a skill set that would bring fans out of their seats. He is a very creative offensive player who can use his elite speed and strong skating skills to weave in and out of tight areas, cutting to the center of the ice to generate a scoring opportunity for himself, or he can cut to the perimeter to open passing lanes where he can feather a pass to a linemate for an easy tap-in goal.

“Versatile forward with great speed and offensive skill. Generates offense off the rush and has a quick release. Needs to add strength to his undersized frame but has the talent to produce offense in the NHL.”

– Nick Richard, Dobber Prospects

While Nazar is listed as a center, his size may hinder him at the NHL level, which could force a transition to the wing, where he still has the potential to become a top-line player. He did play on the wing this season with Logan Cooley, a potential first-overall pick – held by the Canadiens.

Frank Nazar USNTDP
Frank Nazar, USNTDP (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

If the Canadiens trade up in the draft, it would make for an entertaining first day in Montreal. However, this decision shouldn’t be about showmanship or entertainment; it must be done to bring in the best possible prospects who can help the franchise reach its goal of becoming a Cup contender. It will take more than just a shrewd trade to get to that point, but this offseason could help build the foundation for that plan.

Sign up for our regular 'Habs Newsletter' for all the latest.