Rebuilding through the draft. Fans see that phrase and think, get as many high picks as possible. And they aren’t wrong, the odds of drafting high-end talent, and more than one player, increase with that approach. But what about in the later rounds? Some of these players can have an impact on a roster, especially one trying to rebuild and become a contender.
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Some may call a draft steal a player like Jamie Benn who are later-round drafted players who become top-line forwards or top-pair defenders. But not all of them are. Some are key depth players as well. The importance of these later-round players in a salary cap era can’t be understated. They bring high-impact value on a low-cost contract early on in their careers, which is essential to allowing a general manager (GM) to add as many other pieces as possible with the additional cap space. The Montreal Canadiens are ideally positioned to take advantage of this draft to fill a significant need.
Draft Day Steals
Two significant draft day steals that led to Stanley Cup glory are Jake Guentzel and Andrew Shaw. In Guentzel’s case, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in the third round, 77th overall in the 2013 Draft. After allowing him to develop in the NCAA before signing him to his entry-level contract (ELC), the Penguins let a dangerous scoring winger grow in their system. When he arrived on the scene in the 2016-17 season, he was a rookie sensation, becoming a near-point-per-game player and right away adding a top-six scoring threat to their lineup. He helped them win their second of back-to-back Cups leading the team in goals with 13 that playoff. He has since become a 20-40 goal scorer and has helped extend the Penguins’ championship window.
Shaw provided the Chicago Blackhawks with a different impact. Selected in the fifth round at 139th overall in 2011, he made an immediate impact on the roster. His aggressive, hard-hitting style allowed Shaw to bring energy to any game, creating offense but also wearing down opponents by playing a hard-nosed game, and agitating by getting under the skin of his opponents. Shaw also added more of a mean streak as someone willing to fight. His style of play is essential in the playoffs, and his addition helped Chicago win two Stanley Cups.
Best Value to Target in Later Rounds
Looking at today’s NHL, the likelihood of finding a high-value player in the later rounds is low, as it always has been. The focus at that point in the draft will always be on selecting the best player available with the GM taking a home-run swing. Either he hits it out of the park, or strikes out. Yet the biggest impact to shorten a rebuild will be a focus on goaltenders. Rebuild without a goaltender, and you can end up derailing your plan or making it take far longer than it needs. Look to the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres as examples. Teams such as the New York Rangers have shortened their rebuild timeline thanks in part to the emergence of a former fourth-round pick, Igor Shesterkin taking Henrik Lundqvist’s role as a franchise goaltender.
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Another great example is Washington Capitals’ 2008 fourth-round pick Braden Holtby. He was the fourth ranked goaltender in North America by Central Scouting. An athletic goaltender with a quick glove, along with some patience in his development, allowed him to become their starter four years later in the 2012-13 season. In the end, he provided them with 10 seasons, 282 wins in 458 starts, and an average of .916 save percentage (SV%) in the regular season. But in the playoffs, his save percentage grew to over .920, backstopping the Capitals to the franchise’s only Cup victory in 2018.
Canadiens’ Current Rebuild
The Habs have had nine drafted players on the roster this season. That may not seem like a lot, however, six were rookies, and there will be far more knocking on the door as the rebuild continues. Of those nine players, four of them were fifth-round picks or later. While the Canadiens have not one, but two seventh-round picks currently on the roster (Raphael Harvey-Pinard and Jake Evans), they may also very well have even more late-round steals in players like Joshua Roy and Sean Farrell.
That being said, even with the Canadiens having the 11th ranked prospect pool according to The Athletic, the lack of depth in two areas will cause them problems long term if not addressed, and using as many mid to late-round picks on these areas in 2023 will go a long way in filling the gaps.
With 2023 being considered a very deep draft, with a heavy focus on forwards, there will be some players that will slide as teams become highly selective and hyper-focused on tiny details, but could miss out on impact players. The two areas of the Habs’ needs are two that tend to provide value in later rounds, defensemen (specifically right-handed ones) and goaltenders; and that is where they should focus their efforts.
When it comes to goaltenders, they don’t need to be potential Hall-of-Fame, franchise-defining goalies in the Carey Price mold. The need is simply a reliable starter, much like Holtby was for the Capitals. As it stands, the Canadiens lack that potential starter, and the 2023 Draft may provide one. The need for goaltending in the Habs’ system is no secret. According to former Canadiens scout Grant McCagg during an appearance on Habs Unfiltered, Michael Hrabel or Carson Bjarnstrom may be draft targets using the Florida Panthers’ 2023 first-round pick that will likely fall in the 14-22 range.
Later rounds can provide intrigue as well, as there are some very interesting names re-entering the draft. Such as 19-year-old Adam Gajan of the United States Hockey League (USHL)’s Green Bay Gamblers. He has leaped onto scouting lists in large part thanks to his impressive showing at the 2023 World Junior Championship (WJC) where he nearly single-handedly stole a win in the semi-finals from Canada and finished the tournament with a .936 SV%. At 6-foot-4, he has the size scouts love in a goaltender, and his play showed a goalie capable of athleticism. His commitment to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA would provide the Canadiens four years to allow him to develop before moving up to the professional ranks. However, that may be too long for their tastes.
Another option could be Tomas Suchanek of Price’s former junior club, the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He sports an 18-9-0 record with a .905 SV% with Tri-City, placing the team in fourth in the WHL’s Western Conference. Where Suchanek shone was the WJC where he put up a .938 SV% with Czechia on their way to a silver medal, and he set a record for most assists by a goalie with four. The 6-foot-2 goaltender will be 20 years of age at the draft, meaning he is age appropriate for the American Hockey League (AHL) and much closer to being NHL-ready.
As of Jan. 31, the Canadiens hold 11 draft picks, seven of which are in the fourth round or later, with three being in the fourth round. Those draft picks can be a difference maker in the mid to long-term plans of the rebuild as the Habs’ needs can be met by focusing those picks on a normally undervalued option at NHL draft tables, goaltending.