Montreal Canadiens: Three Options for the 2018 Draft

A collective sigh could be heard in Habsland last week after the organization beat the odds to be among the final three teams in the lottery for the top pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. For a brief moment, it seemed all the pain of this year would be worth it. Rasmus Dahlin would solve a number of problems for the Montreal Canadiens.

In the end, it was too good to be true. The Habs moved up just one spot and will pick third overall. Immediately, there was speculation that the Canadiens might try to move the pick, as part of a package to acquire a number one center and there are important reasons why they should try. It may be the team’s last best chance to turn the franchise around.

The Importance of the NHL Draft

Throughout his Canadiens tenure, Marc Bergevin has preached the importance of building through the draft. This means picking the best player available and not making selections based on the team’s needs. This is the conventional wisdom in the NHL and among the pundit class. The problem is this hodge-podge of advice and inherited beliefs are often incompatible.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

In Montreal, the team’s focus on the perceived best player has been underwhelming. While the team is better off going into this draft, it will be a challenge for Bergevin. Should he draft yet another winger with top-6 potential? Should he try and trade it for that elusive top line center? Is there another option?

Any first-round pick will be essential for the organization over the long term. Many assume that the Habs will draft Filip Zadina at third overall. They don’t have to.

The good news is that the Canadiens have four second-round picks which if used judiciously could rebuild the prospect pool at center and on defense. If this was any other team, constructed in any other way, I would argue trading away a top three pick is madness. This is not any other team though. These are not normal times. The value of a top three pick means that it could command, as part of a package, an NHL-ready center.

Three Options for the Canadiens

The options below are based on a rejection of the conventional wisdom that a team should draft the best player in the first round. Instead, it assumes that because of trades and failed re-signings, the Canadiens need to focus on organizational need. If you accept that the team’s deficits require immediate action then the Habs have three options.

Option 1: Package the Third Pick for a Center

This is the ideal solution. It would be hard to give up a first rounder but without a top center, this team will be treading water for years to come. As Pat Hickey writes:

There are players out there and the challenge is to put together the right package with the No. 3 pick as the key component. If the deal has to include Pacioretty, so be it. It will be difficult to part with a perennial 30-goal scorer who loves to play in this city. And it’s sad that, on a team that has some players who don’t care enough, Pacioretty struggled last season because he cares too much.

Option 2: Draft for Organizational Need

If the Canadiens can’t package the third pick, they need to draft based on organizational need. This means drafting Quinn Hughes (LHD, USA, Michigan NCAA) or Jesperi Kotkaniemi (LW/C, Finland, Assat) slightly ahead of their projected draft rank.

Quinn Hughes
Quinn Hughes of the University of Michigan. (University of Michigan Photography)

THW’s own Larry Fisher ranks these players at number five and number 6 respectively. While Kotkaniemi is a couple years away from playing in the NHL, he appears to be the top center in the 2018 draft:

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has elevated himself to a top pick on most draft boards with the great season he had in Liiga. He recorded 0.51 points per game, putting himself in the company of other great U18 players in the history of the league; youngsters who became immediate contributors upon joining their club.

Option 3: Trade to Exchange First Round Picks

Another option would be to trade with a team drafting later in the draft and exchange first round picks and another player perhaps for a left-shot defenseman to play with Shea Weber next season. This option retains the number of picks the Habs have in the first two rounds and solves an organizational need.

Running Out of Options

Whatever Marc Bergevin does, he will be criticized. He has past the time when fans or the media will give him the benefit of the doubt. As Ryan Szporer pointed out this week:

In essence, Bergevin is behind the eight ball now more than ever. His selection is poised to not only help shape the team’s next few years but his next few months as well. He opens himself up to (even more) criticism whomever [Bergevin] chooses…

What would you do with the Canadiens number three overall pick?