It will literally be years before anyone knows how the 2022 NHL Entry Draft turns out for the Montreal Canadiens. However, general manager Kent Hughes can get a head start making it a success on July 7, when the Habs pick first overall, in Montreal of all places.
Ultimately, the stars are already aligning for the Canadiens to make history. After all, they’re the first host team to own the first pick since 1985, after having won the NHL Draft Lottery. They just need to draft a star (at least) to seal the deal.
Until the Canadiens know for sure who they’ve got in the player they draft though, there are a few things Hughes can do to tilt the balance in his favor, at least in the eyes of the media and fans. Here are the top 5, ranked from least to most important:
5. Get Canadiens Comfortably Under Cap Ceiling
The Canadiens don’t absolutely have to trade away cap space at the draft, which is why it takes the last spot on this list. It would still be nice, especially following the acquisition of Evgeny Dadonov and his $5 million cap hit, which puts the Habs close up to the cap ceiling, with several key restricted free agents (RFAs) still to be signed.
Names like defenseman Jeff Petry ($6.25 million) and Josh Anderson are at the top of the list of players likely to be dealt for cap space. Petry’s had one skate out of town for months after having requested a trade, with Hughes having gone on record as willing to accommodate him (from ‘Jeff Petry open to remain in Montreal, but Canadiens might have other plans,’ Montreal Gazette, April 30, 2022). Anderson ($5.5 million) is more of a recent addition, with reports surfacing the Canadiens have gotten calls about the power forward.
Now, cap space does need to be cleared. It doesn’t have to happen at the Draft, though. The two benefits would be that it would firstly be ahead of free agency, giving Hughes a cushion with which to work, and that secondly any such move could conceivably jump-start the rebuild effort by seeing (more) picks coming back the other way.
4. Optimize 14 Canadiens Draft Picks
True, the Canadiens already have 14 draft picks, which is obviously a lot, literally double the amount with which they started. However, quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality, especially when fewer and fewer draft picks develop into NHLers with each subsequent round.
Ten of those picks are in thankfully the first four rounds, but, after picking first, the Canadiens only pick next at No. 26. It’s not a horrible position by any stretch, but, amid reports the Habs are trying to gain another top-10 pick, it’s not nearly close enough for Hughes’ purposes to (in theory) get the Canadiens back to contending in relatively short order.
Also of note, there is a 50-contract organization-wide limit. The Canadiens are at 33 right now, but without a full complement of players to fill their NHL or American Hockey League rosters. For example, regarding those RFAs that still need to be signed, you’re looking at Alexander Romanov, Rem Pitlick, Michael Pezzetta, Corey Schueneman and Cayden Primeau for starters.
Those contracts alone would bring them up to 38. So, realistically not all of the 14 draft picks are going to turn into Canadiens, let alone NHLers in general. Hughes simply has a greater shot at drafting NHL talent by packaging later picks to move up, whether it’s into the Top 10 or right to second overall.
Now, he doesn’t need to, to guarantee success at the Draft, but it certainly would help matters. It also would get the Bell Centre rocking, and that certainly wouldn’t hurt his cause.
3. Stick to Script with Draft in Montreal
Now, on the topic of asset management, there is the potential for Hughes to trade the first-overall pick for a slew of assets, including another high selection (i.e., trade down a few spots). Altogether, those hypothetical assets could realistically total more in value than what he’d be giving up at first overall.
Realistically though, that’s just not going to happen. It might make sense from the aforementioned asset-management standpoint, especially if Hughes isn’t 100% sure which player he should take at No. 1. However, optics-wise? It would look horrible.
Under normal circumstances, trading the first-overall pick is rarely done, literally only a handful of times in history. Only twice did it happen with the host city involved. Officially, both those times, it was indeed the Canadiens, but there were extenuating circumstances in that those trades were during the early days of the event, when it was always held in Montreal. It was also the Canadiens trading up to first overall, so a very different situation in all actuality.
On both those occasions, then-GM Sam Pollock had orchestrated the moves to earn the right to draft the best player available in 1971 (Guy Lafleur) and 1980 (Doug Wickenheiser) literally years in advance. Luck definitely factored in, while, in comparison, everyone already knows who holds first overall in 2022. If the Canadiens trade the first pick, Commissioner Gary Bettman would leave the podium after having announced the deal to a chorus of boos, which is admittedly par for the course, but this time they’d be aimed exclusively at Hughes.
In the end, with the Draft taking place in Montreal Hughes has a responsibility to stick to the script as much as possible, let fans leave the building happy. The first part of that equation is keeping that first pick for better or worse so no fans in attendance scream bloody murder. The second? Take the right guy, which is admittedly easier said than done.
2. Draft the Best Player Available
Hughes says the Canadiens are going to draft the best player available. So, on the plus side, that’s a relief (*phew*), but the hitch is that of course no one knows in advance who will end up being the best player drafted.
Everyone will have to settle for the consensus best pick available heading in. And, despite the fact it’s no longer as unanimous as it was, say, even just a few months ago, that is still overwhelmingly Shane Wright.
Undeniably, winger Juraj Slafkovsky has risen significantly in the recent past to the point he’s actually overtaken Wright on several rankings. However, you’re also talking about a player who’s come on over the course of several months vs. one who’s been at the top for literally years. There’s a possibility just a touch of recency bias is at work and some analysts aren’t looking at the big picture.
All that to say, the second part of sticking to the script is for Hughes to not go off the board with his first selection. In that sense, Slafkovsky (or center Logan Cooley) wouldn’t be horrible picks, as they’re each in the mix, but Wright is so logically the Canadiens’ pick here that Hughes risks serious blowback going another way, heading into his first full season as GM, no less. The chances are slim he goes against the majority. Why would he want to get off on the wrong foot with the media and fans alike? For his own sake, he doesn’t want to be labeled the guy who didn’t pick Wright.
A few years from now, that majority may turn out to have been wrong in terms of who the best player really is. However in the more immediate future, the Draft will simply appear to be more of a success with Wright as the pick, because he seems to be the best player available by general public opinion… not to mention the best player for the Canadiens specifically. You maybe don’t draft based on need, but when one of the best players available fills a need, especially a potential franchise center, you take him and run.
1. Address Canadiens’ Needs at Center, Right Side on Defense
Admittedly, Slafkovsky does theoretically fill a void on the wing beside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. However, the Canadiens already have Anderson, at least right now, signed up until 2027 to play that role.
Maybe Anderson gets traded, in which case Slafkovsky would make more sense. Maybe Anderson stays and the Canadiens simply want someone with more game-breaking talent on that first line, but maybe they draft Slafkovsky and he develops into the next Anderson. All due respect to Anderson, who holds value as a complementary top-six forward, he’s not a player on which you use a first pick.
Based on how he’s come on in recent months, Slafkovsky just has so many question marks surrounding his ultimate potential. As a result, it would be a huge risk to take him instead of a center when the Canadiens so badly need one, a top-two center to be more specific, which is how Wright projects. That’s his expected floor, in other words, making him arguably the safest possible pick, and, when you’ve got the first-overall pick, you’re more often than not looking for a guarantee so as not waste it. The fact Wright fills an immediate need is gravy.
Along with the right side on defense, center is the Canadiens’ biggest hole right now. Without any right-handed defensemen available who are in the same echelon as Wright, Cooley or Slafkovsky, one of the former two is the expected pick at first overall, but, with as many picks as he has, Hughes has the opportunity to address all the Canadiens’ needs, at least in some fashion.
True, there’s always free agency. However, with the Canadiens so far out of contention after having finished last overall, free agency is more of an option a few years down the road, when anyone the Habs sign will likely be on the verge of exiting their prime.
In the here and now, the Canadiens are rebuilding instead. That was the whole point of trading away the assets they did, for futures, like draft picks. So, it all comes down to this, the moment for which fans have been waiting. You had better believe Hughes knows not to let them down. Consider the above a step-by-step guide.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.