Should the Montreal Canadiens Trade the First-Overall Pick?

Montreal Canadiens fans went through a roller coaster of emotions over the last calendar year. From a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final, then onto the worst statistical winning percentage in the franchise’s 113-year history, fans wanted to see the Habs win something that could help the team in the long run. For the first time since its inception, the Canadiens have won the NHL Entry Draft lottery, which also marks only the sixth time since the entry draft began in 1963 that Montreal would have the first pick. 

This has led some pundits and fans online to ask if they should trade the pick for immediate help or to bring in a young star prospect that has slightly more development time.

Should Canadiens Trade the First Overall

The question is, should the Canadiens trade the first-overall pick. Kent Hughes has stated he is open to listening to offers for the pick, so the answer to the question isn’t an outright no, as any asset could be traded for the right return. However, what would make it worthwhile for the organization to trade away their best trade position held in decades? 

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The last time the Canadiens picked first was in the 1980 Draft when they selected Doug Wickenheiser, a 6-foot-1 center that just completed an 89-goal, 170-point campaign with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. To this day, there are many second-guessing that pick as that was the year a young phenom by the name of Denis Savard with the Montreal Juniors had a 181-point season. But looking back, it’s understandable why Wickenheiser was seen as a top prospect.

Related: Montreal Canadiens Set to Solve Centre Issues and Draft Wright with Lottery Win

There have been some media, such as Rejean Tremblay on Québec radio, musing that the Canadiens should trade the pick outright to the New York Rangers for winger Alexis Lafrenière. While it is attractive to bring in a skilled winger that has two years of development time over anyone available in this draft who is also from Québec, others have talked about the possibility of trading down. Something the former general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin did often.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the end, trading the pick is more likely to be a mistake as the likelihood the player selected at first overall becomes more impactful than whoever it is traded for is very high. Is Lafrenière truly an improvement over the consensus top pick, Shane Wright? Not at all, Wright and Lafrenière have similar size and similar offensive production in junior. However, Wright is a center and is seen as having a more mature defensive game at the same stage of development. 

Trading back is a discussion that was explored by Mathias Brunet of LaPresse (translated from French) 

“Imagine a scenario from left field. The Canadiens have the top pick for the first time since 1980 and the Columbus Blue Jackets, holders of the sixth and 12th pick, offer them both in exchange.”

-Mathias Brunet (Mathias Brunet, Échanger le 1er choix contre le 6e et le 12e ?, La Presse, 28 April 2022)

In that exercise, it explores what that would provide the Canadiens. Using my THW colleague Peter Baracchini’s rankings, that deal would have the Canadiens trading Wright for right-winger Joakim Kemell and defenceman Pavel Mintyukov. While both provide some depth and offensive punch, the larger potential upside is still with the centerman at No. 1. The one advantage of drawing the top pick, rival GMs will reach out to Hughes to see if there’s a possible deal. This will give him an advantage as he learns the values of players that may be made available during the offseason. That way he can attempt to offer other assets to acquire one if they fill a need Hughes has identified. Even without a trade, there will be value added by having that information that could be used in the future.

Should Montreal Keep the Top Pick?

The 2022 Draft has been called a weak draft year in comparison to the 2023 Draft class for not having a generational talent like Connor Bedard; however, there are still potential top-line players like Shane Wright. But having a draft class miss an entire season before their draft year will impact their development, but this class may not be as weak as some may believe. Now, the Canadiens get an opportunity to select a player that can have a large, positive impact on the team’s future. In this case, Wright as the consensus top pick can fit that bill.

Shane Wright Kingston Frontenacs
Shane Wright, Kingston Frontenacs (Brandon Taylor/OHL Images)

The Canadiens may have suffered this season but could be fortunate in having this pick. If you believe in signs or fate, 51 years after the Canadiens selected Guy Lafleur first overall, Wright, who wears number 51 for the Kingston Frontenacs is expected to be the top pick. Also, the day the Habs won the Entry Draft Lottery was May 10, the same number that hangs in the Bell Centre rafters with Lafleur’s name.

Hughes discussed Wright’s style with the Journal de Montréal (translated from French):

“We would be lucky to draft a player that would have an impact on the CH (Canadiens) like Patrice (Bergeron) has had with the Boston Bruins. I don’t know Shane (Wright) as an individual, but I am eager to meet him in Buffalo for the combine. I have seen him play over the last couple of years. He plays well overall 200 feet. He is not just an offensive player, he plays an important role defensively and he is described as a team guy.”

– Kent Hughes

Giving him a nine-game audition this coming season would be beneficial to know where he stands in his development curve. A full camp and those games could allow the team to feel more comfortable in the choice between keeping him in Montreal or sending him back to Kingston to develop further. Missing a full season when the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) shut down due to the pandemic most likely had an impact on his development.

Wright can become an impact NHL player that can play an elite two-way game, much like the player he idolized, Patrice Bergeron. Shane finished the season scoring an average of 1.5 points per game. It would be hard to see Montreal not call his name come draft day. Especially as he is a big-framed center who can fit the team’s desired system of playing with pace and skill, but also as the Habs team needs to include a potential top-line center. A one-two punch of Nick Suzuki and Wright in three years would finally, solve a long-term need for skilled center depth. Playing in Montreal is also something that Wright has admitted he would like to do.

In the end, it will be better for the Canadiens and their fans to keep the top pick. It’s an exciting proposition, to have the top pick in a draft being hosted in Montreal. The last time the Canadiens hosted the draft was in 2009 when they selected Louis Leblanc. The building was electric, and the fans were excited, but in the end, Leblanc failed to meet his potential. This pick, however, has the potential to be more like the last time a host city held the first pick, which was in 1985 when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Wendel Clarke, a pick that no Leaf fan would end up regretting. Having the first pick for Montreal is rare. Rarer still, is an opportunity to use this premier asset to accelerate the Canadiens’ rebuild. Keeping the pick to select a potential top-line center who is projected to be worthy of that ranking is something Hughes just can’t ignore. Keeping the pick would be the “Wright” choice.

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