General Manager Marc Bergevin has said time and time again that it is extremely difficult to acquire centers through trades and unrestricted free agency. He has repeated over and over that you must draft high quality centers or you’re just not going to get them. So he did what he has promised that he would do. He chose the best center in the draft in 17 year old Jesperi Kotkaniemi of Finland.
Kotkaniemi made a meteoric rise up the draft rankings and for those who were anchored in their thoughts in January unwilling to move off of their original notions this player seemed a reach to pick third and take someone who was not ranked top 25 at Christmas.
However, this is how the draft goes from year to year to year. The scouts of the NHL are looking in a draft for a player to continue to show improvement. They want and need to see progression. If they’re already seeing stagnation or a plateau hit, then what is to say that they have any ability to get to the next level at all?
This is why head scout Trevor Timmins loved Kotkaniemi. He saw in him a player who was finding his game in a big way playing in a men’s league and putting up numbers that are similar to strong NHLers like Laine and Rantanen’s numbers in Finland. Kotkaniemi made his big breakthrough at the last big event of the season – the U18s. Kotkaniemi shone brightly leading Finland to the gold medal and setting up the winning goal on a perfect play with a saucer pass perfectly timed on a 2 on 1 to leave both the goalie and defender desperate and his countryman with an empty net to convert. It was heady. It was 1C material.
It wasn’t just that moment that Kotkaniemi shone. He was asked in the gold medal game to contend with the consensus number one in the draft next year Jack Hughes. Not only did he contend. He outplayed the American. Kotkaniemi had arrived as a top 10 in a big way suddenly showing up on all the pros lists and settling in at the five position.
From the five pick to the three is not a leap when you play the middle of the sheet and are responsible for all 200 feet. There is a premium on centers in the NHL. You saw it with the five pick as the GM in Arizona Chayka so confident in his newest acquisition Alex Galchenyuk’s center abilities that he leapt 5 to 10 spots to get another center Barrett Hayton at the five hole. Again a premium is put on the center position. If you find someone who can play there, then you take him. A center has the versatility to move to the wing, but a winger doesn’t have the versatility to move to center.
The depth chart now looks strong for the Habs at center in 2019-2020 with Kotkaniemi, Poehling, Danault, De La Rose. They also have the possibility that the learning curve for these hopefuls can continue to some higher plateau than is expected: Evans, Vejdemo, Verbeek, Ikonen, Alain. What a good time it will be for fans in Laval to watch the Rocket next season. That’s why people go to the games in the AHL; not to see the journeymen, but the hopefuls so they can say ‘I saw him when’…
It seems already in the past that the Habs had to rely on the Hollands and the Froeses of the hockey world to round out a roster down the middle. The start of a better product is around the corner in Montreal, but not as soon as next year.
The plan for the Habs should be patience. It seems as if owner Geoff Molson has made Marc Bergevin feel like he has time to turn this around and that is absolutely vital because a GM trying to save his skin sacrifices the future for the present and that’s usually a bad move.
The idea should be to avoid overprice unrestricted free agents at the center position for the youth that is to come, trade for a left handed defenceman who can move the puck in the Max Pacioretty deal, and have not such a great season again and draft high again next year. It seems odd to say that, but do you want a middle of the road team again or do you want a chance to contend for the Stanley Cup. The window is wide open right now to build by NOT getting desperate for results this year. The centers are coming soon after and that’s when real talent will provide real results. Not stop gaps, but holes truly filled.
It has been a long time since the cupboards were loaded thanks to the organization trading away picks so often. The Habs actually went three straight seasons without a second rounder. It isn’t that Timmins draft record is bad. It’s that he isn’t drafting enough. In fact, Timmins record from 2002 to 2012 in a study done by Recrutes shows that Timmins draft record is 17% better than the league average.
This makes Saturday an exciting time for Timmins to build for the future more. There are some terrific names on the board: Noel, Wise, Bergrren, Eriksson, Thomas, McLeod, and more with excellent first round potential. Timmins has five picks in the next 35 and two picks so soon that he is guaranteed to get two of the players on this list. Tremendous potential here to stock the team to a level that Laval has a chance to find success instead of season after season of embarrassment.
There is a tremendous amount of parity in the NHL. The difference between winning and losing is never so much as it feels like when the losses are piling up. Next season will likely be a rough one and it should be a rough one. If it is not, then somehow the future was mortgaged by trading away picks or youth. However, after that, starting in 2019 after another high draft pick, the future finally begins to look bright with outstanding first round draft choices in the middle; instead of “hey what about trying him? Can he maybe play center?”.
Win the middle. Win the game. Tonight, the Habs took the lead for the first time in two decades.