Habs Get Last Laugh, Draft Slaf
July 13, 2022
By Grant McCagg
The early feedback from three NHL crossover scouts on Montreal’s performance at the NHL draft was highly positive
“I’m going through the draft class right now,” said one NHL scout on Monday. “It looks like quite a few teams did well. Anaheim, Buffalo, Arizona and Montreal all stood out.”
Arizona had five top-43 picks, Buffalo four top-41 picks, and Anaheim four top-53 selections, so the Canadiens are in good company if they can be included with those other teams
It all starts with Slafkovsky, of course. No other team ended up with the Slovakian Beast at first overall, and the Habs could have finished the draft proceedings right then and there and still come out ahead.
“Former and current NHL players that have played with him, they go back and tell everyone how amazing his skill level is in such a big body,” noted one scout. “It’s pretty cool that players in the NHL; they’ve seen it in the NHL; they come back and say: ‘This Juraj guy is special.’ Anyways – size, skill, scoring. He’s just a special player.”
How special? Time will tell. What’s certain, however, is that his size/skill/strength combination at 18 is rare, and the sky’s the limit on how good he might become.
“I was comparing him back to players his size from previous drafts and I think he stacks up really well,” added the scout. “He’s a better prospect than (Quinton) Byfield coming out.”
Slafkovsky sealed his spot on the top of most NHL scouts’ draft lists with his performances at the Olympics and World Championships. He showed everyone that he could step up his game on the biggest stages.
“I was really impressed with him when Slovakia was in those crunch-time games in crunch-time situations where they were up or down a goal in the last minutes,” noted a scout. “It was amazing to watch the coach keep throwing him out there, and it was amazing watching other players on Slovakia defer the puck to him. You could just tell, and that’s what just kept shining through.”
A major reason why Slafkovsky rose to the top of the draft rankings was that he reminded many of a Mikko Rantanen-type playoff performer in those two 2022 men’s tournaments.
“If he can develop into Mikko Rantanen; he’s better than him at the same age,” said one scout “He may even be better than Rantanen. You see what Rantanen has become and you would take that first overall in this draft, and there are some comparables there but at the same age, Slaf is the better player. Better feet, even nicer hands.
“I think it’s important that as scouts we watch the NHL playoffs to see what matters the most in prospects,” added the scout. “That’s the whole point of drafting; it’s not necessarily drafting the guy who will have the highest point totals, but who’s the guy that actually helps you win games in the NHL playoffs and get you that Cup. I couldn’t help but watch the playoffs and think to myself that Juraj would be the guy. You watched him at the Olympics and the Worlds…he proved himself beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Imagine being in a seven-game series against this guy and trying to stop him game after game, shift after shift. He’s eventually going to break free and be dangerous.”
The Canadiens hope that Kirby Dach will break free and be dangerous this coming season too. The Canadiens picked up the 6-4 center in a three-way deal that saw Alex Romanov and the 88th pick go to the Islanders, and the 13th and 66th picks go to Chicago.
The trade announcement by Gary Bettman came at a very dramatic moment between the third and fourth picks. Shane Wright had yet to be selected, and many thought that the Canadiens might be moving up to four to take him.
“It was fun being in the building when Montreal made those trades,” said one scout. “I thought ‘holy sh**! They’re going to trade up to get Wright as well!’ And then I said; ‘Okay; it’s Dach and it’s this and it’s that.’ I think the crowd too was kind of buzzing there for a minute. That was a cool chain of events.”
The third-overall pick in a 2019 draft class that saw Cole Caufield go 15th overall, Dach has yet to live up to his NHL expectations.
“He was a really, really intriguing junior,” noted one scout. “You saw high upside there. I hope he doesn’t end up being like a Ryan Johansen where you underachieve. You have all those attributes and you underachieve. But he’s still young enough to figure all that out.
“I just hope that the pressure of Montreal doesn’t hinder him – it can work both ways on players. Big, big upside. Skating is not an issue. A lot of natural ability with this guy.”
The Habs taking Owen Beck at 33 was met with criticism by some because he is described as a defensive center. What they’re failing to take into account are his elite skating ability and offensive potential. He was a favourite of several NHL scouts, including one who couldn’t believe he fell out of the first round.
“Oh f**k! That’s a great fu**ing pick,” exclaimed one rival scout who had Beck in his top 20. “I’m sitting there (at the draft table) saying: ‘What the f**k is going on with everybody? What am I missing on Beck?’ He’s a third-line center all day. ALL day! And some of our staff thought he could be a middle line guy. So…there’s great upside, and you have a guy with the potential to play up and down your lineup,..a great utility guy who knows how to play 200 feet, he might have some more offensive upside that’s untapped. That’s a great asset to have. I think his downside is a third-line center.”
Beck was one of two prospects the scout thought were first-round locks who fell to Day 2.
“Beck and (Ryan) Chesley going in the second round surprised me. You know what they’re going to be. They give you a dimension. Sometimes it’s a good thing to grab onto. You know what you’re getting. You’re just adding a good player to your team and there’s not a huge amount of projection. You know they’ll play.”
Slovakian forward Filip Mesar went 26th overall to the Canadiens. Ranked 24th by Recrutes, Mesar spent the vast majority of the season playing against men in Slovakia, hitting double digits in goals (11) when you add in his three goals in six playoff games. Mesar missed the U18s because Simon Nemec hit him into the boards in Game 6 of their playoff series. and injured his shoulder.
Mesar was outstanding for Slovakia whenever he suited up. In nine career U18 games, Mesar had eight goals and nine assists, and was a constant threat offensively. Mesar was also stellar for Slovakia at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last summer, finishing fourth overall in points per game.
“I just always saw a quick, skilled, creative player,” said one scout. “As an underage, we were doing U18 video of the Slovaks and Czechs, and I wasn’t even supposed to be watching him, and I was like: “Whoa; who is this guy? And then realizing that he wasn’t even eligible until next year. He could be a really good player. Not a big body but a really smart player.”
Mesar took close to 300 faceoffs as a 17-18-year-old in the men’s league, so he brings the Canadiens options in that regard. Perhaps if other centers don’t work out he can push for a spot down the middle – or at the very least, give the Canadiens another situational faceoff option.
“I’ll be curious to see if he’s a center or a winger. He’s another fellow who’s been performing very well above his age level for a long time. Pretty quick, dynamic skater, pretty quick hands, and really creative offensive player. He went in the right range. If you believe in the kid then you take him in that range.”
The same could be said of Lane Hutson. By the time the 60th pick rolled around, he had to be in the range where he simply could not be passed over any longer. Much like Montreal taking a 5-7 winger in the top 15 for the first time in NHL history when they took Caufield, it was perhaps fitting that they are also the first team to take a 5-8, 150-pound defenceman in the top two rounds.
“You kept seeing teams that you figured would take him in the second round,” said one scout. “Like Toronto, Arizona and San Jose. And then when New Jersey took Seamus Casey instead; it reminded me that it still intimidated teams to take defencemen who are that small. Not saying that’s right or wrong; I’m just saying that’s the way it is.”
Hutson led all USNTDP players with 53 assists in 60 games, averaging more than a point per game as he ran the power play and impressed everyone with his smarts and puck skills.
One scout, in particular, thought the Canadiens made a terrific pick at 62nd overall, and went into great detail on why he loved both the player and the pick.
“That was exceptional value there,” said the scout. “He’s a better defenceman than the two USNTDP defencemen that went ahead of him there. He’s better than Chesley, he’s better than Casey. He’s just got physical deficiencies that those other two don’t have. He doesn’t skate as well as Seamus. He’s obviously not as big or strong as Ryan and doesn’t skate as well as him either, but I love that pick.
“I think he’s an incredibly brilliant hockey player. His ability to process the game is at an elite level. It’s top-of-the-draft-good, and he’s got top-of-the-draft skill. The plays he can make with the puck, the things he can do one-on-one, the scoring chances he can create 5-on-5 and on the power play…all of that stuff is top-of-the-draft good. So to get that guy late in the second? I think there’s a good chance he’s going to add an inch or two in height. He’s going to get stronger, he’s going to get bigger and heavier. This has a chance to be a home run. I love the upside of that pick. There’s such a home-run potential there.
At 5-8, 151, teams were reluctant to gamble on Hutson growing enough to handle NHL forwards. For some scouts at least, it may not be as risky as some would think.
“There were some medical facts thrown out there that he could be getting bigger,” noted one scout. “I don’t think his growth plates are finished. He could still have some growth. His growth plates aren’t closed off yet so he could still grow. He has an immature body. There were lots of guys drafted over the years that were 5-9 or 5-10 that grew to 6-0. Or a 6-footer that becomes 6-2. It’s for sure possible, and it happens more than you’d think.”
Another scout agreed that the expectation is that Hutson may get bigger.
“I really do believe he is going to grow,” said the scout. What you are looking at now is not what you are going to see at 23, or 24 years old. But what he is at now – he’d be the smallest defenceman in the league. It’s just hard to convince upper management sometimes to go down that path. But if you’re Montreal; and that was their fourth pick at that point. You’re late in the second, and you’re really defying the odds of getting a player.
“Even the worst-case scenario – he’s going to be a dynamic power-play guy for Laval that you can call up and put him in those types of situations. Even if he struggles a bit five-on-five, he’s going to be so good on the power play.
Don’t expect Marty St. Louis to be anti-Hutson if he’s still Montreal’s coach when he turns pro.
“I talked to guys that have played the game at the NHL level and they say he’s going to play. Whether that’s your flavour as an NHL coach is up to you, but he’s going to play in the NHL. I’m of that mindset too, that it will just depend on how the coach is going to use him. If Marty (St. Louis) is still there in four or five years, what a perfect fit.
“When their assistant GM or whoever says. ‘We want to call up Lane Hutson from Laval, he deserves it; Marty’s not going to look at it and be like: ‘No – he’s too small. I want somebody else.’ He’s going to give the kid an opportunity. Anyways – I love that pick. I thought at that pick he was overdue to go. I think you could tell when he was picked. He and his dad looked pissed and were thinking why did it take so long..”
Rumours of his poor defence have been greatly exaggerated. Hudson isn’t going to run your penalty kill but his smarts and skill are such that he may be able to adapt.
“We talked to the development team coaches and they said: ‘He’s actually our best defender.’ So, if you didn’t know, you’d just assume he’s just a skilled offensive guy, but he’s incredibly competitive, and he actually defends really well for his size. I think that pick has a lot of opportunity. I think it has the potential to make a lot of NHL teams look bad. I really do.
“I know the rebuttal for him is ‘You can’t teach size’ but you also can’t teach what he can do. To get that value late in the second could be a steal. What’s discouraging about him is even if a scout individually liked him, he’s a really hard guy to convince the people who make the decisions to draft him because of his size.”
Another scout who admitted that his team wouldn’t have taken him anywhere in the top two rounds still thinks Hutson may find a way to carve out an NHL role.
“He could be a little power-play guy,” said a scout. “You’ll love this kid. He’s a little firecracker. Defending will never be easy for him but when he has the puck you know you’re out of trouble. He can dance.”
Austrian center Vinzenz Rohrer, who doesn’t turn 18 until September, played a first-line center role in Ottawa last season despite not turning 18 until early September.
“I like Rohrer,” said a scout. “He’s a small body but he’s young, he’s got a lot of maturing to do. He’s a smart player. I don’t find him to have high-end skill but it’s good. Everything’s fine. The only thing that is exemplary is his character, he certainly wants to get to the net. He’s a fearless player. Everything he does is close to the net.”
Adam Engstrom was the compensation pick (92nd overall) Montreal received from Carolina for the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet that wasn’t dealt to Arizona for Christian Dvorak. Scouts who went to watch Calle Odelius on Djurgarden’s blueline in Swedish junior often came away almost as impressed with Engstrom.
“He’s a good try at 92,” said one scout. “I hope he can bring his game forward. He has puck skill and some edge.”
Jared Davidson may have been of the top-five players in the WHL as a 20-year-old, and well worth a fifth-round selection. Look for him to get a long look at Laval’s camp, and if he’s not ready, he can head back for his overage season in Seattle.
Emmett Croteau is Montreal’s typical late-round goalie pick that doesn’t get a lot of consideration in draft rankings, but has intriguing long-term potential.
“I like that Croteau pick by Montreal,” said one scout. “He had the most top-end potential of any goalie in the USA last year.
“He could be the next Primeau/Dobes. Much like those two, he didn’t put up great stats in his draft year, but he’s got a really high ceiling. He’s big, athletic, and at his best has been dynamic in the USHL. He’s just not consistent.“
Miguel Tourigny is another 5-8 defenceman with elite offensive skills, having scored 31 goals and 49 assists in 65 games split between BLB and Acadie Bathurst in the QMJHL.
“He’s a good little defenceman,” said one Quebec-based scout. “He’ll run the AHL power play for sure. You put these smaller guys in the AHL and see if they can translate. If he can do it in the AHL then maybe he can do it in the NHL. We’ll see.”
The Canadiens have made 45 picks in the top five rounds of the last six drafts. “Rebuild started”? More like “rebuild almost over”. Consider these 35 players/prospects under the age of 23 in the Canadiens’ organization:
The depth and quality of youth in the system right now is something that hasn’t been present since the 1980s. The club will likely have at least eight more picks in the top-five rounds next season (expect a few more vets to be dealt this season), and the rebuild should be over.
Who Slaffing now? Kent Hughes and the Montreal Canadiens. The future looks bright.