Here is a look at Montreal’s organizational needs and possible draft targets:
For just the second time in a decade the Habs will have at least five picks in the top three rounds, and fans should be looking forward to seeing the club get a rare opportunity to choose several players in the top 90, as the last two times they had a bunch of picks in 2013 and 2007 the club had draft success. Two of the three players the Habs selected in the second round of the 2013 draft have played more NHL games than any other pick in that round except Nic Petan, so the hope will be that the Habs can get at least three future NHLers out of this draft crop.
This year the club has four selections in the top 68, and the Habs will be looking to pick up what the majority of others teams would also like to add to their organization…future top-two centers and NHL defencemen.
There are at least a dozen center prospects in this draft with legitimate top-two upside, but there is also a possibility that all of them are selected before the Habs pick at 25. The pivots that appear to be on the top 25 bubble who are ranked in the top 21 by Recrutes are Ryan Poehling, Josh Norris and Morgan Frost.
While Frost has arguably the most offensive upside of any of the three, he is also the most likely to be available at 25 because he is a shade under 5-11. Frost is a crafty pivot with excellent stickhandling and playmaking skills who is also one of the draft’s best skaters. He started the season buried behind a slew of highly regarded forward prospects on the Soo and soon showed the coaching staff that he was already one of the more skilled players on the team. Next season he will be handed the offensive reins and after scoring a point per game this past season can be expected to challenge for 100 points and the OHL scoring lead.
Poehling is the least likely of the three to be available at 25, and also may be the least likely to be selected by the Habs as the other two quite possibly have more offensive potential, and the Habs have a distinct need for offence down the middle and not another two-way center with size. Norris, if he’s available at 25, is a better fit for what the Habs are seeking. The Habs will have a tough decision choosing between Frost and Norris if both are on the board. Norris is the safer pick, but also has enough puck skills and smarts to play a top-two center role in the NHL with the proper development.
Conor Timmins is a defenceman who could be available at 25 (ranked 18th by Recrutes) as there seems to be some divergence among the scouting community on where he’ll be selected, and if that’s the case he will also likely be seriously considered by the Canadiens. One of the smartest players in the draft, Timmins finished third among OHL blueliners in assists behind two overage defencemen, and not only has NHL powerplay potential but also projects to play a solid defensive game if he can gain some more quickness. Erik Brannstrom and Pierre-Olivier Joseph will get some consideration at 25 as well, but less likely to be picked than Frost, Norris or Timmins. Urho Vaakanainen would most definitely be in the discussion if he unexpectedly falls to 25, and he could well be their selection if that happens.
Wingers who may also be in the mix include Jason Robertson, Eeli Tolvanen and Jesper Boqvist, who some scouts believe may be able to play center as he has in the past. Robertson will intrigue as a 6-2 winger with a deft scoring touch and playmaking abilities whose main liability is his skating. Many scouts believe it is only a matter of him gaining lower body strength in regards to getting his speed up to NHL levels down the road. Tolvanen is another winger who may fall on draft day, and he’s a pure goal scorer, so he’d also get some serious consideration at 25 even if the club ideally isn’t looking for another undersized winger.
With three picks between 56 and 68, the Habs could be in a good position to trade up into the 40’s if a player they have ranked in their top 31 is still on the board. Defencemen such as Josh Brook or Joseph would likely interest the club if they are still available at 40. Recrutes believes Brook is underrated in the scouting world and would be worth moving up to select if he drops to the 40 range. Joseph is less likely to be there even if opinions on him are varied…he may be someone the Habs consider moving up to select if the price isn’t too high and he falls past 35.
If they stay put at 56, 58 and 68 there may be some defencemen available who could interest Montreal…including Mario Ferraro, Scott Walford (a possible target at 68), Dimitri Samorukov, Cale Fleury and Ian Mitchell. All of those defencemen have good mobility and puck-moving skills, and with the departure of Nathan Beaulieu and Mikhail Sergachev there is a strong possibility that Montreal will pick at least one or two defencemen in the top 68. Forwards that might be available who could be under serious consideration could include Jack Studnicka, Santeri Virtanen, Mackenzie Entwistle, Aleksi Heponiemi, Grant Mismash and Jonah Gadjovich.
Studnicka may be the only player in that group with the possibility of having top-two center upside, but once the draft hits the 50’s finding such prospects is challenging at best. Heponiemi would be the prospect with the most offensive upside, but his size (less than 150 pounds) is what’s likely to cause him to drop some on draft day. Mismash and Gadjovich if they hit their prime ceiling could be second-line wingers, and Virtanen has the all-around game to be a productive third-line center
Regardless of who the club selects with their five picks in the top three rounds, a prospect stable that is in need of fortification will be in much better shape by Saturday afternoon. Given that it isn’t a banner year for QMJHL prospects, don’t expect many homegrown talents to be added, but hopefully the addition of a burgeoning young star in Jonathan Drouin will keep hockey fans in la belle Province excited and satiated for now just the same.