Thursday, June 19, 2008

2008 Canadiens Entry Draft Preview

The draft is about to start, there's a new scoring phenom coming out of the CHL, the next pick isn't shabby with a big and able defenceman from Ontario likely to be picked next. The draft is deep and the Russian star of the day might not get a look in the top 5. Meanwhile the Habs are mired down in the 20s for their pick. No luck, right?

That was 1993. Daigle was the can't miss at the time. Chris Pronger was that able defenceman. All the talk of Viktor Kozlov only got him selected 6th. The Canadiens, fresh off a Stanley Cup snagged the third best player in the first round with the 21st pick. Not only that, Saku Koivu has gone on to become a Canadiens icon and the second-longest serving captain in team history.

Here and now, it's the Stamkos draft. Steve is the talk of the place, but is he a sure thing? If anyone is thinking of giving the unequivocal yes, then maybe they should think again. First overall means nothing about your future career. Scouting of Stamkos provides reports that certainly project the likelihood of him being a star int he league higher than any of his peers, but the reports did the same for Daigle. Ottawa, in hindsight might have preferred Pronger, Kariya or Koivu.

What we need
There is no doubt about what the Canadiens need. For me it is a winger who can score (big or small). If he's big and can score, all the better, but scoring is what matters. The problem is the Canadiens need that player now. The player they select on the weekend may not be ready for another 4-5 seasons. The Habs have to address the need for that winger by other means than hoping an 18-year old will be our saviour next season.

As such, the Canadiens needs get rejigged. assuming the Habs do address the need there with a relatively young first-line scorer, then that will no longer be a need. So what will?

The answer is simple, and has been the Canadiens draft strategy for a while. The Canadiens need good players, the best prospects. When Trevor Timmins gives his post-draft interview and explains that they took the best player available in their estimation, they will have done their jobs. If they draft with positional or biometric shackles like some teams do, then they will be imitating the wrong teams (i.e., not the Red Wings).

The first round

I won't pretend that I know everything about the players in all the lists and profiles I've been reading. But sometimes a player just gives me a feeling. It's a product of the name, the size, the stats (in the context of where he plays, of course). Once in a while I am right about this too. As Tobalev will attest, in my card collecting days I went around and bought every Saku Koivu UpperDeck Finland rookie card from the WJHC before the Canadiens drafted him in 1993. I only had to look at his stats in a typically (back then) low-scoring Finnish league and read about his temperament to know I wanted the Habs to have him. I hoped and hoped for Saku that year, and in the end we picked my man.

When I look down the list this year, I am largely unimpressed with the list. There seem to be a lot of Chris Phillips' and few truly exciting prospects. I would be hugely disappointed if the Canadiens went weak and drafted someone like Tyler Cuma, who TSN says:
"is a strong two-way defenceman with leadership ability and a willingness to compete hard at both ends of the ice."
You can sign any number of players like that in an offseason. You shouldn't be drafting anyone whose best-case secnario is the next Steve Staios in the first round.

If we're looking for a steal

As a general rule, when looking for a steal, I look for a couple of things. First, I look at size. Big players are generally overrated by scouts and small players are underrated. The other thing is mention of skating. if they can't skate by now, it's too late guys. So, when I see a small player who can skate in the top tier of the draft, I am curious. It was the case with Saku Koivu, and it is the case with my new poster boy this year: Mattias Tedenby.

TSN ranked him 26th, but unlike the reviews for the defensive defencemen ahead of him, his review glowed:
"The diminutive Swedish winger is amongst the most competitive and skilled players available in this draft, but his lack of size is likely going to discount him in this draft. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with confidence, on and off the ice. He has an extra gear, which is essential for small guys looking to succeed in the NHL, and doesn't take a backward step in the mold of a Mats Naslund or Marty St. Louis. Could fall to the second round because of size issues, but if a team really likes him and is willing to look past the height, he could go much higher than ranked. "
The Central Scouting Bureau, who ranked him much higher than TSN (3 from Europe), have even better things to say:
"Mattias is excellent on every shift. He has outstanding speed, stick work and work ethic. He is small but fearless - he takes hits and always comes back. He creates scoring chances with his outstanding skating and is very difficult to stop when he is at full speed. He has excellent balance and quick, smooth hands, but needs to improve on his defensive awareness."
This is 2008's Saku Koivu! We'll lament him for being too small, but once he makes the team – icon... (I'm just off to buy the rookie cards now).

My next 4

Assuming as I am that the Canadiens will not be trading up in this draft, I am listing these 4 players based on the likelihood that they could be available at 25th overall:

2) Chet Pickard, G – Tri-City Americans
I have already put the goalie option forward elsewhere, to which I usually get mocking or disbelief as a response:
"Topham - why would we take a goalie in the first round?"
Just substitute the name Timmins for Topham and think back 3 years, and maybe you'll see where I'm coming from. Chet Pickard, from all reports, is a bit like our man Carey. Their stats from draft years are remarkably similar. Funnily though, the Americans actually did better with Pickard after losing Price. So the temptation to dismiss him, should probably be, well, dismissed. If he's available, I might have trouble buying the "best player" line if Timmins were to select someone else (other than Tedenby, of course).

3) Erik Karlsson, D – Frolunda, SEL
Offensive defencemen are great assets. Possibly the greatest around after goaltenders. but unlike goalies, teams can carry more than one offensive D, and as such they are very tradeable. Why draft for trading you ask? Because then you can get hold of that power forward with NHL experience you always want...

4) Kirill Petrov, LW – AK Bars Kazan
Here he is, the power forward we want. Apparently, the knock is that he doesn't want out of Russia. Well, if the Canadiens let this Russian issue stand in the way, then I can tell you someone else won't. That team, whoever they are, will pluck gems from the draft and we'll be looking back in 15 years after their 4th Cup in 10 years and asking how they did it. It'll take bravery, but what's the point in going to the draft if you're not willing to be brave?

5) Jordan Eberle, C – Regina Pats
Described as refreshingly offensive-minded, intelligent and goalscorer, he would be a good pick-up too. Not as big as some rival choices, but you can't teach the scoring knack to anyone.

If we have to go big
If it's gotta be a big guy, then I'd prefer Joe Colborne, but could stomach Greg Nemisz. Again, if they were passed off as the best player available, I won't be buying it.

If we're looking for someone from the backyard
Some of the Montreal media, including Mike Boone have had an eye on Danick Paquette from the QMJHL. Personally, I would steer clear of anyone who can still honestly list Todd Bertuzzi as their idol(!!!) no matter how many Xmas parties they throw. That and the fact that although he is sold as a big power forward, he's only 6' tall – he sounds like Latendresse without discipline or size.

More like it from the QMJHL, at least, are Nicolas Deschamps and Jacob Lagace from the Sagueneens (Carbo's toy). From this article, they both sound like their stars are on the rise. If I had the say, I'd skip Deschamps if he's projected as a first rounder and pick up Lagace with a later pick. Obviously, neither has shown outstanding offensive talent just yet, and it would be an admission of defeat to pick a third line talent in the first round, no matter which province they hail from.

I, for one am a big believer in restocking the ranks from Quebec. If I were in charge, I'd be picking from Quebec in the late rounds. For one thing, we have more intimate knowledge of the local talent, and can also make the transition easier for the players who will struggle to learn new hockey skills at the same time as a new language and possibly culture. I'd like to think that some of the local boys would work that much harder for their beloved CH too.

Beyond round 1

You think about Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash and company and ask what happened to those teams. Then you look at NJ and Detroit and marvel at their low first-rounders or lack thereof.

Tickets may be sold with first rounders, but dynasties are made in the later rounds. I have spoken about the desire for the Canadiens to jump all over the reluctance of other teams to draft Russians. And I mentioned their advantage in Quebec. I think the Canadiens have to leverage these two things in the later rounds to start bringing in consistent hauls of NHL quality players.

That said, I would hope that the Habs come up with some of the decent players from the Q this year. Specifically, I covet Yann Sauve or Maxime Sauve, one of Lagace or Deschamps (from above) and possibly Patrice Cormier if he's available 4th round or later.

As for Russians, it will depend on whether Petrov is the man early or not. There's taking advantage and then there's the foolishness of putting all the eggs in one basket – even Detroit wasn't taking all Swedish boys. If f we're safer than Petrov in round 1, then Evgeny Grachev in the second might make sense.

Viktor Tikhonov would also be a late intriguing pick, given the legacy of his grandfather. In fact, it might be just the sort of strategic pick (to sweeten the Habs chances in Russia overall) that could make sense.

Other names that jumped out included Jared Staal, who you know will never be small and David Carle, skating at Sidney's old school and playing like his brother Matt (San Jose's not ours).

That's about all I can muster having very little personal exposure to any of these guys. Happy Draft Day. See you in 5 years to see what the aftermath of all this was (and reaping the gains on all my Tedenby rookie cards)...

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