Daily Hab-it: Time to draft for need
Published Monday, June 20, 2011 4:13PM EDT
Over the coming days, there will be draft previews coming out of the woodwork.
Mock drafts. Prospect interviews. Player grades.
But the fact is the great majority of the people writing those previews are, like me, professional hockey writers. While many of them will often talk to as many NHL scouts as possible before taking on any air of authority on the subject, the fact is that by and large, these people have little to no idea what they are talking about.
I place myself in that category.
I don't watch much junior hockey. I don't watch US college hockey. And I certainly don't watch US prep school hockey.
But there are many people who do, obsessively, all in preparation for this week.
So I figured that instead of trying to wing it, I should go to those people who have an inkling of expertise regarding the players that are eagerly waiting for the greatest day of their lives this coming Friday or Saturday in Minneapolis.
But before I get to them, there is a greater philosophical matter at hand when it comes to how the Canadiens approach the draft.
Over the tenure of Trevor Timmins as head of amateur scouting, the Canadiens policy has been to draft the best player available.
The most striking evidence of this was drafting Carey Price fifth overall in 2005, a pick made with Jose Theodore still playing in Montreal and still considered at the time to be a dominant goalie who was just two NHL seasons removed from a Hart Trophy and who had a 2.27 goals against average and .919 save percentage in the final year before the lockout.
Anze Kopitar – a big centre that filled a serious need for the Canadiens – remained on the board, but Timmins and Bob Gainey went with who they felt was the best player available.
Frankly, it's hard to argue with their decision today. It's also hard to argue with the philosophy in general, considering how well the Canadiens have fared in producing NHL players.
Except this year is different.
The Canadiens hold just two picks in the top 100 of a draft class that was once considered extremely weak but which is being compared by some to the legendary class of 2003 in terms of depth, if not high end talent.
After the top 10 prospects, or perhaps even fewer than that, it appears as though the gap between the next 50 or more players is so slight that a first-rounder on one team could be a third-rounder for another.
The Canadiens, however, pick 17th and then won't pick again until the third round, 78th overall, after trading away their own second rounder at 47th overall to Florida last season for Dominic Moore and their 50th overall pick as compensation for not signing David Fischer to the Islanders as part of the James Wisniewski deal.
Both of those trades were extremely beneficial to the team so harping about them now is not really acceptable, but having three picks in the top 60 in a year where the top-end talent is not as impressive as the depth would have been a real asset.
But living in the present, that is not the case, and Pierre Gauthier will either need to maximize the value of those two picks, trade down to gather more selections, or trade up to get a shot at one of the two Quebec-born prospects near the top of the draft.
But should he stand pat and hold on to those two picks in the top three rounds, I would highly suggest the Canadiens veer away from their traditional philosophy of going for the best player available and instead draft for need, in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary.
And that need, as it has been for practically ever, would be to add skilled forwards with size – whether it's a centre or winger.
The Canadiens top prospects at the forward position – Danny Kristo, Louis Leblanc, Aaron Palushaj and Michael Bournival, to name a few – are all of average size. Unfortunately for them, being average makes them practically undersized.
It's possible in a draft class with several big forwards who may turn into scorers that the Canadiens traditional philosophy of picking the best player available will land them two power forward types anyways. What I am suggesting, however, is that they slant their overall draft list in favour of that type of player, so much so that even if a smaller forward or an enticing defenceman should remain on the board at either No. 17 or No. 78, they ignore the temptation.
Having said that, who exactly the Canadiens should target is a bit outside my realm of expertise, which is why I asked two people who know far more about these players than I to enlighten me on the types of players that may be available when the Canadiens are scheduled to take the podium in Minneapolis.
Corey Pronman is a columnist for Hockey Prospectus and has written for the publication since 2009. He covers scouting and player development for the NHL Draft and all drafted NHL Prospects. He also contributes to ESPN Insider.
Mark Edwards is the founder and director of scouting for HockeyProspect.com, a six-year old independent scouting service that produces a 200-page book with player scouting reports and rankings every spring.
I asked both of them what the Canadiens should do with their first round pick, both within the context of targeting a big forward and by the team's usual philosophy of drafting the best player available.
Their answers to this question provided a further window into just how much of a crapshoot this draft is in the sense that one man's first rounder is another man's third rounder.
Pronman first warned that a prototypical power forward is difficult to find at this stage in the draft, which is ultimately another argument in favour of simply taking the player that sits at the top of the Canadiens list, no matter the position.
"I would say it's unlikely you're going to get a player with above-average offensive abilities and a player who's not only big, but actually above-average in the physical game of hockey at the 17th pick," Pronman said. "Forwards like Nicklas Jensen and maybe Joel Armia will be there, and while they project to have above-average NHL size and have very desirable offensive attributes, they aren't exactly power forwards or make full use of their physical gifts.
"Meanwhile, you have players like Mark Scheifele, Brandon Saad and Dmitrij Jaskin who will likely be there who are bigger forwards who use their bodies well, but their pure skills likely will top out as pro-average or just slightly better at best. It's very rare to get a skilled forward who excels in the physical game at number 17, even in a late draft; those players such as Sean Couturier, Gabriel Landeskog and Mika Zibanejad go in the top 10 for a reason."
Having said that, there was one player Pronman was quite high on.
"I don't think (Mark) McNeill or Armia will be there at No. 17 (but that isn't for sure either), but one player I'd advocate the Habs going after is Dmitrij Jaskin," he said. "If you're looking for a power-forward in that range then Jaskin is your guy. He didn't get much exposure playing in the Czech Republic all year and his only major International appearance was at the Under-18's in Germany, but if you want a smart, hard-nosed, two-way power forward with decent offensive upside then Jaskin fits the bill. I have a scouting report up on him at Hockey Prospectus here."
Jaskin is the fifth-ranked European skater on the NHL Central Scouting list – one spot ahead of highly touted Swedish defenceman Oscar Klefbom – and does not crack the top 30 for the International Scouting Services.
That's not to say Pronman is in left field here, far from it. But it does show that the usual subjectivity of the NHL Draft is heightened this year once you get past the elite players at the top.
At 6-foot-1 and nearly 200 pounds, Jaskin most definitely would fill the size criteria, and he played with men in the top Czech league last season with Slavia Praha HC (3-7-10 totals in 33 games as a 17-year-old).
Edwards and Hockeyprospect.com has Jaskin ranked as the 31st best prospect in the draft, but the review is pretty glowing in touting his ability to drive the net, his hockey smarts and level of top-six skill.
However, Edwards sees the Habs going in a different direction on draft day.
"If I had to pick one player, I would hope a Boone Jenner would slip, a big centre they've been seeking for years," Edwards said. "His skating was an issue, but it's come miles this year. He's a real competitor; this kid's a hockey player. He very well could be available and he'd be a good pick at that point."
Jenner indeed appears to be the player the Canadiens have always lacked, a big centre with some skills. He's ranked 18th among North American skaters by Central Scouting but also fails to crack the top 30 for ISS. Pronman, meanwhile, has Jenner ranked at No. 32, while Edwards has him at No. 12.
In terms of other possibilities for the Canadiens at No. 17, both Pronman and Edwards mentioned:
Joel Armia, Finland (6-foot-3, 191 pounds)
18-11-29 in 48 GP with Assat Pori (SM-liiga)
No. 4 Euro NHLCS, No. 13 ISS, No. 15 Hockey Prospectus, No. 22 Hockeyprospect.com
Mark Scheifele (6-foot-2, 182 pounds)
22-53-75 in 66 GP with Barrie Colts (OHL)
No. 16 NA skater NHLCS, No. 29 Hockey Prospectus, No. 24 Hockeyprospect.com
Brandon Saad (6-foot-1, 208 pounds)
27-28-55 in 59 GP with Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
No. 19 NA skater NHLCS, No. 24 ISS, No. 22 Hockey Prospectus, No. 27 Hokceyprospect.com
Those were the only three players that they both mentioned, which again shows the level of subjectivity involved when drafting this low in the first round, particularly this year.
The good news is that both Pronman and Edwards agree this is a deep draft, so interesting players may still remain when the Canadiens pick in the third round (assuming they keep the pick). The bad news is that in a draft that appears as unpredictable as this one, having more than two picks in the top 80 would increase your chances of unearthing a gem.
Perhaps Gauthier could trade down to add a second rounder, particularly after trading his second rounder last year in order to move up five slots in the first round to draft Jarred Tinordi. Last summer, Tinordi was the Canadiens lone pick in the top 100. This year, Gauthier has two such picks.
With a farm system that is starting to dry up quickly, he and Timmins need to make those picks count. And, in my eyes at least, they also need to use them to address an organizational need that has remained a constant for well over a decade.
You can buy the draft guide published by Mark Edwards and his team at HockeyProspect.com at the website.