2018 NHL Draft: The Turning Point

For all the Hab fans who were shocked at some of the picks made by the Canadiens, worry not. This was as solid a draft as can be for Trevor Timmins, Shane Churla and the rest of the scouting staff. After partaking in the NHL combine, a combine in Montreal and another in Stockholm, the team was ready. Boy, did they ever deliver. They immediately focused on acquiring the best available centers at almost every position. Once seen as a huge organizational hole in the Canadiens organization, it’s fair to say they’re good. They drafted a grand total of seven centres. That’s more centres than Vegas/Calgary had picks!

On top of securing the centre position for the future, the Canadiens were also able to take gambles on D. At one point, the Canadiens held 13 picks in this draft. They decided to add some picks for next year and traded a 4th and 5th for a 4th and 5th in 2019. This means that, on top of the 11 picks this year, the Habs already have 8 picks for next year. Should any assets be traded this summer, like captain Max Pacioretty, that number could grow. The Canadiens seem to be gearing up for a discrete rebuild, only because they haven’t announced it as such. However, this means that fans should become accustomed to the new youngsters. We were able to scout a good majority of these players and sought out expert advice for the rest. Here’s a rundown of Montreal’s 2018 crop:

3rd overall: Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The image of the shocked fan in the stands says enough about what the regular fan knows about Kotkaniemi. The 6’2 190lbs pivot was a sensation during the 2nd half of the season. He ended the season with 29 points in 57 games; a very comparable production to Patrik Laine’s 33 points in 46 games at the same age. Kotkaniemi did play the entire season on the wing due to his extremely young age in the Finnish SM-Liiga. He was the youngest player on his team at the age of 17, with the closest youngest being 20 years old. However, when he played internationally in his age group, he was a big and dominant centre.

At this year’s U-18 World Championships, Kotkaniemi put up an impressive 9 points in 7 games. His play for Finland at both ends of the ice was indispensable in Finland winning the tournament. His late-season performance saw Jesperi’s stock rise from 13-15th overall to the 3-5 rank last week. Even Bob MacKenzie confirmed this was no longer a reach and compared Kotkaniemi to Kopitar in style. He projects, at worse, as a top-6 center, but many high-level scouts believe Kotkaniemi will top-out as a first line centre. Kotkaniemi.

He should, in theory, go and play an extra year for Assat in Finland in order to continue to develop as an offensive centre. He should also be able to dominate at the World Junior Championships this winter. Our estimation is that Kotkaniemi will be able to crack the Canadiens lineup full-time by 2019-2020. He projects to be a 200-ft top 6 centre that has become extremely difficult to acquire nowadays. With Poehling being drafted last year, he and Kotkaniemi give the Habs the 1-2 punch down the middle for years; prospect depth they haven’t had at center in over 20 years.

35th overall: Jesse Ylonen

The first time we saw Ylonen play, the first comparable that was agreed upon was Nikolaj Ehlers. Ylonen’s speed and acceleration are second to none in this draft. He is able to make plays at top-speed and can catch defensemen flat-footed on the rush. He is primarily a playmaker, as out-hustling coverage to find the open man. However, he does possess a ridiculous underrated shot that he can get off in a hurry.

He played this past season in the for Espoo United in the Finnish 2nd Division. His 27 points in 48 games were impressive for an 18-year-old. However, he was even more impressive during the U-18 World Championships, putting up 9 points in 7 games for Finland. Watching him on the powerplay with Kotkaniemi can already give Hab fans a taste of what’s to come. Ylonen is able to thrive on the powerplay, as he possesses a great one-timer. His vision is excellent and he is able to find players anywhere on the ice.

He projects as a top-6 RW, something the Canadiens did not have in their pipeline with Scherbak likely graduating this upcoming season with the Habs. With the Canadiens deep on the LW, Ylonen will bring speed and creativity for a team desperate for some skill and creativity. Ylonen will be playing against Kotkaniemi in the SM-Liiga for the Lahden Pelicans. He should also slot into Finland’s World Junior Championship roster this December. Expect him to be ready within the next 3 years, but, should he take another big leap in his development, he could even be ready in 2020 due to his blazing speed.

38th overall: Alexander Romanov

We all went “Who is that?!” when Trevor Timmins announced left defensemen Alexander Romanov at 38. Many were expecting Benoit Olivier Groulx or the falling Akil Thomas. However, the standout rearguard from the Russian junior league MHL was too good to pass up. After getting in contact with some friends in Russia and other scouts, it became easy to see why he was picked so early. He is currently listed at 5’11, but he is actually 6’1 now since he wasn’t re-measured since September. He is fast, nasty and can easily jump in on the play.

The first thing we were told is that he was extremely hidden in the MHL. He played his most impressive hockey at the Jr. A challenge, where he scored 4 goals in 4 games. He was a force for Russia, as he and Denisenko skated circles around players with their speed and skill. He has a very precise and hard slap-shot and a deceptively strong and low wrist-shot. After going back to watch some more of his games, it became clear to see what the Habs did.

He looks like a surefire top-4 D if he is able to shore up his defensive game. Fortunately for him, the Canadiens have a penchant for strong defensive learning. He is slated to play the next two years for a top KHL team in CSKA, where he will be able to grow while playing against men. He should then be able to join the Laval Rocket in 2020 and Joel Bouchard will then mold him. This is a high-risk pick, but it has the potential to be a home run pick if he develops properly.

56th overall: Jakob Olofsson

We wrote about this young man in my previous article on the available centres in this draft’s 2nd round. However, we projected the 6’3 200lbs pivot to get picked anywhere between 20th and 35th overall. With all the reaches in the first round for centremen like O’Brien, Foudy, and Dellandrea, Olofsson was insane value at 56th overall. He already plays in the top-6 for Timra. He was a key contributor for the Allsvenskan (Sweden 2nd Division) this year. His team was ultimately promoted to the Swedish Hockey League (1st Division) and Olofsson figures as a prominent member of next year’s team.

He had an impressive Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer, putting up 4 points in 5 games for Sweden. He had a less impressive U-18 Championships, where he put up 3 assists in 7 games. However, his offensive production was shared by the entire team. On the flipside, he was a force defensively and was often tasked with shutting down the opposition.

He projects, at worse, as a very good third liner, but does have real top-6 potential. He should spend the next year or two in the SHL working on developing his strength and offensive game. Expect him to be a strong contributor for Sweden at this year’s world junior championship. It’s almost a broken record at this point with the first four players drafted by the Habs, but it is true. He has all the tools to make it in the show but simply needs to take his speed up a level and work on getting better offensively. He plays a game very similar to a Nick Bonino and could top out as such with slightly more offense.

66th overall: Cam Hillis

We had Hillis ranked at 55th overall in our rankings this year. The fact that the Canadiens were able to claim the centre from Guelph is great. He plays a very in-your-face style which is reminiscent of pre-concussion Andrew Shaw. He was a rookie this year in the Ontario Hockey League for the Guelph Storm this year. He put up 59 points in 60 games for Guelph and outperformed all the members of his team, many of whom were already drafted. His speed, skill and deceptive vision allowed him to be selected by Canada for the U-18 championships. Not bad for a junior rookie who was a nobody last year.

The incredible progress in Hillis’ game made him a great gamble for the future as he plays the game hard. His never-ending motor makes him an easy comparable to Brendan Gallagher at the same age. Standing at 5’10 180lbs, Hillis’ speed and physical play make him a good bet to be a pro. He’s improved leaps and bounds over the last year and many scouts think this trend will continue. Hillis can possibly be shifted to the wing in the NHL, should the need arise. He should play his next two years in the OHL and then make the jump to the Laval Rocket. It may take some time, but he is the definition of character and skill that teams covet come spring time.

71st overall: Jordan Harris

This is more of an unknown pick for the Canadiens, but fans will like his upside. The 5’11 175lbs left-defenseman skates like the wind, something of a trend in this draft. He is excellent with the puck. His first pass is solid and his vision is extremely good. His draft status was hampered due to the fact that he played in the US High School league. He destroyed the league and he even impressed the Quebec Junior league enough to be drafted by Val d’Or. Scouts believe he would have gone higher in this draft had he played in the QMJHL this year.

Harris’ choice to not jump to the QMJHL was made because he preferred the NCAA route. He has now committed to the University of Northeastern where Habs goalie prodigy Cayden Primeau plays. He should be a great project for coach Jim Madigan, who focuses on strong defense. Harris will most likely play 2-3 years in the NCAA before being ready to make the jump. This could be one of those sleeper NCAA picks, such as Jake Evans. His speed and hockey sense alone make him a sure bet to at least play in the AHL at worse. Could surprise a few.

97th overall: Allan McShane

Good lord what a value pick for the Habs. We know that everyone will say that about a prospect they really like, but this is no joke. McShane was outstanding this year for the Oshawa Generals. He put up 65 points in 67 games this year and the young center looks ready for more. We had ranked McShane in the second round, but the pivot fell a bit due to concerns about his skating. Thankfully McShane is aware of his skating issues and plans on taking speed skating classes to improve his stride this summer. However, there is nothing to worry about in terms of his offensive output, as he is just as fast as other standout junior players like Alex Galchenyuk or Ryan Getzlaf. 

His lack of foot speed is not to say he isn’t fast. He just isn’t as explosive as some of the top players in this draft. His offensive game is off the charts though, as he is an assist machine. He was even selected for Canada’s U18 roster this year and produced 6 points in 5 games against the best of his age group. He was a force in every game and displayed a noticeable improvement in his skating. He projects as a top-6 player, but could ultimately play on the wing should it required. He should be a key factor for Oshawa next year and expect him to improve on his numbers. The kid has the drive and the will to get better and is a huge gym rat. Expect his lower body to be the focus this summer to add some explosiveness to his game.

123rd overall: Jack Gorniak

The top product of the USHS, similarly to Harris, is a gritty and skilled LW that is committed to the University of Wisconsin. He’s seen as a two-way sandpaper winger that has the speed and shot to make the jump to the pros. Many have questioned his defensive game, but his time at Wisconsin U should help him. The Wisconsin Badgers are a solid hockey production machine and don’t hand out invitations easily.

Gorniak is not the biggest player at 5’11 180lbs, but he certainly plays like he is 6’5. He hits everything that moves and is great on the counter-attack. He should play 2-3 years in the NCAA if all goes well, but he should take his time to develop. His offensive game is untapped and he could certainly explode if he plays with the right players. The Badgers have a strong program, and thus Gorniak could thrive in the right role. Expect him to be a fan favourite if ever he does make it.

128th overall: Cole Fonstad

This is hands down the highest value pick for the Canadiens. He put up 73 points in 72 games for the Prince Albert Raiders and finished second in scoring on his team. He has extremely good vision and is able to bring his game up during important games. His 52 assists in 72 games make him one of the most impressive playmakers in all of Canadian Major Junior. Team Canada noticed and even gave the 5’10 center an invite to the U-18 tournament.

He projects as a top-6 winger that could slot anywhere in a top-9 and find players at top-speed. He looked absolutely dominant in the last 20 games of the season for Prince Albert. He has a strong first few steps and can take off at full speed very quickly. His vision is much better than those picked in the 5th round and this looks like a steal. Should he get stronger and improve even more after a remarkable season, Fonstad will be another 5th round steal for Timmins.

133rd overall: Samuel Houde

Although this young man looked to improve significantly in the 2nd half of the season, this is a “satisfy the locals” pick. The Canadiens had come under fire for not drafting a Quebec born player in the last two drafts. The Habs missed out on Nicolas Beaudin, B-O Groulx, and Gabriel Fortier. Houde was on the board in the 5th round and was one of 6 Quebec born skaters picked in this draft.

The young pivot put up a meager 32 points in 52 games this year. Most of those points came in the 2nd half of the season and then scored 5 points in 6 games in the playoffs. His progression made him a solid bet in the 5th round, but he projects, at best, as a bottom 6 player in the NHL. He plays a strong two-way game with a little nastiness to his game. Unsurprisingly, he is very fast and he utilizes his speed the most during the penalty kill. Expect a notable increase in points next year as Chicoutimi continues to develop their youth.

190th overall: Brett Stapley

This was the last pick of the draft. He is another undersized centre out of BC that will make the jump to the NCAA. He is committed to the University of Denver next season and should already become a force offensively for that team. Although he is 19, his progression over the last two years has made him an easy gamble in the 7th round. The Canadiens could have gone anyway, but the last NCAA product drafted in the7th round worked out well (Jake Evans).

Stapley can take his sweet time in the NCAA. He can grow in Denver, which has an excellent hockey program. He has serious potential, but he in no way compares to any of the first five prospects drafted this year.

Cupboards Official Restocked

With Kotkaniemi, Poehling, Olofsson, Hillis, Ikonen, Evans, McShane, Fonstad and Stapley in the pipeline, centre is certainly an organizational strength. None of these players will have an immediate impact, but most should play pro-hockey. The Canadiens have invested significant capital in shoring up their developmental team. With that said, these young players will finally be in good hands with Timmins and Bouchard at the head of development. With Kotkaniemi, Poehling, and Olofsson, many of these centers should wind up on the wing. This further adds credence that centres are extremely valuable and versatile.

They were also able to add two strong left defensive prospects in Romanov and Harris. Romanov projects as a top-4 D and Harris could surprise a few in the next two years. Ylonen and Gorniak, two true wingers, add scoring and speed along the wings as well. However, Ylonen is the true top-end winger out of the two.

Needless to say, the Canadiens put in the work and it paid off this year. Expect them to reap the rewards of their labour in the next three years. The Canadiens, who seemed primed for a rebuild, look to have started it in style. Hab fans have much to look forward to, but they must be patient if they want these players to thrive.