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CH: an uninspiring 2023 draft despite many stories
After a big draft at the Bell Centre last year, where the club held the first-ever overall pick, the 2023 amateur auction was an opportunity for the Canadiens to take another big step forward in their rebuilding. With a total of nine picks (and there were 11 before the deal that brought Alex Newhook to town), the potential was there to make a few more good moves.

And in the end, here’s what Kent Hughes and his gang selected:

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the crop of players selected by the Tricolore, there’s only one reaction that comes to mind: a big fat “meh”.

Let’s take it easy.

Obviously, the most decisive pick of the auction came early in the first round, when the Habs held the fifth overall pick. In a draft where there was a clear top-5 forward (Bedard, Fantilli, Carlsson, Smith and Michkov), there was bound to be one available by the time Kent Hughes stepped up to the podium.

And for a team in search of a true offensive superstar for so many years, it seemed ideal.

But the club clearly didn’t want to get its hands on Matvei Michkov, for one reason or another. So, when the other four forwards were selected in the top-4, the idea of Hughes trading down and acquiring more than one first-round pick and a prospect was tantalizing.

Especially since the CH didn’t have many big picks left, but more on that later.

However, instead of doing that, the Habs came to the podium and decided to use their turn to select not Michkov and not a forward, but David Reinbacher.

I’ve written it many times since yesterday: I have absolutely nothing against Reinbacher and I think he’ll be a good defenseman in the Bettman circuit, but considering the state of things in Montreal, he’s a flat, bland, flavorless choice.

And when you consider that the next draft should be a good one for defensemen, you have to wonder if the CH didn’t pick theirs a year too early.

Before the draft, Kent Hughes insisted that he wanted to select the best player available. But yesterday, he himself admitted that if Reinbacher had been left-handed, the CH might not have been as interested.

And that leads me to believe that an organizational need guided the selection. Once again, it’s a theme of the vintage, and we’ll come back to it.

The fact that the CH decided to keep his pick also hurt the team’s pick depth a bit. After talking at No. 5, it wasn’t until early in the third round that we saw the Montrealers get a turn.

In the end, the 31st and 37th picks were used to “select” Alex Newhook. Would Mikhail Gulyayev and Ethan Gauthier, selected at these ranks, have been a better prize than Newhook? I think they’re very similar, and in fact, the CH chose quality over quantity.

However, if we come back to the notion of quality over quantity, I was surprised to see the Tricolore not dip into their nine picks to get ahead. Kent Hughes himself admitted this week that the 50-contract limit means he can’t sign everyone, yet no less than nine picks were made.

Not every guy drafted today is going to sign a contract with the CH one day.

In short, with the 69th pick, the Tricolore decided to focus on another organizational need by selecting Jacob Fowler. We knew that the club was probably going to pick among the available goalies, and frankly, I like this selection. It’s the first time in a long time that the CH has drafted a goalie early (probably the first time since Zach Fucale, in fact).

Early in the fourth round, selecting Florian Xhekaj wasn’t a bad idea either. We know that big brother does well in Montreal and loves the city, and as long as we’re taking a lottery ticket, I have no problem dipping into the family again.

Was it too early to take it? Yes, but at this stage of the draft, it’s no more serious than that.

After that, however, the other picks continue to leave me a little perplexed. Drafting Bogdan Konyushkov, a Russian right-handed defenseman, shows that the problem with Matvei Michkov wasn’t just his nationality. And Yevgeni Volohkin, drafted later, is another Russian.

Speaking of Volokhin, he’s one of three goalies selected by the Habs, the other being Quentin Miller of Quebec. I’m willing to believe that we’re talking about an organizational need, but was it worth taking a third of the team’s picks at this auction to draft goalies?

The strategy here is clear: the CH hopes that one of these goalies is the team’s future goaltender. The plan is almost certainly not to sign all of them, but although with the quantity of goalies (because Jakub Dobes, Cayden Primeau and even Samuel Montembeault are being added to the group), the team’s future #1 is one of the lot.

And in reality, it’s not a bad strategy… but if that’s the one you want to adopt, why take a high third-round pick (the organization’s second-highest at the auction) to select one? The CH went for both quality and quantity in goaltending, and I don’t know how good an idea that was to maximize the use of picks.

As for the rest of the picks, I confess I don’t really know Sam Harris and Filip Eriksson, but the fact that they (along with Xhekaj) are the only forwards drafted with the team is a tad disappointing. The 2023 draft was an excellent one for forwards, and the CH (which is sorely in need of attacking help) only picked up three towards the end of the draft.

And of those, let’s just say I’d be very surprised if there was an offensive superstar in the making. A lot is riding on the development of guys like Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook and Juraj Slafkovský, but are these five players really a quality offensive core to win on a regular basis in the long term? I doubt it.

In the final round, drafting Luke Mittelstadt (a left-handed defenseman, the only one drafted during the auction) isn’t a bad choice. He’s a little older (as are several of the CH’s picks this year, since the club wants to see them reach the pros sooner), but we’re talking about a guy with some potential. For a seventh-round pick, it’s far from a bad bet.

Last year, the CH was able to pick up a lot of value with its picks (just think of a guy like Lane Hutson in the late second round). This year, the focus has been on needs, and in the end, that’s resulted in a lot of guys being drafted earlier than they should have been.

The “wow” factor is a bit lacking.

We’ll have to wait and see if the 2023 vintage has been a good one for the Habs, but one thing is clear: the club didn’t want to hit home runs like they did last year. For almost all of its picks, it tried to hit a little home run by picking up guys who fill needs, and lots of them.

The only need that wasn’t filled was a top-notch forward. The problem is, it’s possibly the most glaring right now.

The CH’s 2023 crop won’t include nine good players. At best, Reinbacher will be an excellent defenseman, one of the goalies will be the club’s goalie of the future and 1-2 of the other guys will be depth guys.

Add a guy like Alex Newhook to the mix, say, and that’s roughly five potential NHLers (in an optimal world).

While there were some great stories, I find this crop a bit bland and facile, in the sense that we didn’t target many players with huge potential. We went for older guys with a higher floor, even if the ceiling is lower.

It’s not my kind of draft, but if there’s a future #1 defenseman and a future #1 goalie in the bunch, it’ll already be a lot less bad. Here’s hoping we don’t regret turning our nose up at Matvei Michkov, though.

In gusts

– Nice gesture.

– Nice catch for the Armada.

– Can’t wait to see what happens.

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