Here we are, only a few days before Bob Gainey and Trevor Timmins stand at the podium in Ottawa to add (at least) five new Habs to the fold. I love draft day. I love the promise and excitement, the anticipation and the satisfaction in seeing the prospect pool strengthened. It's great to have Timmins in charge, as his draft record has been very good for the Canadiens.
So, in all my excitement about Friday, I thought it was time to write a draft preview. Then, I realized if I did, I'd be talking out of my ass. Because I can predict what needs the team hopes to fill, and I can look at players in tournament games and read scouting reports. I can even figure by draft position and skillset who might be the players most likely to be chosen by the Habs. But no one, not even Trevor Timmins (who's got a better frame of reference than just about anyone), can predict which of these 17 and 18-year-old boys will become an NHL player and who'll be a disappointment.
I came to this conclusion after reading The Hockey News draft preview. The profiles of this year's prospects were interesting, but the one thing that really caught my attention was a review of the 1998 draft and how well that turned out. That year, Rico Fata was chosen sixth overall by Calgary, Michael Rupp ninth by the Islanders, Jeff Heerema by the 'Canes at eleventh and Eric Chouinard at sixteenth by the Habs. Meanwhile, among the thirty best actual players to come out of that draft, Pavel Datsyuk, is second behind Lecavalier, and he was chosen with the 171st pick. Brad Richards is third, and was chosen 64th. Andrei Markov, the 162nd pick, has had the seventh-best career. Shawn Horcoff was picked 99th, Brian Gionta 82nd and Erik Cole 71st. Which all goes to prove not only is drafting an inexact science, but can often be so far off the mark that the players chosen as top prospects can have vanished from hockey altogether ten years later, and players taken with throwaway late-round picks develop into superstars. Even the hotshots aren't sure bets. For every Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby...sure-thing first picks...there's an Alexandre Daigle. You just can't tell what an eighteen-year-old will do when faced with pressure, money and tougher competition.
In light of that, and with the understanding that whomever the Habs pick will be a project we may or may not see develop into an NHLer, I think we can expect Timmins to go with a strong centreman with his number 25 pick. There are a few available, and with Ben Maxwell currently the only prospect in the pool who fills that role, it's a need that should be addressed this year. Among the possibilites who might be available when the Habs pick is Nicolas Deschamps, a six-foot centre from Quebec who's a slick skater and generally considered to be a good two-way player with nice hands, but who's been called inconsistent and a late bloomer. There's Joe Colborne, a huge centre who played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last year and showed nice skill, but a reluctance to go into the corners or to the crease much. And there's Zac Dalpe, who's known to be a good, fast skater who can put the puck in the net and has great energy and dedication. Those are just a few of the possibilities, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Timmins choose one of them if Gainey doesn't trade up for a better pick.
Of course, that said, if it's a strong defenceman who might be Timmins' best player available at the 25th pick, he could be chosen as well. Timmins has shown no hesitation to decide a pick by his personal rankings rather than organizational need. After all, he picked Price at number five overall when Jose Theodore was still playing well. It wouldn't exactly surprise me to see him pick a D in the first round, but I'm hoping the best player available is a talented centreman.
I think we will see Timmins call a goalie's name on Saturday in the later rounds. With the departure of Yann Danis via free agency, the number three goalie in the organization right now is ECHL star Cedrick Desjardins. The goalie cupboard is looking pretty bare, so I'd expect the Habs to try and pick up a decent prospect to fill that need. I would expect high-ranking goalies like Carey Price's former Tri-Cities backup Chet Pickard to be gone when the Habs are ready to pick a goaltender. In the Memorial Cup, I liked ninth-ranked North American goalie, Dustin Tokarski, who played really well under pressure for Spokane and has a reputation for cranking up his game when it counts. That's what you want in a pro, so I wouldn't mind seeing him become a Hab this weekend.
Others I wouldn't mind seeing in Habs colours include Justin Jokinen, a gritty and talented Minnesota high-school left-wing who's got size and a good attitude. He's another great skater with skill, and has been compared to a young Jamie Langenbrunner. I like Jonathan Toews' little brother David too. He's got some offensive ability and notable speed.
I think now that Gainey has identified the style of team he wants the Habs to be, with speed and offence, as well as defensive responsibility as priorities, we'll see Timmins prioritize those things in his picks as well. I would expect all the players he chooses to be good on their skates, to have strong character with leadership abilities and to be smart in both ends of the rink. I'll leave it to him to identify who those players might be, because even though I know the ones I like, I admit I know little compared to the scouts who've watched hundreds of games at every level last year.
Draft day is fun as well because we might get to see some trades happening. I think if Gainey moves a roster player, it'll be Mathieu Dandenault, for a fifth or sixth round pick to replace the ones the team lost in previous trades. Dandenault wasn't happy with his role last year, and I don't see it improving for him in Montreal. If Gainey can drop his 1.7 million salary for a draft pick, it might be the best thing all around. Other than that, we might see the movement of some long-term prospects who seem to be stuck in Hamilton, like Corey Locke, for low-round picks. Either way, I'm kind of expecting Gainey to add to the five choices he's got.
On Friday, whatever happens, I'm going to kick back and enjoy the show and see who Trevor Claus brings into our team. I just have to trust that the guy who knows more than us manages to land a few good ones in the crapshoot that is the NHL entry draft.