It’s still a big secret, the player the Montreal Canadiens intend to pick first overall at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. Not so much a secret that they’re looking to acquire a second top-10 pick to accelerate the rebuild with another blue-chip prospect, though.
If the identity of their projected target at first overall remains a mystery though, so does that of the player they’d take with a second top-10 pick. That’s especially true, seeing as one largely depends on the other.
Logically speaking, center Shane Wright makes the most sense as a presumptive first-overall pick. However, many people have lost their minds taking TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s final pre-draft ranking, in which left-winger Juraj Slafkovsky ranks No. 1, as gospel, even if it’s not so much a projection as it is a poll of 10 different scouts.
So, a larger sample size could realistically give another result, especially seeing as it was only 5-4 in favor of the Slovakian winger. Plus none of them know what the Canadiens are thinking.
At this point, it’s really only safe to assume Wright and Slafkovsky will be gone by the time the Canadiens pick again. Assuming that pick is in the Top 10, who would the Canadiens select? Here are the top potential targets:
5. Logan Cooley (Center)
It’s a safe bet Logan Cooley, who’s the general-consensus prospect to round out the Top 3, also won’t be available, should the Canadiens succeed in trading up. However, Cooley being available is as crazy as the idea oft the Habs prying away the second-overall pick from the New Jersey Devils to get both a center and a winger. ‘Tis the season for unlikelihoods.
On the off chance the Canadiens do pick Slafkovsky with the first pick, they’d be neglecting one of their weaker positions on their organizational depth chart. For the record, it’s a depth chart that currently has left wing as one of if not their absolutely biggest strength.
So, while the Canadiens do technically need a winger to play with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the first line, it’s not like they’re completely lacking in that department. For example, they do have Josh Anderson, at least for now, who actually played the most with the duo last season. They meanwhile don’t have a legitimate second-line center… like anywhere in the system.
So, it’s a need the Habs would have to address. Cooley (or Wright) does that and then some.
4. Cutter Gauthier (Center/ Left Wing)
On the other hand, the Canadiens can go with Wright, in which case they’d presumably be looking for that power-forward left winger. Cutter Gauthier is the highest-ranked North American skater fitting that mold.
For the record, Gauthier’s listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He’s obviously not as big as Slafkovsky’s 6-foot-4, 229-pound frame, but he almost more than makes up for it with his cool name, no? As an added bonus, it’s French Canadian-sounding. So, there’s that… even if he’s from Arizona.
The big drop-off is reflected both in size and overall ranking, in that Gauthier could realistically go anywhere from within the Top 10 to the late first round. However, he’s risen drastically after switching from the wing to center, playing with the United States National Team Development Program.
In that sense, Gauthier’s not necessarily a consolation prize for teams that miss out on Slafkovsky. He’s his own player and overall an attractive, versatile package, who could quasi-realistically be available should the Habs just barely squeak into the Top 10 again.
3. Jonathan Lekkerimaki (Right Wing)
Of course, if the Canadiens “wing” it, there’s no dismissing the fact they took Swedish forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki out for dinner (along with Wright and Cooley).
Now, the Canadiens did not take Slafkovsky out for dinner, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story. The Habs are clearly just faking out the media for when they inevitably pick the Slovakian, after having changed their minds based on McKenzie’s rankings (seeing as no real hockey’s been played since these dinners took place).
In all seriousness though, the Canadiens don’t necessarily need a left winger, like Slafkovsky. He would be a nice-to-have, but they actually need more depth on the right and the right-handed Caufield can also line up on the left, like he did when he and Suzuki played with Anderson, as the Habs’ most used line combination this past season.
So, with Anderson (followed by Brendan Gallagher and Evgeny Dadonov), who tops out at around 0.5 points per game, effectively ranking as the team’s top right winger, they need more depth there than on the left. As a result, Lekkerimaki arguably makes more sense than a left winger like Slafkovsky.
The “problem” is Lekkerimaki is just 5-foot-10, 171 pounds, and lacks physicality relatively speaking. However, keep in mind, concerns such as those are kind of what led fellow-Swede Elias Pettersson to drop to No. 5 in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Ultimately, Lekkerimaki is seen as a finisher, maybe the best in the Draft, kind of like Caufield in all honesty. However, even though they may not complement each other on paper, Anderson very much does, and that hasn’t stopped some analysts from predicting the Canadiens go with Slafkovsky.
Lekkerimaki is in large part lending credence to reports the Habs trade up, as he realistically won’t still be available by Pick 26, which is their next selection right now. So, why take him out to dinner? Clearly, they’ve got something cooking.
2. David Jiricek (Right Defenseman)
In some ways, Lekkerimaki should admittedly take the top spot on this list for the simple reason the Habs have shown legitimate interest in him. However, if the Canadiens do land their badly needed star center with the first pick and they do manage to trade up high enough back into the Top 10, can they really afford to ignore a right-handed defenseman, as it’s their single-biggest need right now?
Maybe they do, but they shouldn’t. Defenseman Jeff Petry is likely on his way out. That leaves David Savard and Chris Wideman as the top two right-handed defensemen on the team, with neither being a long-term solution. The just-acquired Justin Barron, while boasting significant upside, is the only signed impact prospect in the system. He may be good, but that’s not.
So, logically, just like the Canadiens should take a center first overall to address a huge hole in their organization, the same holds true for a right-handed defenseman a few picks later. The only reason they don’t take one first overall is because it would be bad asset management. You generally go with the best player available. That’s one of Wright, Slafkovsky and Cooley.
As a result, Czech defenseman David Jiricek must at the very least be on the radars. At 6-foot-3, he’d theoretically be visible without one. Granted, he’s 189 pounds, so there is room to grow there, but he has all the tools to develop into the top-pairing, mobile, but physical defenseman the Canadiens need on the right side. Ultimately, the Canadiens realistically take Lekkerimaki if they’re able to trade up, just not back into the Top 10. They take a right-handed defenseman is they make it that far.
1. Simon Nemec (Right Defenseman)
Whether or that defenseman is Jiricek or Simon Nemec, no one knows. Probably not even the Canadiens, as there’s no telling which one would be available if they are able to pull off the near impossible and get a second Top-10 pick. Nemec takes it here simply by virtue of him edging out Jiricek on the final rankings (at least this set).
Projected as a two-way defenseman, Nemec has decent size, having displayed as much shutdown ability on the penalty kill as playmaking prowess on the power play. Ultimately, if it’s the Czech Jiricek or the Slovakian Nemec, the Canadiens conceivably can’t go wrong. However, if they do pick the Slovak, it’s clear one specifically goes a longer way to addressing their team-specific needs than another.
In all fairness, Slafkovsky is a top prospect for a reason. If the Canadiens do pick him first overall it would be hard to immediately call the decision a mistake. General manager Kent Hughes and company will have done their homework and come to a well-thought-out decision (presumably).
Slafkovsky could very well turn out to be the best player available this draft class. However, Hughes would be taking a risk in the process, going against the safer selection in Wright. There is something to be said for fate favoring the bold, though. It doesn’t get much bolder than acquiring a second high pick. At this point, it’s a waiting game to see what the Habs do, both at first overall and beyond.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.