Friday, 23 June 2017

2017 Pre-Draft Musings: Maxime Comtois, Nikita Popugaev, Isaac Ratcliffe

As we approach the 2017 NHL Draft, it's hard for me to have a clear sense of direction, of what We should do, 'we' being our beloved Canadiens.  Before the Jonathan Drouin trade, I felt we should cheat towards taking a forward, since I thought our defenceman situation was settled, having spent two first-rounders in consecutive drafts to pick a solid prospect in RD Noah Juulsen in 2015 and LD bluechip prospect Mikhail Sergachev.

So I thought much like I did in the leadup to the 2012 draft that our defence situation was 'settled', with surefire draftees Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu ready to hatch, assuredly in the bank, so we could concentrate on the everlasting quest for 'notre gros joueur de centre', a worthy successor to Peter Mahovlich, Bobby Smith and Vincent Damphousse.  And presto, we landed Alex Galchenyuk at 3rd overall, and things were just going to go swimmingly from there.  We jubilated.

In my mind as I kept an eye on the prospects on offer this season, I mostly looked at forwards and specifically centres, with Noah and Mikhail having good-to-strong seasons.  Our draft position though didn't look like it would help us land that great centre prospect, since we led our division the entire season.  I looked at mock drafts all season long, keeping my eye in the 20-30 range to give me an idea of who we should target, and wouldn't you know it, we'll pick 25th tonight, barring a trade.

Two players who caught my eye during CHL broadcasts on Sportsnet and TVA Sports were Nikita Popugaev and Maxime Comtois.  They played well with gusts to great in spurts, in the Canada-Russia series and the Top Prospects game.  I was wowed by Nikita Popugaev, how big and smooth and fast he looked, how scory he was, unleashing that shot of his.  I was seduced by Maxime Comtois playing his best against All Stars, and the writeups, my lord the writeups.

I didn't figure on either of them being in range though, ranked so high were they, yet little warts appeared as their season went on and they fell down the rankings until they are now well in range, if we are to trust Bob McKenzie's list.

So now I want to stake my claim that I want them, and we could get both of them conceivably, even with a trade down from 25 if the opportunity arises.  They both bring great size already, a profile we don't currently have in our prospect pool and which would complement our farm system.

Maxime Comtois had a tough year points-wise, which can be blamed partly on not having his projected centre Pascal Laberge to feed him the puck, being injured for most of the year.  His effort or effectiveness in both ends of the ice never waned though, and the reports from scouts and observers assure us that he meets the character quotient required by GM Marc Bergevin.  We know that Canadiens scouts spent a lot of time watching his games.

One thing which I appreciated about Maxime is that he played better against more talented competition, against all-star lineups.  He showed opportunism and an extra gear when it counted.

Nikita Popugaev had a decent season, but a little disappointing point-wise based on his production last season and early this year.  After the trade to Prince George, he never seemed to get going, and reports were that his focus and effort wouldn't always be there every game, every shift.

Yet you can't deny his wizardry at times, his great size and talent.  With a prospect pool laden with William Bittens and Donald Audettes expected to carry our hopes and dreams in our putative future Top 6, his 6'5", 215 lbs frame would be a nice counterweight, and he'd be a matchup nightmare in the NHL, much like Chris Kreider or Nick Bjugstad are when we're faced with them.

Another player who intrigues although I haven't seen him play really is Isaac Ratcliffe.  He's a 6'6" winger who has good hands and good skill, unlike guys like Michael Rasmussen or Logan Brown last year, guys who you had to 'project', that you valued due to their size but despite their production.  He scored 28 goals and 54 points for the Guelph Storm this season.

What I don't want to do when it's our turn to speak is 'reach' for a centre, just because we need a centre.  I don't want Rob Thomas and his brand of '90s schmaltz muzak.  I don't want an undersized Kailer Yamamoto and his 'has played some centre' pedigree.

I'd even take dark horse Klim Kostin and his injury-marred results this season, and bank on his great potential, rather than a Brian Skrudland-equivalent prospect.  Sometimes a Brian Skrudland turns into a Bo Horvat, but not really.  A Bo Horvat usually starts as a Bo Horvat.  More likely, a Brian Skrudland turns into a Brian Skrudland, or a Brady Vail or Louis Leblanc.

So let's inject a healthy dose of talent in our future, even if it comes with a higher level of risk.  Let's face it, when picking 25th, every one of the prospects left over has a few warts.  Sure, we might be missing on a Patrice Bergeron, but Patrice Bergerons don't usually stand out and yell "Hey, I'm Patrice Bergeron" if they wind up going in the second round.  And we'll be missing on him with another 25 or so teams.  Let's go for the high-ceiling type of prospect rather than the low-floor type.

In the second round, I'd go for anyone that will fill in some organizational need, as by then most prospects tend to 'bunch up' on The List, scoring essentially the same in scouts' minds.  What I'd definitely not do is combine those two late-round 2nds to move up in the second round.  We just don't have the prospect pool depth to sacrifice volume for The Guy Who's Falling.  Let's pick up as many bodies as we can in a 'flat' draft, with many players in the second being seen as equivalent to a weak mid to late-first round.

Having said that, one player who is intriguing with our seconds or the early third we got from the Sabres in the Nathan Beaulieu trade is Antoine Morand.  He's a kid who had some scouts touting him as a better prospect than Maxime Comtois prior to the season, except that his 5'10", 170 lbs frame would discourage some teams from drafting him compared to the NHL-sized Comtois.  Yet Antoine gets raves for his hockey IQ, his effort level, his leadership, and scored at a point per game pace this season on the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

And of course, we have to pick up D'Artagnan Joly.  I mean, come on...

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