Canadiens 2009 draft review

By Jason Menard

There’s been a lot of changes within the Canadiens organization, and while the structural changes have had a major impact, wholesale changes to the on-ice personnel mean that the impact of the past couple of weeks will be felt for years to come.

A post-draft trade saw the Habs package their top prospect, Ryan McDonagh, in a deal to obtain Scott Gomez — and it’s a trade that’s obviously affected the club’s director of player recruitment and development.

"I don’t have much to say there — it’s a decision that’s made above me," Trevor Timmins said. "What people don’t seem to understand is that in order to get something you have to give something. Obviously [McDonagh]‘s the piece of the puzzle that was needed."

Other parts of the trade included prospects Pavel Valentenko and Doug Janik.

"Valentenko was gone anyways and I don’t think he was coming back — he just signed a three-year contract in Russia," Timmins said. "And Janik wasn’t signed — we just gave up his rights."

In return, the club obtained 22-year-old center Tom Pyatt and 23-year-old blueliner Michael Busto.

"I haven’t seen Pyatt play professionally, but he was pretty good in junior. He has a chance to play in the NHL," Timmins said. "Busto’s more of a depth defenseman."

While the Canadiens mined some of their depth to obtain immediate help, a few days previous the club set about restocking the larder in the NHL entry draft, held at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

The Canadiens began the day with seven selections in the 2009 NHL entry draft. By virtue of their 2008-09 finish, they had the 18th overall pick in the first round, and kept their own selections for rounds three through seven (in round three, they actually had the 19th selection of the round, due to the New York Rangers‘ compensatory pick). While they forfeited their second-round selection in the 2008 draft-day trade for Alex Tanguay, a conditional draft pick obtained from Atlanta in this year’s Mathieu Schneider deal resulted in them being on the cusp of the second round as it turned into the fourth overall selection in the third round. They also parlayed next year’s sixth-round selection for the final pick in this year’s draft.

Louis Leblanc, C, Omaha (USHL)

1st round, 18th overall
Ht: 6′, Wt: 178, DOB: Jan. 26, 1991

Rarely does a pick match a team’s need and fan desire — but such was the case with the Habs’ first-round selection of the Point-Claire, QC native. When the hometown club announced the selection of the hometown player in the hometown draft, the Bell Centre’s rafters shook. Between the fan reaction and the media horde who quickly surrounded him, Leblanc had a crash course in Habs 101.

"Any young player from Quebec being a first-round pick of the Canadiens is going to face lots of pressure," Timmins said. "He’s pretty mature, though, he’ll be able to handle it."

Growing up in Montreal, becoming a Hab has been a life-long dream — and after hearing his name called he was at a loss for words.

"It’s impressive. I had goosebumps. There’s not really any words to describe this feeling," Leblanc said. "My favorite team growing up and to wear this jersey tonight is unreal. Looking forward to this moment my whole life, and I’m just living it right now."

Leblanc was named USHL rookie of the year this year, after leading his Omaha squad in points. He caught the Canadiens’ brass’ eye much earlier than that.

"I saw him at the Canadian under-18 camp in Calgary and he really impressed me. He plays all facets of the game and he plays them with intensity and passion," Timmins explained. "He’s a natural goal-scorer and he’s a really smart kid."

This smart kid is heading to Harvard after forsaking the Canadian junior route for the USHL. Leblanc said he’s going to make the most out of his opportunity at the prestigious university, however he wouldn’t rule out leaving early — adding that he could always return to complete his studies.

"I need to get bigger and stronger and I think a few years at Harvard won’t hurt," Leblanc said. "When I’m ready, I’m going to leave and try to make this team."

Time is something the Habs are happy they have on their side. Timmins explained that the young forward still has some maturing to do, physically.

"Physically he’s not there yet; he’s got a way to go. But I have no doubt he’ll catch up," he said. "Of course, he’ll put on more weight and he’s 6’0 — that’s not small.

"We don’t put any timeline on any of our guys. We’ll see where he’s at and take it one year at a time. We’ll watch him at the World Junior tryouts and see how he’s doing."

Joonas Nattinen, C — Espoo Blues Jr.

3rd round, 65th overall (from Atlanta — Mathieu Schneider trade)
Ht: 6’2, Wt: 183, DOB: Jan. 3, 1991

With no second-round selection, the Habs had to wait until early in the third round to pick next — and they were pleasantly surprised with who remained on the board. With their first of two selections, the Canadiens selected Finn Joonas Nattinen.

"I was really surprised to get him in the third round. We were pretty fortunate to get him where we did," Timmins said. "He’s got size, length, and range. He’s 6’2, has a great shot, and he’s a big, rangy center. He was already on the first power-play unit for the Finnish junior team at 17."

The Jamsa native played in 30 games with his junior squad in Finland, scoring nine goals and adding 29 assists. He also saw action in 14 games with the senior squad, but failed to register a point. He fell a bit in the draft, a fact which Timmins attributes to a weak finish.

"At the under-18′s in April, he didn’t exactly light things up production-wise," Timmins explained. "But he was sick right before the tournament started and you have to remember that these kids start in July and go right through."

Nattinen, who still has to complete Finnish military service, expected to go earlier in the draft, but was happy with the club that selected him.

"I thought that I was going to be picked earlier. I had a feeling about Montreal and I was waiting to call my name," he said.

In-limbo Hab Saku Koivu is a legend in his home country, but Nattinen said his style of play is more comparable to the younger of the Koivu brothers.

"It’s closer to Mikko Koivu," he said. "Between Mikko and Saku. It’s not bad."

Mac Bennett, D — Hotchkiss School

3rd round, 79th overall
Ht: 5’11, Wt: 170, DOB: Mar. 25, 1991

With a grandfather and two uncles who enjoyed NHL careers, and a father drafted by the Atlanta Flames, Bennett has the pedigree to help in his NHL progression. Unfortunately for Bennett, despite a great history of families wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge, that pedigree means little to the club.

"Not to us. It doesn’t factor into the equation at all," Timmins said.

Fortunately for Bennett, the club saw more than enough to justify taking the blueliner with its third pick of the draft.

"We like his upside. He’s an effortless skater with a knack for the offensive game," Timmins said. "He’s what you would call a puck-moving defenseman."

Bennett, a Warwick, Rhode Island native, said he agrees with that categorization.

"I’m an offensive, move-the-puck type of defensemen. My best attribute is my skating, I can get the puck out of the zone pretty fast. I can move up in the rush and create offense," Bennett said. "I’d like to compare myself to a Mike Green-type guy. He’s very fast, very poised, he’s got a hell of a shot. If I could emulate that game, I’d be very happy."

The young blueliner impressed in a brief sojourn with his high school club.

"The prep season only play 25 game, I was injured for nine," he said, referencing a right-knee MCL strain. "I feel I made the impact I needed to and now I’m here."

With a number of high school selections under their belt the past few seasons, Timmins light-heartedly deflected attention from reading too much into his draft history.

"He’s out of Connecticut — so you can’t say this is another Minnesota pick!" he added, laughing.

Bennett will be heading to Cedar Rapids of the USHL. From there he’s scheduled to join the University of Michigan. He’s hoping to use the time to grow and develop, suggesting that his bloodlines may still play a role in developing his frame.

"Obviously I need to get a little bit bigger and stronger. I feel I have another inch or two more in me. I’m supposed to be 6’1, 6’2 — all my uncles are 6’4, 6’5 — they’re monsters — so if I could find something in the middle, I’d be happy with that," he said. "The biggest thing is that I have to work on the most is that all my decision have to be made quicker. As you get higher and higher your time just gets that much shorter, so you have to make those decisions quicker."

And, if anything, those blood ties have already helped him prepare for the transition to the professional life.

"[My family] just told me to enjoy the entire trip. They taught me the game, they taught me how to move up in the play," Bennett said. "And like my uncle [Curt] says, ‘Whenever you get into a fight, just sucker somebody.’"

Alexander Avtsyn, RW — Dynamo Moscow

4th round, 109th overall
Ht: 6’2, Wt: 198, DOB: Mar. 19, 1991

Over the past few seasons, the Habs have experienced some disappointments with players from the former Soviet Union: Perezhogin, Yemelin, the now-traded Valentenko — as well as some benefits from players like the Kostitsyn brothers. Understanding the risk involved, the club felt the reward of drafting the big Russian outweighed any risks.

"He’s had pretty good point-production," Timmins said, laughing at his own understatement. "He’s a big body, with lots of development potential and plenty of upside."

In 76 games with Dynamo Moscow 2, Avtsyn scored 56 goals and added 54 assists, while racking up 130 PIMs. Through a translator, he described his game as "speed, shot, I play a physical style. I need to work on my play without the puck."

And when asked what player inspires his play, he replied with one word: "Ovechkin."

The Habs would love for that to be true, but even if those sights are a little too lofty, the club expects to reap the benefits of this pick.

"I don’t think that he had a lot of exposure — he never played on a national team until the under-20s in April, which was on at the same time as the under-18s," he said. "There’s always a risk — that’s why Russian players slipped at the draft. There’s risk associated with this pick, but we think it will pay off.

"He wants to play here in North America. He’s got another year at Dynamo, but the Quebec Remparts hold his rights.

Avtsyn echoed that sentiment, explaining through his translator that he’s planning to come to North America after the completion of this season.

And he showed an appreciation of where he’s going, adding without the aid of a translator.

"I’m very happy. It’s unbelievable. Montreal’s a very good city, a very good team — the most traditional team."

Gabriel Dumont, C — Drummondville (QMJHL)

5th round, 139th overall
Ht: 5’9, Wt: 170, DOB: Oct. 6, 1990

Dumont may not be the first player to catch one’s eye, but his attitude made him someone off whom the Canadiens could not take their eye.

"He goes balls to the wall — it doesn’t matter if he’s injured or healthy, he’s going to give it his all," Timmins said. "What attracted us to him was the fact he actually played in the Memorial Cup.

"His shoulder was hanging off, but he still went out there and contributed. He was a warrior for that team."

In 51 games this season, Dumont scored 28 goals and added 21 assists. He also has some familiarity with the club, as the Habs new AHL coach, Guy Boucher, was his coach in Drummondville.

"He’s a heart and soul guy," Timmins said. "He’ll do anything it takes to get to the NHL. Whether he can get there is a question, but he’ll do whatever it takes to give himself a chance.

"The only thing going against him is his size."

Dustin Walsh, C — Kingston (OJHL)

6th round, 169th overall
Ht: 6’2, Wt: 175, DOB: Mar. 20, 1991

The 6’2 Shannonville, ON native impressed in the OJHL, racking up 32 gaols and 31 assists in just 44 games, and the Canadiens thing he’s barely scratched the surface.

"We think there is plenty of upside with this young man," Timmins said. "He produced during the regular season, the playoffs, and at the RBC Cup."

Heading to Dartmouth next year, the club expects him to add bulk to his lanky frame.

"He’s got lots of toughness and range," he said. "He’s similarly built to [Steve] Quailer."

Michael Cichy, C — Indiana (USHL)
7th round, 199th overall
Ht: 5’11, Wt: 187, DOB: July 8, 1990

With 34 goals and 43 assists in 56 games last season, Cichy showed he could put the puck in the net. His superlative play went noticed by many, including the Habs’ brass.

"He’s won almost every award possible in the USHL," Timmins said. "He was the playoffs’ leading scorer and he’s going to North Dakota, which is a good development school. In fact, he’s going to be Danny Kristo‘s roommate."

Weight may have been a factor in him getting overlooked, but Timmins added that there was no way that the club could overlook his innate ability to play the game.

"He was a little light before gaining 30 pounds over the past two years," he said. "His skating’s not perfect, but that’s something he can develop — especially with the hockey sense he has."

Petteri Simila, G — Karpat Jr. (Finland)

7th round, 211th overall
Ht: 6’6, Wt: 189, DOB: Apr. 9, 1990

With just minutes remaining in the draft, Timmins came to the Penguins draft table, nodded a confirmation, and the club obtained Pittsburgh’s seventh-round selection — the last of this year’s NHL draft. The club picked Mr. Irrelevant, but they’re hoping he’ll be anything but.

"Our scouts were all over him. We didn’t want to wait until next year to draft him as we’ve learned our lesson last year with [Mikko] Koskinen," he said. "We thought about taking him last year, now he’s a second-round pick.

"We think that Simila could have first-round potential if he was back in the draft next year."

With Karpat Jr. this year, Simila played in 17 games, posting a 3.61 GAA behind a .897 save percentage.

"He played at the under-20 tournament for Finland in April. He’s a candidate for the Finnish World Junior team this year," Timmins said.

Simila plays for the same organization that developed Pekka Rinne, so the club is content with his development path, adding that Niagara of the OHL has drafted his NHL rights. One of the most attractive aspects of Simila’s game is his size.

At 6’6, this marks the second straight year that the club drafted a supremely tall netminder (Jason Missiaen last year). The move to draft big goalies is by design, Timmins explained.

"Size matters at the NHL level, especially with the new rules," Timmins said. "Defensemen can’t move players out of the front of the net as easily, so it’s good to have a goalie who can see more of the ice and block more of the net."

Of the club’s eight picks, five were centers. For a club that drafts based on choosing the best player, not for need, this seemed to be a bit of serendipity.

"It’s just the way the draft went. We placed higher value on centers, especially those with good size," he said. "You can move a center to the wing, but you can’t as easily move a wing to center."

For a club that values developing through the draft, they were unable to pick up additional selections.

"We wanted to get a second-round pick, but we weren’t willing to give up what people were asking to move there," he said.

As mentioned, there were a number of organizational changes that changed the Habs’ on and off-ice product. And although Timmins has familiarity with the new coaching staff from his days in Ottawa, he said the man behind the bench doesn’t factor greatly into who the scouts and general manager picks.

"We draft player for the Montreal Canadiens‘ organization, not for any particular coach," Timmins said. "By the time the players are ready, it’s up to the coach to best use them. There’s no real synergy between what he wants and what I look for."

And did the fact that the draft was in Montreal make this any more special to the club?

"It was kind of fun actually," Timmins said. "Wherever the draft is, it’s fun actually because we’re the Montreal Canadiens."