Canadiens 2003 draft evaluation

By Jason Menard

The new regime was in full effect in 2003 and if the days of inefficient drafting weren’t yet in the rear-view mirror, the Habs were quickly pulling away.

Heading into the 2003 draft, the Habs stockpiled 11 draft choices. With those picks, the club managed to snag a potential top-line winger, a netminder who could be an NHL starter, a 6’6 blueline rock, and a third-line defensive stalwart. And there is still potential for more players to eventually make it.

Only two players are no longer with the club – one in the AHL with Carolina and one plying his trade in the hockey hotbed of Australia. Just two whiffs on 11 pitches, with a few shots clearing the fences?  It goes a long way to explain the club’s recent success.

Andrei Kostitsyn, F

1st round – 10th overall (CKSA – Russia)
Status: NHL Player
NHL totals: 112 GP

Although a valued producer now with a bright future ahead of him, in 2003 Andrei Kostitsyn was considered a top-five talent with a big-time question mark over his head. The prevailing thought that summer was that Kostitsyn suffered from seizures and anxiety, with some suggesting the Belarusian actually had epilepsy. The Canadiens took a chance on the offensively gifted player and, after a long and winding road to the NHL, he’s managed to become a productive top-two winger and has blossomed playing alongside Russian icon Alex Kovalev.

It’s taken a while, but the eldest of the Kostitsyn brothers finally arrived. His progress was delayed by a decision to stay an extra year in Russia after his draft, which impeded his ability to learn English and acclimatize to the North American way of life.

Once Kostitsyn gets the puck, there’s no question he has the talent to bury it. But for the longest time he had to work on his play away from the puck. Instead of waiting for it to come to him, Andrei needed to learn how to go get it.

Those lessons were well learned – and the prodigious promise was on full display last season. In his half-season in Hamilton last year, he scored 21 goals and earned 52 points in 50 games. He was unable to translate that into NHL success last year with only one goal (but 10 assists) in 22 NHL games. This year, he broke camp with the Canadiens and proved from day one that he belonged.

In 78 games, Kostitsyn scored 26 goals and added 27 assists. He blossomed in the playoffs, often playing alongside younger brother Sergei, with five goals and three assists in 12 games.

At just 23, Andrei has a long and bright future ahead of him. Most of those questions from draft day 2003 have been answered – the only one left is how good will he become?

Cory Urquhart, F
2nd round – 40th overall (Montreal Rocket – QMJHL)
Status: NHL Bust
No NHL games played

The first of three prospects taken by the Habs in 2003 from the QMJHL Montreal Rocket, Urquhart, at the time, displayed the most upside. However, he hasn’t been able to translate solid size (6’2) and offensive talent into a forwardly mobile career.

In fact, the 23-year-old Halifax, NS native has found himself regressing as of late. Challenged to crack the Hamilton Bulldogs’ line-up the past couple of seasons, Urquhart has spent much of his time toiling in the ECHL. This year, he slipped even further, suiting up for 16 games with the Arizona Sundogs of the Central Hockey League. In Arizona he scored 20 goals in 16 games, which followed an ECHL campaign where he had 14 goals in 21 games. At the AHL level, his production has faltered, however. In 21 games in Hamilton this season he only earned nine points, including five goals.

His first two professional seasons saw him mired in the ECHL with one and two-game call-ups to the AHL. During the past two seasons, he’s pretty much split time between the two professional leagues, but time appears to be running out on Urquhart. He remains listed as a prospect with the Habs for the time being, but that time is running out.

Maxim Lapierre, F
2nd round – 61st overall (Montreal Rocket – QMJHL)
Status: NHL Player
NHL totals: 100 GP

The Canadiens fared much better with their second of two second-round selections, this one acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in return for Eric Chouinard. With this selection, the club may have found a gritty, defensive-minded talent – and fan favorite – to anchor the third and fourth lines.

Lapierre spent just one full season in Hamilton, in 2005-06, earning a one-game call-up to the Canadiens that season. The next year, Lapierre spent 37 games in Hamilton, scoring 11 goals and adding 13 assists, while displaying the defensive fortitude that would become the foundation upon which his NHL career will be based. He then spent 46 games with the big club, scoring six goals adding six assists, and winning over the fans with his energetic play and two-way prowess.

This season, Lapierre broke training camp with the Canadiens, but found himself back in Hamilton for 19 games to work on parts of his game that seemed to be slipping. That, compounded with the fact that players like Kyle Chipchura, and new additions Tom Kostopoulos and Bryan Smolinski were more ably filling in his role, forced Lapierre to recover the commitment that had made him a regular the season prior.

After a seven-goal, seven-assist performance in his brief Hamilton sojourn, Lapierre returned to the NHL club and cemented his roots in Montreal. In the end, he spent 53 games in Montreal, ending with a plus-five ranking and playing a key role in leading the Habs to the Eastern Conference crown.

Ryan O’Byrne, D
3rd round – 79th overall – (Nanaimo Clippers – BCHL)
Status: NHL Player
NHL totals: 33 GP

There once was a day when the Canadiens’ blue line was considered soft. That perception started to change when the Habs picked Mike Komisarek, a 6’6, 228-pound blueliner.

Following his draft, O’Byrne spent three seasons in the college ranks with Cornell University, slowly developing his game and building upon the promise that the Habs saw in him. Coming out one season early, O’Byrne got his feet wet in the professional ranks with Hamilton, playing in 80 games and showing that he was able to handle the rigors of a longer season.

This season, O’Byrne made the jump to the NHL ranks, playing 33 games due to injury. In fact, the beefy Victoria, BC native was just coming into his own when his Christmas injury cut short his momentum.

He worked his way back into the lineup, playing in four playoff games. But the future looks very bright for O’Byrne as he’s set himself as a long-time rock on the Habs’ blueline – after all, who’s going to move him?

Corey Locke, F
4th round – 113th overall – (Ottawa 67s – OHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL totals: 1 GP

The former CHL player of the year and two-time OHL player of the year was a low-risk, high-reward prospect at this point of the 2003 draft, 113th overall. Offensively gifted, but size-challenged, the scouting staff had plenty of opportunities to watch the Ottawa-based forward play in the minors and decided to take a flyer on the fact that changes to the game and his natural talents would enable him to enjoy success at the professional level.

Locke still possesses all the talent in the world, but what’s dogged him over the years has been a less-than-stellar commitment to work. That changed this past season when something finally clicked for the 5’9 forward. He dedicated himself to his craft and earned a one-game call-up with the Habs as a reward.

After posting back-to-back seasons of 151 and 118 points in the OHL, Locke has been unable to replicate that success in the professional ranks. However, he’s remained consistent with seasons of 16, 19, and 20 goals in Hamilton. His breakthrough performance came during the Bulldogs’ 2006-07 Calder Cup championship season when he performed at a point-per-game pace with 22 points in 22 games.

With a wealth of young talent in the system, Locke’s time as a legitimate prospect is running slim. This upcoming season is definitely a make-or-break one for him as another middling campaign could find him labelled a career minor leaguer or peddled off to another franchise in order to make room for upcoming talent.

Danny Stewart, F

4th round – 123rd overall (Rimouski Oceanic – QMJHL)
Pick originally Washington’s and acquired from Nashville for forward Oleg Petrov.
Status: NHL Bust
No NHL games played

In an attempt to purge themselves of the glut of smaller players the club had at the time, Oleg Petrov was shipped out in return for a fourth-round selection in the 2003 entry draft. At 5’11, Stewart’s size was a little better. And a pair of Memorial Cup appearances, once as a winner, once as a runner-up, promised that playoff-hardened experience that the club so values.

Unfortunately, little became of that promise. Stewart is no longer with the club. He played five full years in the QMJHL, his final season with his home-province Prince Edward Island Rocket. From there he spent a year with the Utah Grizzlies in the ECHL, putting up solid but unspectacular numbers. Last season, the now 23-year-old center played for the Basinstoke Bison of the United Kingdom-based Elite Ice Hockey League where he scored 29 goals and added 31 assists in 64 games.

The young forward’s global adventures continue as he signed earlier this year with the Gold Coast Blue Tongues in the Australian Ice Hockey League.

The club’s fifth-round selection was sent to the Edmonton Oilers as compensation for signing coach Claude Julien, the head coach of the then-shared Hamilton minor-league affiliate, who was actually under contract with Edmonton at the time.

Christopher Heino-Lindberg, G
6th round – 177th overall (Hammaraby – Sweden)
Status: NHL prospect
No NHL games played

Heino-Lindberg, at the time, was the more promising of the two goaltending prospects that the Habs picked in 2003. What a difference five years makes.

The Swedish netminder recently signed a contract with AIK following three seasons with Farjestads BK of the Swedish Elite League. That, combined with the fact that the Canadiens seem to pretty set between the pipes at the NHL level (and with a solid older prospect in Yann Danis in the AHL), it’s looking less and less likely that the former TV actor (10 episodes of a Swedish show as a 14-year-old) will find his way overseas.

Heino-Lindberg has struggled to attain the No. 1 position in Sweden and the club wants to see how he fares as the guy between the pipes. With this move to AIK, the 23-year-old may get that chance.

Mark Flood, F
6th round – 188th overall (Peterborough Petes – OHL)
Status: NHL prospect
No NHL games played

With their second sixth-round selection, obtained in the trade that sent Doug Gilmour back to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadiens took a chance on this 6’1 winger out of noted hockey factory Peterborough. Unfortunately, that flyer has flown.

Flood spent some time in the Columbus Blue Jacket organization before being traded in 2006 to the Carolina Hurricanes for Derrick Walser. He spent last season in the AHL with the Albany River Rats, posting totals of 10 goals and 12 assists in 53 games.

The Canadiens traded their own seventh-round selection the year previous to Minnesota to acquire the services of winger Sylvain Blouin.

Oskari Korpikari, D
7th round – 217th overall (Karpat – Finnish Elite League)
Status: NHL Prospect
No NHL games played

The equation for Korpikari is simple. A move to North America equals a chance to work towards a roster spot.

The big blueliner has spent several seasons now playing for Karpat of the Finnish Elite League. However, it’s a league that does not fit his style of play, nor does it allow him to progress the way the Habs would like. This season, Korpikari did attend a pre-season camp in Montreal, but returned home for the season.

A defensive defenseman, Korpikari’s not going to blow anyone away with his offensive prowess, but he could be a solid sixth or seventh stay-at-home defenseman. However, with the quality of players already in the NHL, along with the quality high-round selections used on the blueline over the past couple of years, Korpikari’s going to have to make a decision soon whether he wants to take a run at the NHL or continue to enjoy the comforts of home.

Jimmy Bonneau, F
8th round – 241st overall (Montreal Rocket – QMJHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 0

At 6’2, 216 pounds, Bonneau has the size, but not the overall game to go with it. The key numbers with Bonneau are 261, 263, and 234 – those were his penalty minute totals in the QMJHL.

Bonneau was not drafted for goal scoring or offensive creativity. He was drafted for brute force and protection – skills that are still valued at the NHL level, but only when complemented by an ability to play all aspects of the game.

The 23-year-old has spent the better part of the past two seasons in the ECHL, although he did earn a nine-game sojourn in Hamilton last season. In those nine games, he accounted for 59 penalty minutes. Bonneau has the pugilistic skills to survive, the size to thrive, but he still needs more work on the all-around puck play to proceed to the next level.

Jaroslav Halak, G

9th round – 271st overall (Bratislava Jrs. – Slovakia)
Status: NHL Player
NHL Totals: 22 GP

The last pick of the Habs’ draft may not just be the best value – he could become the best player among the 11. The Slovakian netminder rocketed up the ranks following his move to North America. He was a stalwart between the pipes with Lewiston of the QMJHL.

Stuck behind a glut of goaltenders in Hamilton and Montreal, Halak started his pro career in the ECHL. But that didn’t last long. He quickly found his way from Long Beach to Hamilton in 2005-06. The next year he was one of the top goalies in Hamilton before getting called up to Montreal to play a key role in the Canadiens’ eventually unsuccessful run to the playoffs.

This season, Halak was shocked to start the season in Hamilton, having been leapfrogged by Carey Price. However, with the trade deadline deal of Cristobal Huet, Halak was brought back and has proved that he belongs.

Despite his late-round selection, Halak has proved at each level that he’s got what it takes to be a starter. Even in Montreal, the 23-year-old Slovakian refuses to concede the starting role to his younger counterpart. His skills, talent, and success to date should help to push Price – and the Canadiens – to greater heights.