What I’m hearing on the Canadiens ahead of their No. 5 pick at the 2024 NHL Draft

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Montreal Canadiens draft picture has normally become a bit clearer at the NHL scouting combine over the past two years.

Not this year.

This will be, by far, the most complicated draft this administration has ever handled.

In the first draft for the Jeff Gorton/Kent Hughes regime in 2022, they had the No. 1 pick. It wasn’t necessarily an obvious decision like it will be this year for the San Jose Sharks or was last year for the Chicago Blackhawks, but at least they had no variables ahead of them.

Last year, everyone in the hockey world knew which players would be going in the first four picks, which meant the Canadiens started the draft at No. 5 in a way, but again, they had essentially no variables ahead of them.

This year’s draft couldn’t be more different.

The Canadiens are picking at No. 5 again and have been spending the past few weeks cooking up all the different scenarios of what could happen in front of them at the draft, because there are nothing but variables this year.

When Macklin Celebrini goes to the Sharks at No. 1, the Canadiens’ decision will depend entirely on what the Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets do after that. And no one seems to have a clear idea of what they will do, though that is starting to crystallize somewhat.

It seems at least somewhat probable that Russian phenom Ivan Demidov could be available for the Canadiens at No. 5, but if that happens, there is some question as to whether they would take him there, depending on who else is available, namely Medicine Hat Tigers centre Cayden Lindstrom.

In the unlikely event both of them survive through the first four picks, I would guess (and it is just that, a guess) that the Canadiens would lean toward taking Lindstrom (more on that in a bit). If just one of Lindstrom or Demidov is available at No. 5, that makes the decision somewhat easier for the Canadiens.


Cayden Lindstrom’s dream of playing under the bright lights of the NHL is approaching

But in the equally unlikely event that neither of them is available, I think the Canadiens would lean toward taking a defenceman. And I don’t think they would trade down later in the top 10 to recoup an asset and take one of the top wingers available in either Tij Iginla or Beckett Sennecke, because they view the No. 5 pick as an opportunity to add a significant piece in their rebuild, and trading down would lessen the likelihood that player is a significant piece.

Sometimes, you have to go with the best player available (again, more on that in a bit).

It is worth remembering that Hughes, in stating his preference to draft a forward with the No. 5 pick, prefaced that by saying “all things being equal.”

In the scenario where neither Demidov nor Lindstrom are available at No. 5, I believe that would make all things unequal.

The Canadiens like University of Denver left-shot defenceman Zeev Buium and Saginaw Spirit right-shot defenceman Zayne Parekh a lot, both of whom have a major puck-moving element the Canadiens lack on the blue line aside from Lane Hutson, who is still not a sure thing to hit as an NHL defenceman. I think both Buium and Parekh would be considered at No. 5, though it’s difficult to handicap which one would be preferred despite Parekh having the added bonus of shooting from the right side.

Could 6-foot-7 Russian defenceman Anton Silayev also be a consideration under this scenario? Yes, possibly, but if I had to bet on it, the Canadiens would opt for the puck-mover over the giant who can skate and punish opponents but has a limited offensive ceiling.

But honestly, it’s hard to say what the Canadiens will do at No. 5, because it seems even they’re not sure, especially since it depends so heavily on what happens in front of them, which remains a total wild card.

However, if Chicago opts for Michigan State defenceman Artyom Levshunov and the Ducks go defence at No. 3, one of Lindstrom or Demidov will be there for the Canadiens, and I would imagine they take the one that is there for them assuming Columbus takes one of them at No. 4.

But if Columbus doesn’t do that, if both Lindstrom and Demidov are available at No. 5, it will be very interesting to see what the Canadiens do.

The Demidov risk

There is a lot to like about Lindstrom, and I do believe the Canadiens like him a lot. The athleticism, the size, the power, the speed, the hands — it’s all there. There is some concern over his health, but if that checks out, I don’t think the Canadiens have too many questions.

There are a lot of questions about Demidov, though.

From a strictly hockey standpoint, the Canadiens recognize Demidov has game-breaking qualities they lack in the organization. But there is some doubt about whether his style would translate well to playoff hockey in the NHL. We were given the comparisons of David Pastrnak and Mitch Marner having some difficulty in the playoffs this year. Demidov is also not a perfect skater and does not have ideal size — though there is a belief he is bigger than his listed 5-foot-11 — but his compete and the consistency in his production are seen as pluses. And the fact that production came in the MHL is not ideal, but Demidov played in the top division of the MHL and maintained his production against both strong and weak opponents, on top of exploding in the playoffs.

But more than the strict hockey questions are the ones surrounding his status in Russia.

Demidov has one year left on his contract with SKA Saint Petersburg, which sounds like good news. But it complicates Demidov’s situation in several ways.

First off, if Demidov doesn’t sign an extension with Saint Petersburg, some see it as unlikely they would keep him with their KHL club next season, and you are not allowed to loan out players with one year left on their contract to other KHL teams. So, Demidov might be forced to play another season in the junior MHL, which would be a complete waste of time at this point and could stunt his development for a year.

But at least under that scenario, he would be in North America next year.

Except there is a real sense, and not just from the Canadiens, that SKA likes Demidov and would like him to play for them. And when they feel that way, SKA tends to be persistent, and there are certain pressure valves they can access.

Numerous conversations with scouts and team officials at the combine confirmed the Demidov situation is a total wild card. He has two brothers playing in the SKA organization, his family lives there, his own development as a player — all of it represents ways Demidov could be pressured into signing an extension in Russia.

It’s a potential factor here that seems quite real, and if it were to come down to Lindstrom or Demidov for the Canadiens, this would definitely be a big part of that conversation.

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There are a lot of questions about NHL Draft prospect Ivan Demidov, including his status in Russia for next season. (Maksim Konstantinov / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Canadiens’ draft philosophy

The possible scenario under which the Canadiens would take a defenceman speaks to their philosophy at the draft.

In each of the last two years, it seemed like scarcity of player profile highly dictated their decisions. In 2022, the size, skill and mental makeup of Juraj Slafkovský was seen as something that does not come around in the draft very often. In 2023, a big, mobile right-shot defenceman with advanced defensive instincts and good, if not great offensive potential was also seen as a rare player profile, so the Canadiens grabbed David Reinbacher at No. 5.

But scarcity of player profile is not the only consideration for the Canadiens. It is a big one, though.

They also look at team building as a big factor, boxes they need to check as they eventually build a Stanley Cup contender, and also boxes they might have already checked to avoid redundancy down the line. This is why it seems like Buium and Parekh could be in the mix, because while Hutson could potentially check the box of elite puck-moving defenceman, there is no assurance he will. And even if he does, having two defencemen like that would not necessarily preclude the Canadiens from winning.

The popular concept of best player available is also a factor, which is another reason why I think the Canadiens could go for a defenceman at No. 5 if their two preferred options at forward are not available to them. Again, “all things being equal” goes out the window when all things are not equal, and if the player fits the puzzle, sometimes best player available has to rule the day.

Finally, there’s the character of the player. Slafkovský’s personality and his ability to handle pressure were big factors for the Canadiens in picking him. As for Reinbacher, his performance in a difficult league playing against men, the way it did not change with the increased scrutiny he faced as a top draft prospect and how humble and hardworking he is as a player who wants to improve were big factors there as well. This year, Lindstrom left a very good impression on the Canadiens, Buium and Parekh seem like strong-character guys, and they have done some homework on Demidov to try and get a gauge on him as well. They will have an opportunity to dig further on that front with Demidov when his agency, Gold Star Hockey led by agent Dan Milstein, holds its camp for prospects in Florida starting June 18.

Dinners are back on the table

Last year, the Canadiens didn’t take any prospects out for dinner at the combine, a time-honoured tradition they apparently decided was not worth the trouble.

That changed this year. The Canadiens took Lindstrom out for dinner and Iginla as well, at the very least. Not sure what led to the change of heart, but dinners at the combine are not always an indicator of who a team favours. Remember, the Canadiens did not take Slafkovský out for dinner two years ago, and obviously did not take Reinbacher out for dinner last year.

There is the infamous story of the Canadiens taking Cole Caufield to dinner in 2019, being told not to bother because he won’t be available at No. 15, and then drafting him at No. 15 in Vancouver.

The decision to take someone out for dinner is one teams make at the combine, so they can’t be completely ignored. But more often than not, they don’t mean a whole lot.

A personnel change that was noticeable at the combine

Very quietly, with no announcement, the Canadiens recently parted ways with director of sports science and performance Adam Douglas.

Douglas played a big role at the combine, analyzing all the data that comes in from the physical testing of the prospects, but that role was filled this year by strength and conditioning coach Dale Lablans, assisted by Laval Rocket strength coach Stéphane Gervais.

It would appear Lablans will take over for Douglas, though how the department will be filled out — or if it will be at all — seems to be in some flux right now. Lablans had worked with Douglas for a decade, going back to their time together at York University and Hockey Canada.

Douglas brought Lablans on board when he was hired by former general manager Marc Bergevin in 2021, replacing former strength and conditioning coach Pierre Allard.

(Top photo of Zayne Parekh and Cayden Lindstrom: Jeffrey T. Barnes / NHLI via Getty Images)

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