TORONTO -- The Montreal Canadiens will enter the 2012 NHL Entry Draft sitting closer to the stage than they have in more than 30 years -- and the team is leaving no stone unturned in attempting to make sure that its first pick, the third player to be taken, turns into a home run.
The team's director of procurement and player development, Trevor Timmins, says he has been focusing his attention on the top 10 prospects for the draft since just after the All-Star break, when it became clear the Canadiens would be finishing in the bottom third of the NHL standings.
"The most important selection is that of being No. 3 overall," Timmins said during a very short break at the NHL Scouting Combine. "Going into the latter part of the season and knowing you're going to have a high draft pick alters what you do in your scouting the last couple of months. I turned my attention to looking at the top 10 specifically and spending a lot of time on those players."
The last time the Canadiens had a pick this high was in 1980, when they opted for a big, high-scoring center from the Regina Pats, the late Doug Wickenheiser, with the No. 1 selection. Two picks later the Chicago Blackhawks selected Denis Savard of the Montreal Juniors; the Los Angeles Kings followed by selecting Peterborough Petes defenseman Larry Murphy, and two picks after that the Edmonton Oilers selected Paul Coffey from the Kitchener Rangers.
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Wickenheiser never became a star; Savard, Murphy and Coffey are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame, illustrating perfectly the unique pressure that comes with having a pick so high in Timmins' line of work.
"When you have a top-10 pick, the pressure's always greater than if you were picking later in the draft," Timmins said. "When you're picking high in the draft you want to try and hit a home run and have a top level player, so a lot of extra work goes into those top-10 players in the latter part of the season when you know you'll be picking in that area.
"You're trying to find a player like that who will have an impact on your team going forward."
In order to find that player when the draft begins on June 22 in Pittsburgh, Timmins said he spent significant time visiting with the top prospects on their turf -- long before he had a chance to interview them at this week's Scouting Combine.
That obviously includes the top prospects playing in North America, but also the top European prospect -- Filip Forsberg of Leksand, who plays in Sweden's second tier of professional hockey.
"We've seen quite a bit of him," Timmins said. "Filip's played in all the international tournaments for Sweden and he plays in the Allsvenskan in the men's league for Leksand. So we've seen him quite often and I've got to know him quite well. I spent some time with him and his family up in Leksand. It's a very, very quality individual, he comes from a quality family; they're good people."
Timmins and his staff were extremely busy at the NHL Combine, interviewing no less than 65 prospects in three days. With each interview taking 20 minutes, that works out to about 21 hours spent questioning the young men the Canadiens might be considering in the draft. But Timmins admits most of the initial evaluation had already been done by then.
"The most important part of the process is what we see on the ice all season. This is another piece of the puzzle," he said. "We want to know their commitment to becoming a pro, we want to get to know a little bit more about their personality. And another one of the pieces of the puzzle here is to find out about their support system, we want to know about their family situation, the support they get from their families, who they've relied upon to get to this point, and put all that together to find out what we can find out about the athlete as a person."
Starting Tuesday, the Canadiens will be hosting dozens of prospects at their own mini-combine (Timmins refused to say exactly how many players will attend). There will be players the Canadiens may be considering taking in the early rounds as well as several players from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who did not receive invitations to the main Combine.
"It's good to spend a little more time with some of the players and see how they integrate [into the group] and see who the leaders are," Timmins said. "It gives us a chance to bring in a lot of players from the Quebec Major Junior League and give them another opportunity."
This draft is exciting and important for the Canadiens in more ways than one.
Not only are the Habs picking third in the opening round, they also hold the No. 33 and No. 51 picks in the second round. It is the first time since 2008 that Timmins and his staff will get to speak in the second round, and the first time since 2007 that the Canadiens hold picks in both the first and second rounds.
"It's exciting for us to have two picks in the second round this year. We haven't had a second-round pick for a few years now," Timmins said. "There are usually quality players coming out of the second round."
All those picks will help replenish a system that was considered among the class of the League in terms of the number of quality prospects not so long ago, but which is now not nearly as stacked -- largely because of all those second-round selections that were traded away over the past few years.
The Canadiens have several prospects who will be turning pro in the fall, led by defensemen Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Morgan Ellis and forwards Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival and Patrick Holland. But once those players leave the junior or collegiate ranks, the Canadiens have little else to look forward to.
"It's exciting for us because we have seven young players coming into Hamilton [in the AHL] that have been integral parts of their junior and college teams. It will be exciting to see those prospects come in," Timmins said. "But it will be nice to see that infusion get back into our system [through the draft], though we'll have to wait a few years for them to eventually turn pro."
The Canadiens should be able to further stock that system at the 2013 NHL Draft, though Timmins is hoping the team will not be sitting quite so close to the stage next year.
"We're looking forward to next year when we have three second round picks," he said. "But hopefully we're not picking third overall."