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Eyes on the prize

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens
MONTREAL – There’s no time like the present to start planning for the future.

Just as they do every year, young prospects across the globe will be either watching on TV, refreshing their Internet browsers or anxiously fidgeting in suits live in person this June, waiting to find out if they’ve inched closer their lifelong goal: to play in the NHL.

When Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier steps up to the podium at the Staples Center on June 25 and 26, he’ll be punching tickets for a few of those players to potentially make the move to Montreal one day.

While the Draft kicks off at 7:00 p.m. on Friday night, Habs fans will have to wait a few hours to see the team’s first round pick don the bleu-blanc-rouge for the first time. Thanks to a 2007 rule change, the Eastern Conference finalists will be the 27th team to step up to the mic in Round 1, dropping from the 15th overall pick the Habs originally owned before the postseason began.

“When you drop 12 spots like we did, we’re maybe dipping into a different pool of players than we originally had on our list,” admitted Gauthier, who was part of the Nordiques’ draft team that plucked Joe Sakic from the crowd at No. 15 overall in 1989. “But the chances of getting a good, quality player are still very high.”

When the glitz and glamour of the first round ends on Friday night, the real work begins for Gauthier. If groomed properly, late-round sleeper picks like Andrei Markov (162) and Tomas Plekanec (71) can wind up filling NHL and All-Star rosters for years after the Draft or becoming important role players down the road.

“This year will be a typical draft where there are a couple of players who might be able to make the jump to the NHL right away. Maybe three or four players will have that chance, but the rest are more investments in the long term,” admitted the Montreal native who has over 30 years of NHL experience under his belt. “In five years, we’ll be able to look back and assess the quality of this crop. There seems to be enough good players to fill the first two rounds this year – the kinds of players who could crack NHL rosters in four or five years.”

As the clock ticks down for scouts across the league who will be making their lists and checking them twice come Friday night, one of the biggest challenges they face is comparing players from completely different leagues. It may be comparing open-ice European apples to tight-checking North American oranges, but the final decision can pay dividends – or haunt teams – years down the road.

“The base criteria doesn’t change. Of course, there’s going to be some difficulty comparing players playing different levels in different countries and in different systems,” explained Gauthier, who first got his feet wet scouting for the Nordiques. “Every bit of information we can ascertain about a player is important. But what they do on the ice during the season is far and away the most important thing we examine. We want to really get to know these young players.”

Forget the windgate, bench press or psychological testing – of particular interest to NHL scouts and managers these days might be a prospect’s hometown. With relations between the KHL growing more complex than ever, a few Russian standouts might see their stock drop again this year.

“I’d say it’s a bigger risk to pick a young Russian player because there are more options available to him. But at the same time, our selection criteria of picking the best player available hasn’t changed,” explained Gauthier. “Obviously we’re further down the list now than before, but we still have plenty of talent to choose from.”

Vincent Cauchy is a writer for Translated by Shauna Denis.

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