Habs tap draft success

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

The last time the Canadiens were here for a draft, they took goalie Carey Price with the fifth pick overall and took a lot of heat.

That hastily assembled draft at the Congress Centre, the first sign of life for the NHL after the nuclear winter of the 2004-05 lockout, also yielded forward Guillaume Latendresse (second round, 45th overall) and winger Sergei Kostitsyn (seventh round, 200th overall). All three, to various degrees, helped the Canadiens finish first in the Eastern Conference last season and take down the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Flyers in Round 2.

The Canadiens now have some depth thanks to better drafting. Selecting players who can actually play after years of wonky picks will drastically alter the way the Canadiens will attack things over the next couple of days at Scotiabank Place compared to three years ago.

GM Bob Gainey is now willing to deal the club's first pick, if necessary, and is on the hunt for a star forward -- preferably a centre -- at this point in the Canadiens' development arc. If he doesn't get him here in the next couple of days, he'll have $6 million-$7 million to spend on him come July 1, when free agency kicks off.

"We are here looking to see if we can acquire a player through trade that we like," Gainey said yesterday. "Would we put our pick in play for a team with an established player? I think we would.

"We're just trying to stay active if we can. We're in that part of a cycle of developing a team where we have younger players who are dynamic enough and allow us enough (cap) space to look at the possibility of a $6- or $7-million player if it was there."

Centre Mats Sundin, who looks done with the Leafs, would be an interesting acquisition for a whole bunch of reasons and the Habs were in the hunt for free-agent-to-be Marian Hossa at the trade deadline.

The Canadiens' case illustrates the growing importance of drafting well in this salary cap era. Young, good players are cheap (relatively speaking, for a short while) and give a team options in the free-agent and trade markets. They free up money for free agents or can be dealt to fill a need.

A couple of bad days here for some clubs (and some will have them, no doubt) will leave expensive holes in their lineups in three years' time.

Three years ago, the Canadiens limped in here, still riddled with holes and with about as much depth as a Lindsay Lohan movie from years of lean drafts. The years 1988-1998 produced but Patrice Brisebois, Craig Rivet, Saku Koivu, Darcy Tucker, Jose Theodore, Stephane Robidas, Mathieu Garon and Mike Ribeiro as NHLers worth mentioning and doomed the Canadiens to the barren years of 1999-2003 when they missed the playoffs four out of those five seasons.

An upswing in the club's drafting fortunes actually started in the last year of the previous regime (defenceman Mike Komisarek and Tomas Plekanec came out of the 2001 draft) and have continued to improve with the arrival of director of player recruitment Trevor Timmins from the Senators in 2002 and the appointment of Gainey as GM the next summer. The 2002 draft produced top-six forward Christopher Higgins and in the first draft under Gainey's watch, the Habs gleaned forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre, defenceman Ryan O'Byrne and goaltender Jaroslav Halak. All played in the playoffs this spring.

A reflection of their recent success is the Canadiens head into tonight's first round with the 25th pick overall. As an aside, apart from the two years in which they did not own a first-round pick (1979 and 1999) that is their worst drafting position since the entry draft started in 1963.

Gainey and the Habs are in such a better position than in 2005. The players from that draft helped bring Gainey to today: If he can't swing a deal here to get his man, the improved Habs give him some something to sell to a free agent now.

"I think what we were trying to sell as a projection of our team is now more clear. It's easier to see. We've given out a little bit of tangible evidence. Some of (the players) are still projections because they're pretty young, but most of what we have is well known. It isn't about me trying to create 'here's where we'll be in six months and this is where you will fit in or here's where we'll be in a year and here's where you'll fit in.' It's 'here's where you fit in today.' "

Thanks to the draft.

CHRIS.STEVENSON@SUNMEDIA.CA


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