It’s the strength of this year’s top five prospects that makes the 2023 draft seem like a good harvest, more so than the depth of talent available later in the first round. Aside from Connor Bedard, who will make Chicago fans happy, forwards Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, Will Smith and Matvei Michkov all have the potential to be the best players on their team, and possibly franchise players.
There seems to be in the eyes of most observers a very clear demarcation between these five players and the rest of the group. Usually, the team that takes the fifth is the one that has the easiest job, getting the hope that is still within this quintet.
But the case of Michkov brings such a gray area that the Canadian, who inherited the fifth overall selection on the occasion of the draw on Monday night, finds himself possibly in the most dangerous situation, and not the easiest. .
Michkov was seen as Russia’s top prospect in the draft as Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the first two players selected in 2004. He was named the U18 World Championship MVP at age 16, a tournament largely reserved for 17-year-old hopefuls. . He recently collected the most points by a 16-year-old player in the history of the MHL, Russia’s junior circuit.
And this year, after he was loaned to SKA St. Petersburg in Sochi in December, he averaged nearly 16 minutes and had 20 points in 27 games, helping him achieve the highest points per game average by a player in his 17 years of playing . -old season since the start of the KHL in 2008.
Michkov has an undeniable talent for scoring and he can fill the net for the Canadian. In the best of worlds, this would be the equivalent of grafting a Nikita Kucherov into his training.
On the other hand, Michkov is under contract in Russia until the end of the 2025-26 season, so by choosing him, the Canadian will not see him arrive before the age of 21, and after being forced to do the trust of SKA for three years to properly manage the development of Michkov.
And that’s without taking into account that the geopolitical tension arising from the war in Ukraine will prevent the Habs from securing a close follow-up to their best hope, and that there is no guarantee that Michkov will be free to leave Russia in when his contract comes up. due date
Add to that the fact that Michkov’s father was found dead in a pond last month under still unclear circumstances, and you start to have a lot of plot elements that an NHL team doesn’t have. .
But even if there is a lot of talk about the fact that Michkov will not be able to play in the National League before the 2026-27 season, a team cannot allow this factor to influence its decision. The Canadian is looking for accelerators so as not to live a long reconstruction, but the history of the contract should not take precedence over other criteria. It’s not how quickly a prospect comes to help his NHL team, it’s who will be the best player when these young men come of age.
In 2016, Finnish striker Jesse Puljujärvi was seen as a guaranteed top-3 draft pick. Puljujärvi is a shy young man who does not speak English, but the CEO of Columbus Blue Jackets, Jarmo Kekäläinen, is Finnish himself and he was able to take advantage of a privileged contact with Puljujärvi to get to know him better. In the end, for reasons that have never been made public, the Blue Jackets chose to ignore what seemed to be a consensus pick and set their sights on Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Kekäläinen may have noticed something that others missed, and he was right.
Why do you remember this story? Because Nik Bobrov, the co-director of amateur scouting for the Canadiens, is of Russian descent, and he is the only Russian who holds that status at the National League level. His passport gives him the opportunity this year to see more Russian players in action than his counterparts from other teams. It is difficult to say to what extent he will be able to take advantage of this, but it is reasonable to believe that Bobrov will be in a position to get a more detailed picture of Michkov and thus justify his choice or recommend that he ignore it. superior as what Kekäläinen did with Puljujärvi.
“Of course it scares us more than another prospect for obvious reasons, but I can’t tell you right now,” said general manager Kent Hughes during a video conference after the draw. spell.
“If it is determined that Michkov is more talented than other players available in the draft, we will have a decision to make. At the moment, we still have a lot of work to do on his file, first as a player but also in relation to risks that will come to him. »
In our eyes, the oft-cited irritants about Michkov are a bit like the tree hiding in the forest. In the end, it should be purely hockey-related factors that guide the Canadian’s choice. These reasons may lead him to the conclusion that Michkov is inevitable. Indeed, his attacking exploits speak for themselves. But otherwise, Canada needs to show that this demarcation between the first five hopes and the others reported in the public sphere is not very real.
Teams drafting ahead of the Canadiens could find every reasonable reason to choose Carlsson or Smith over Michkov. It would have been braver on the Canadian’s part to go in the other direction, as giving in would probably hit him in the face afterwards.
There are plenty of other hopefuls in the next lineup who will likely give the Canadian a good hand, though not all of them have been heralded with the same praise as Michkov.
It could be Ryan Leonard, the spark plug of the United States Development Program, who will be the perfect complement to Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the top line.
It could be Dalibor Dvorský, a Slovak center who had an excellent U18 World Cup, or the Austrian defender David Reinbacher, who was a revelation in the Swiss National League this year.
Not to mention Zach Benson who has his share of supporters because of his electrifying game.
Hughes said he thinks he won’t be able to trade the fifth pick, though he hasn’t closed the door on that possibility, of course. Let us raise a hypothesis here.
If the Canadiens realize that Michkov isn’t worth bothering with, and none of the players we’ve named have the real head start on the others, maybe he should consider trading his fifth pick and returning some you ranks to get your hands on an additional asset.
In 2008, the New York Islanders agreed to trade their fifth pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ seventh pick, and were given a third round pick that same year and a second round pick the following year. . For CH, this is a way to monetize the place he was given in the draw.
But all of these rantings start from the premise that the Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks, in particular, don’t care about Michkov themselves. Let’s not take it for granted.
“Obviously if you’re lucky enough to pick fifth than sixth or seventh, you’d rather pick fifth because you don’t know what the other guys in front of you are going to do,” Hughes said. In other words, at this level, it is not impossible for another team to solve their dilemma for them.
If Carlsson or Smith landed in his yard, it would be easier.
But otherwise, fifth is probably the toughest position in this draft.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)