Sometimes consensus and conventional wisdom turn out to be the enemy.
As the Montreal Canadiens surveyed the amateur hockey landscape prior to the 1980 draft, their gaze settled on Regina Pats centre Doug Wickenheiser, author of 89 goals and 81 assists the previous season.
He was the broad, if not unanimous, choice for top pick among the sport’s sages – including the late Ron Caron, then head of the Habs scouting apparatus – so general manager Irving Grundman went with the strapping Saskatchewan kid rather than a small one from Quebec who was similarly tearing up the QMJHL.
The rest, you know: Wickenheiser fizzled, Denis Savard went to the Hall of Fame, and Grundman was revealed to be something less of a hockey genius than his predecessor, Sam Pollock.
There’s an argument to be made the Wickenheiser pick, coming as it did at the sunset of the last Habs’ dynasty, was a pivot point that set in motion a three-decade slide into today’s mediocrity (this is debatable: Grundman and Caron picked two players that same year who hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1986, Craig Ludwig and Mike McPhee).
What is beyond dispute is the Habs have arrived at a decisive moment, and have a chance to once again reverse their team’s fortunes at the draft table.
On Friday the Eastern Conference basement-dwellers will select third overall, the highest pick they’ve held since that fateful summer day in 1980.
And they can’t afford to blow it like they did back then.
Head scout Trevor Timmins, who has overseen the Habs’ draft preparation and will be the man with the biggest say on who GM Marc Bergevin ultimately decides to choose, acknowledged as much.
“When you have a top pick the pressure is always higher … picking high in the draft you want to try and hit a home run and have a top-level player,” Timmins told reporters at the recent NHL combine.
So who will they take?
A source close to the situation said much, if not all, will depend on what unfolds with the top two selections, which are unpredictable despite Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov’s status as the consensus No. 1.
As Bergevin wryly noted last week, the “wide-open” 2012 draft drops off precipitously after the top pick, “except not everyone’s No. 1 is the same.”
That suggests considerable uncertainty and horse-trading could be in the offing – Bergevin will not rule out dealing his pick – and counterintuitive choices could be made.
The main question is where the team’s priorities lie; Timmins is known as an unshakeable best-player-available adherent, but the fact is the Habs have a striking deficit of high-end offensive talent up front.
In a defence-rich draft it may be tempting to target a player like Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips – who has impressed the Habs staff – or Moose Jaw Warrior Morgan Rielly, but it seems unfathomable to pass up the explosive offensive potential of Sarnia centre Alex Galchenyuk (who has to be the odds-on choice if he’s still available).
Or that of European players like highly touted Swedish power forward Filip Forsberg and Finnish winger/centre Teuvo Teravainen, whose wispy frame and improbable offensive skills evoke comparisons to the Flyers’ Claude Giroux.
And what to say of a prospect in the Habs’ own backyard: Quebec Remparts centre Mikhail Grigorenko, who has slipped in many pre-draft rankings because of whispers over his work ethic?
The answer, to that and all the other questions ahead of Friday’s draft: there’s just no way to know until the Habs are on the clock.
Both Bergevin and Timmins – who didn’t know each other well before the former was hired in May – say they believe very strongly in drafting character players.
To the point where Timmins has spent significant time not only with each of the top-10 rated prospects, but with their friends and family as well.
If familiarity and personal connections are to be big factors, circle the names of Forsberg, whom Timmins has visited in Sweden, and Teravainen, who plays in Jokerit for Timmins’s pal and former colleague in the Senators front office, Jarmo Kekalainen.
Then there’s Galchenyuk, whose junior coach is 2011 first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu’s dad, Jacques.
Timmins has never been afraid to swim against the tide in his time in Montreal – with mostly sterling results other than 2006 first-rounder David Fischer – but hasn’t been involved with a pick at quite this altitude (goalie Carey Price was picked fifth in 2005). As ever, the spectre of Wickenheiser – who became a good NHL player in St. Louis and died too young, of cancer – hangs over this decision.
No pressure, guys.