By: Adam Floujeh
Once again the Montreal Canadiens have given fans a behind-the-scenes look at scouting meetings and combine interviews from the NHL Draft. Fans waited eagerly all summer for the look inside the team’s draft meetings before the 2023 Draft in June. The 17-minute "Inside the Canadiens' Draft meetings" video is currently on the team's YouTube channel.
The Canadiens decision to draft defenseman David Reinbacher with the fifth overall pick was the first wild swing of the draft, and it made every fan of the franchise pay extra attention for the rest of the weekend.
Before discussing the prospects selected by the Canadiens, however, we need to look at what went into the Habs' decision-making – why/how was it decided that these were the right players to help move Montreal’s rebuild forward?
NHL Draft season starts at the combine, and it’s where the video picks up as well. Canadiens staff including Nick Bobrov, Co-Director of Amateur Scouting, describe how the scouting team approaches the combine, an event where teams not only evaluate players’ fitness but crucially, get time to interview prospects.
“On hockey questions, obviously you’re trying to gauge the kid’s understanding of the game. Whether they’re students of the game, if they watch the game, if they know other players, opposition, tendencies, how much they watch hockey. You want hockey nerds,” Bobrov explains.
The team also explains how they ask psychologically focused questions, seeing how the player thinks and how quickly they make a decision. Interviews at the combine are only 20 minutes, so teams need to stay away from generic questions.
During a cut-away, Martin Lapointe, Director of Player Personnel and Amateur Scouting, went a different direction when defining what he wanted during an interview with a young player.
“Me, I like to see the guy with some fire in him – some intensity in his answer,” he said.
Intensity is what the Canadians got with the first player we’ll be looking at.
The Jacob Fowler Show
While most Habs fans tuned in hoping to get perspective into the team’s decision to select David Reinbacher fifth overall, the biggest standout from the video was USHL goaltender, Jacob Fowler.
During the Canadiens interview with Fowler, they asked the young goaltender the names of three players from the USHL. He was asked to list their handedness and whether they were shooters or passers.
Remember Nick Bobrov’s quote about wanting hockey nerds? Well, after successfully listing the players' styles and shots, Fowler confidentially claimed “You could probably go up and down the whole USHL and I could name every righty and lefty.”
It wasn’t just his hockey knowledge that was displayed, but also the adversity Fowler has faced. He went undrafted in both the OHL Draft and the USHL Draft, provoking an unforgiving desire to prove himself. That want fueled him to a Goalie of the Year award in 2023.
“I’ve been doubted and had to prove people wrong my entire career…Nobody wanted me. There were 16 teams and not a single one of them wanted me. I had to go out and prove that every night, that you messed with the wrong guy. That feeling sticks with me every day.”
There’s a scene from a scouting meeting where Billy Ryan, Director of Player Evaluation and Amateur Scout, fiercely fights for Jacob Fowler to be selected ahead of an unnamed goalie in the Habs video.
“He’s perfected his position.”
“I want the kid who wins.”
“We’ll regret not taking him”
It’s fair to say this passionate plea as well as Fowler’s interview made an impression with the Canadiens, as they took Fowler with the 69th overall pick. The netminder has committed to Boston College, a school that in recent years has produced goalies such as Spencer Knight, Joseph Woll and Thatcher Demko.
With Carey Price most likely on long-term injury (LTIR) for the remainder of his contract, an aging Jake Allen, a complete question mark in Cayden Primeau and an unproven Sam Montembault, the Canadiens are desperate for a goalie of the future. Jacob Fowler seems to have the attitude and desire to be the answer in net.
Why was David Reinbacher the pick at fifth?
To put it lightly, David Reinbacher was a divisive pick at fifth for Habs fans. As mentioned above, the video was watched by a majority of fans because they wanted to know the team's reasoning.
Jeff Gorton, Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, has two very important quotes in the video. The first puts the Habs’ desires in pretty simple terms.
“We’re all about the best player. Who’s going to be the best player? Not necessarily today. We’re trying to get the best player over the long haul.”
Alright, that’s what the big boss says, what about the scouts?
“When we watched Reinbacher play, I saw the compete, I saw defending, he’s all about winning, he’s not selfish,” said Lapointe
Michal Krupa, Eastern European Scout “Everybody’s talking about defense, but in my opinion, he’s so special also on offense, he’s good on the powerplay, he moves well, he reads the play well,” adds Michal Krupa, one of the Canadiens’ Eastern European scouts
“He’s highly talented offensively. He doesn’t show it all the time because he plays such a smart defensive- first game, he’s young in the league but he’s got so much skill,” said Ryan.
“We saw the games in the playoffs, and they were hard games, I didn’t see him bail once, he didn’t panic with the puck once,” opined Swedish scout Tommy Lehman.
If that was not enough praise for the Austrian wunderkind, Canadiens Head Coach Martin St. Louis told Reinbacher moments after he was drafted he was “exactly what we need.”
Diving into the Canadiens' defensive prospects shows the need for Reinbacher While their left side is a log jam with sophomore players like Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, and Kaiden Guhle, plus prospects such as Jayden Struble and William Trudeau still on the way, their right side is a much different story. Justin Barron, Johnathan Kovacevic and newly acquired Gustav Lidstrom are the only right-handed defensemen in the organization who are under the age of 27 and eligible to play in the NHL next season.
The lack of star power on the backend has been noticeable since the loss of Shea Weber after the 2021 Cup Finals run by the Canadiens. All this to say the Habs are in dire need of a right-shot-defenceman who has the potential to play effective minutes in a top-pair role. As much as the scouts praise Reinbacher as the best player available, a stench of positional need is hard to ignore. Especially when at fifth, an arguably better player was available.
Why didn’t the Canadiens select Matvei Mitchkov?
Here’s the second Jeff Gorton moment.
During a scouting meeting scene, Jeff Gorton makes a speech to his staff. The result is a clip that will follow this management and scouting group for the entirety of Reinbacher and Matvei Michkov’s NHL careers.
“When you pick five…there’s only so many chances that an organization gets to add talent. It’s very hard, you can’t do it in free agency anymore, really. Mainly older players, and you have to pay them a lot of money, right? You pretty much have to draft or get lucky to get high-end talent now,” Gorton started. “Sometimes you take a chance, and … it seems as though this room has said, ‘No, we don’t want to try this chance,’ and I just want to make sure we’re making the right decision.”
Although the Canadiens censored the names of any prospects they did not draft, it’s difficult to believe this clip isn’t referring to Michkov.
Although the young Russian was touted as the second-best offensive talent in this draft by EliteProspects, he was a wildcard because of an existing contract in the KHL, along with concerns about Russia that go beyond the world of sport. It’s worth mentioning that during the writing of this piece, Matvei Michkov appears to be a healthy scratch for the second straight game for St. Petersburg SKA.
Whether the choice between Reinbacher and Michkov was the right one will remain to be seen for many years to come, but what is clear from this year’s Inside the Draft Meetings video is that the Canadiens scouting staff seem to have drafted their guys. A young defenceman who excelled in the Swiss League, and a goaltender who’s thrived at every level he’s played at and seems to have the tools to succeed in a pressure-filled market like Montreal. In the later rounds, they selected Florian Xhekaj, the younger brother of fan-favourite Arber who was described as a “unicorn” by Bobrov and another right-shot-defenceman, Bogdan Konyushkov.
With Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki headlining a young, exciting and talented NHL roster and the likes of Lane Hutson leading a group of difference-makers in the system, the Canadiens have a bright future.
Although the 2023 draft was a noisy one for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans, what can’t be denied is that the Bleu Blanc et Rouge are confident in the prospects they have, and the rebuild is going according to plan for Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton.