One of the greatest Montreal Canadiens success stories to come out of the NHL Entry Draft is Brendan Gallagher, who has flourished under current-general manager Marc Bergevin. As a fifth-round pick (No. 147 overall) in 2010, Gallagher has developed into a legitimate top-line winger, who can be counted on for around 30 goals per season. More than that though, Gallagher has been described as the heartbeat of the Habs, the team’s emotional leader who takes punishment on an every-game basis for the betterment of the team as a whole.
Gallagher’s only played under Bergevin, so some level of credit goes to him, no doubt. That’s primarily with regard to Gallagher’s development and cost-effective second deal (six years, $22.5 million). However, it’s a misconception to believe Gallagher is a Bergevin draft pick, as the forward was actually selected by Bergevin’s predecessor, Pierre Gauthier.
Gallagher only debuted with the Canadiens under Bergevin in 2012-13, which was coincidentally the GM’s first season with the team too. So, when ranking the top 5 Canadiens picks in the Bergevin era, it’s key to consider the Alex Galchenyuk draft as the first. A bit of foreshadowing, maybe?
Before Bergevin Served the Canadiens
Bergevin came over from the Chicago Blackhawks, where he had filled several roles. He got promoted to Director of Player Personnel for the 2009-10 season, his fourth with the team, when the team won the Stanley Cup, its first of the current era. They would go on to win two additional Cups after Bergevin left, as Assistant GM to Stan Bowman, to join the Habs, but there’s a case to be made his fingerprints were over those teams as well.
Prior to his front-office career, Bergevin enjoyed a long, 20-season NHL career as a stay-at-home defenseman, which is arguably reflected in the construction of the Habs’ defense corps. However, that’s not necessarily the case in his draft selections, at least not the top five selections, as of the 2021 offseason.
Since Bergevin was hired, the Canadiens have made 77 total picks, including a first-round selection each season he’s been at the helm. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a sign of draft-picking prowess, with only three of the 10 going on to play 100 games or more in the NHL.
Admittedly, the data is somewhat skewed, as draft picks take time to develop. Only players from Bergevin’s first eight seasons on the job from the 2012 to 2019 drafts are included here as a result. It should be noted from the point at which goalie Carey Price was selected at No. 5 overall in 2005, none of the Habs’ top selections stayed with the team into their stereotypical prime-production years up until Ryan Poehling (2017), who remains in limbo from a developmental standpoint.
The stretch unfortunately overlaps with Bergevin’s first five drafts, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi (2018) most recently also leaving the team in 2021 after having signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes. While that may speak negatively to Bergevin’s tenure, if a pick ended up enjoying success elsewhere, they were not disqualified from consideration for the following list:
#5 Cole Caufield
Arguably a top-10 talent at the 2019 draft, forward Cole Caufield fell into the Canadiens’ laps at No. 15. He made his debut in 2020-21 to much hype after a Hobey Baker Award-winning season at the University of Wisconsin as the top collegiate hockey player in the United States.
To some extent, Caufield lived up to that hype. He scored four goals and five points in 10 regular-season games, before putting up a fairly impressive four goals and eight assists in 20 playoff games, becoming the first Hobey Baker winner since Neal Broten to reach the Stanley Cup Final the same season (1981). It was an impressive run for Caufield, which led him to be named a favourite to win the 2022 Calder Memorial Trophy. However, no one should dismiss the other contenders on the list in what is an especially deep field.
Caufield remains a threat and will likely develop into an impact player (hopefully for the Canadiens), but no one should hand him the award yet, for the simple reason that all his production up to this point has proven is that he can keep up in the NHL. So, Caufield, having a lot more to prove entering his rookie season, takes the No. 5 spot.
#4 Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Kotkaniemi developed a reputation as being clutch in a Canadiens jersey. If his Game 6 overtime goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round in 2021 wasn’t enough, his nine goals in 29 career playoff games should be. That equates to 25 over an 82-game season. However, as a Hab, he scored just 22 in three seasons.
Kotkaniemi’s rookie season was his best production-wise, as he scored 11 goals and 23 assists in 79 games, amounting to a successful first campaign by all accounts. In fact, Kotkaniemi had 32 points in his first 65 games, putting him on pace to surpass Mario Tremblay’s franchise-record 39 points scored as an 18-year-old, before he notched just two in his final 14 games and then-head coach Claude Julien scratching him due to fatigue.
Indeed, Kotkaniemi seemed to hit a wall. An apparent destiny of perpetually playing under Nick Suzuki didn’t do him any favors from a deployment standpoint, especially with Phillip Danault still with the team before his departure to the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent. A free agent in 2021 himself, but restricted, Kotkaniemi signed with the Hurricanes for one season at $6.1 million. The Canadiens opted not to match, with Kotkaniemi being valued by most at less than half that amount based on his career up to this point.
And Kotkaniemi’s career up to this point? It’s been adequate as an NHLer, but underwhelming as a former first-round pick. He takes the No. 4 spot as he has undeniably had his moments at the NHL level and still has a great deal of untapped potential.
#3 Artturi Lehkonen
Spoiler alert: Artturi Lehkonen is the highest-ranking player on this list still with the Habs as of 2021. It’s a testament to his work ethic that he ranks this high, but also arguably an indictment of Bergevin’s draft record.
Ultimately, Lehkonen is a solid forward who can play anywhere in the lineup. With the Canadiens at least, that’s unfortunately become a nice of way of saying “bottom-six forward unless injuries arise.”
Lehkonen’s ceiling is theoretically higher, to which an 18-goal rookie season in 2016-17 would attest, but, with the depth the Canadiens have up front, Lehkonen’s niche has become that of a play-driving fourth-line forward, with fans still waiting for that one breakout season that may never come, due in part to a lack of finishing ability. As he’s already 26 and in his prime, time is running out.
#2 Alex Galchenyuk
At one point in time, Alex Galchenyuk was poised to develop into that No. 1 center for which Canadiens fans had been waiting. After scoring a career-high 30 goals in 2015-16 as a 22-year-old, Galchenyuk stormed out of the starting gates in 2016-17, with 23 points in his first 24 games, playing primarily with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov that season. He then sustained a knee injury, which derailed both his season and, it turns out, his career.
The second No. 3 overall pick on this list (Kotkaniemi), Galchenyuk lasted one more season with the Canadiens before being traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi. It was the first of many subsequential stops, with Galchenyuk playing for six different teams in a span of four seasons.
Prior to rejoining the Coyotes for the 2021-22 season, he landed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he faced the Habs in the 2021 playoffs. While his tenure with the Canadiens was largely disappointing based on the potential to which he failed to live up, he did deliver one lasting positive memory, giving up the puck in Game 5 in overtime, leading to a two-on-zero odd-man rush the other way and a Suzuki game-winning goal to keep the Habs alive.
In fact, the Canadiens might not have gone on the run to the Stanley Cup Final they did without Galchenyuk. However, he ranks No. 2 on this list based purely on his 255 points in 418 games with the Habs, which still place second among all 2012 draft picks.
So, in spite of Galchenyuk’s failures, his successes are undeniable. He may have been drafted to become a No. 1 center, a role he may not have ever been given a fair shake at ever attaining, but he still contributed and served a key role on the Habs for a good half-decade. Still, fans must be left wondering what could have been, even if with regard to something else entirely relative to his knee injury.
Of course, as Galchenyuk was Bergevin’s first-ever pick, he arguably wasn’t even his pick at all, as he understandably deferred to his staff. Had he gone ahead with Morgan Rielly, who is a top-pairing left-handed defenseman, it would have solved many issues for the Habs down the stretch, including giving them someone to play with Shea Weber. It also would have altered the course of Bergevin’s tenure as a whole, likely with a different No. 1 overall on this list, as they wouldn’t have had any reason to select Mikhail Sergachev once upon a time.
#1 Mikhail Sergachev
Sergachev is another mobile, left-handed defenseman, who logically would have made a great partner for Weber. However, the No. 9 selection in 2016 played just four games for the Canadiens before he got traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Jonathan Drouin in a deal that has become one of Bergevin’s biggest mistakes as GM.
In Drouin, the Canadiens got a top-six talent, but a winger, which they had plenty of. Not so much left-handed defensemen, though. Sergachev would have been the answer for the Canadiens, whereas Drouin has failed to achieve a level of consistency necessary in a top-six role to keep at-time rabid Canadiens fans satiated.
Perhaps Sergachev would have similarly struggled to perform in the fishbowl market that is Montreal. However, as a member of the Lightning, he became a perennial 30-point scorer, which the Canadiens can sorely use, especially on the left side.
Even if you were to make the argument that anyone could score 30 points as a member of the Lightning, consider the fact that Sergachev contributed to two Stanley Cup championships, playing the third-most amount of time per game during each run (behind Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh… another former Habs draft pick).
While the Canadiens would probably love to have that McDonagh trade back as well, in the here and now re-acquiring Sergachev would be a bigger coup. It’s ironic, because playing the trade market is generally seen as Bergevin’s forte, whereas his drafting leaves something to be desired. Several names on this list, Sergachev most notably, prove there are still some significant success stories on that front.
Will These Newly Drafted Players Revive the Canadiens?
Hopefully for the Canadiens, the trend continues with recent drafts. Kaiden Guhle (No. 16 in 2020) specifically projects as a difference-maker on defense, while the much-maligned, controversial Logan Mailloux selection in 2021 (No. 31) can still pan out, at least theoretically.
Looking further back, Poehling (No. 25 in 2017) might be on the verge of both making the team and an impact in the not-too-distant future, alongside 2019 picks Mattias Norlinder (No. 64) and Rafael Harvey-Pinard (No. 201). Alexander Romanov (No. 38 in 2018) is already there there and just fell short of making this list.
The Canadiens have focused on building through the draft under Bergevin, and, even though it hasn’t paid off significantly, there’s reason for optimism that they’ve turned the corner. The draft may not be Bergevin’s strong suit, but a few home runs can make all the difference. He may have already hit them. Only time will tell.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.