Habs have interesting decision to make with third overall pick

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The 2017-18 season was a huge disappointment for the Montreal Canadiens, but they finally got some positive news on Saturday night, as they jumped up one spot in the draft. In June, GM Marc Bergevin will have an interesting decision to make with the third overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft.

Not winning the lottery after being one of the final three teams in the hunt for the top pick must have been deflating for the Habs, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ll have the opportunity to come away with a talented teenager. Rasmus Dahlin playing on a pairing with Shea Weber would have been nice, but that’s not going to happen.

So, now that Dahlin is out of the picture, where should the Canadiens go with their pick?

For a team like Montreal, trading the selection should almost be out of the question. Of course, they can always listen to offers from rival general managers, but unless there is a can’t-miss deal on the table, they need to hold on to the pick. As tempting as it might be to get immediate help in the form of a proven NHLer, teams have to consider the value of “cheap” entry-level contracts on their roster.

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The consensus top four players available in the upcoming draft are: Dahlin, Russian right winger Andre Svechnikov, Czech right winger Filip Zadina and Boston University left winger Brady Tkachuk.

Getting a talented winger isn’t a problem, but it doesn’t solve one of the Canadiens’ two biggest needs. First, they have two major holes down the middle. They don’t have a legitimate first or second line center on their roster. They drafted Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, but he’ll be heading back to St. Cloud State next season. When it comes to centers, Finnish prospect Jesperi Kontkaniemi is considered by many to be the best one available. Even though he’s been pegged as a top 10 pick by many, no one seems to have him as a top three selection.

Both Svechnikov and Zadina have shown an ability to find the back of the net. This season, Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, while Zadina 44 goals in 57 games with the Halifax Mooseheads. Tkachuk’s offensive numbers don’t stand out as much (eight goals in 40 games), but he’s a big power forward that has a good combination of size and skill. You know Bergevin will appreciate those attributes.

The other pressing need is a left-handed defenseman. Finding someone talented enough to play top-pairing minutes with Weber has been a problem. Again, there’s no one in the system that can fill that void right away.

There’s a plethora of young defensemen like Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, Noah Dobson and Adam Boqvist worthy of being selected in the top 10. Of those four blue liners, only Hughes shoots left.

But finding a true number one center has been a 30-year problem for this organization. Should they stick to taking the best player available, or should they reach a little for a potential top-line center with size? Many people would suggest simply taking the best player and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are examples of teams going against the grain to select a position of need.

The most recent example near the top of the draft occurred two summers ago, when the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had the third pick, selected center Pierre-Luc Dubois over winger Jesse Puljujarvi. Leading up to the 2016 draft, almost every draft expert had Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Puljujarvi as their top three selections. The fact that the Jackets opted for Dubois was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t an “off-the-board” selection because Dubois was still considered to be a high-end prospect, but very few people envisioned him going in the top three. Fast-forward two years an that selection has worked out pretty well for Columbus.

With Kotkaniemi making a push up most draft boards, it’ll be interesting to see how much he pops up on the Canadiens’ radar. He had a solid year at the Finnish league as a teenager, as he racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games. In his latest mock draft, TSN scout Craig Button said that Kotkaniemi “plays the game in a similar fashion to Anze Kopitar and to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.”

If the young Finn comes anywhere close to being Kopitar or Toews, it won’t matter how good the other draft-eligible players turn out to be.

Now, the Canadiens just have to decide whether or not that’s the direction they want to go in with this pick that they absolutely can’t afford to miss on.

A lot of front-office jobs are depending on it.

MORE: Buffalo Sabres to select No. 1 overall after winning 2018 NHL Draft Lottery

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.