Canadiens hit the biggest weekend of their offseason and Jeff Gorton is optimistic

LAS VEGAS — As Montreal Canadiens executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton made his way to a conference room Thursday at the Fontainebleau Las Vegas hotel, on the opposite side of the very same building, the finalists for the NHL Awards were walking the red carpet.

This was not a scheduling conflict, because the Canadiens didn’t have any finalists for those awards.

Gorton would like to change that at some point, a process that continues this weekend as the Canadiens juggle numerous balls in trying to kick their rebuild into another gear.

There is the matter of the No. 5 pick in the draft itself, and there is no point further debating that point because no one knows what the Canadiens will do with that pick, not even the Canadiens.

“I know Kent made a big speech about taking a forward to have fun with you guys,” said Gorton, referring to general manager Kent Hughes, who is usually the one speaking to the media on days like this. “It’s very hard. This is a day before the draft, there’s a lot of cameras here, a lot of people here, so to say what we’re going to do, I’m always uncomfortable with that.

“I do go with the philosophy of best player available, we’ll see how it plays out (Friday).”

That answer might be a clue as to why it was in fact Gorton and not Hughes talking Thursday. Gorton knows how to speak without really saying anything, and Hughes has not quite developed that skill yet. And this is a draft where the Canadiens, because of all the variance and unknown elements after the top pick, are very wary of saying too much.

But really, there was nothing anyone could have reasonably hoped to glean on the draft a day out, whether it was Gorton or Hughes talking. There were, however, two things that Gorton did reveal.

The first was that the Canadiens met with Russian winger Ivan Demidov earlier Thursday, and he seemed to like what he saw.

“We met him today for the first time,” Gorton said. “It was good, seems like a real good kid, he looks pretty fit. We didn’t have a ton of time with him, he was seeing a bunch of teams today, but he was a pretty impressive guy. His English was really good, so it was nice to get a conversation going. He seems pretty impressive.”

Neither Gorton nor Hughes went to Florida last week to attend the Gold Star camp where Demidov met with other teams. Chicago Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson and Anaheim Ducks GM Pat Verbeek, the holders of the Nos. 2 and 3 picks in the draft, were both there, but the Canadiens left it to director of amateur scouting Martin Lapointe and co-director Nick Bobrov to represent the team at the camp. Which, if you’re considering drafting a player at No. 5 and have an opportunity to talk to him for the first time, seemed like a strange decision.

“Our plan was to meet him here,” Gorton explained. “If a guy like that was skating, I think it was going to be to go down there. For most of it, Kent and I try to let Marty and Nick take the point on that and keep running, because they were out there seeing the players, and then we try to see them as much as we can. But I don’t want to be involved with driving the bus somewhere where it shouldn’t go. I want people to do their jobs.”

Fair enough, but it wouldn’t really be a case of management stepping on the scouts’ toes if they wanted to talk to a prospect they think they might draft with the No. 5 pick the very first opportunity they got. I don’t think it’s worth reading too much into it, I think the Canadiens are still considering Demidov at No. 5 if he’s still on the board, it was just a curious decision.

Gorton also threw cold water on the notion that since the Canadiens passed on Matvei Michkov last year they would necessarily do the same this year with Demidov, which was always an unwise assumption to make.

“It’s two different players,” Gorton said. “Obviously they’re both from Russia, but they’re two different players. You scout the players, you evaluate them. We’re in the business of finding the best players and that’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t think those two players are related. It doesn’t really have any bearing on what we’re going to decide (Friday).”

The Canadiens have no concerns on Cayden Lindstrom’s health. (Jonathan Kozub / Getty Images)

The second tidbit of info Gorton gave on the draft was that the Canadiens have reviewed the medical reports provided by Cayden Lindstrom’s representation and found no red flags. Lindstrom had a back injury that hampered him during the second half of the season, and the report provided to teams included the MRI of the original injury as well as other details of his treatment and recovery.

“Yeah, we’ve read all that stuff and everything looks pretty good there,” Gorton said.

So, the Canadiens are not necessarily taking a forward, they like what they see in Demidov but will trust their scouts on him, and see no issues medically with taking Lindstrom, despite the back issue.

Draft night, in other words, is wide open for the Canadiens.

But the draft is not the only way the Canadiens could add a player who might one day be walking the red carpet at the NHL Awards.

The trade market

The Canadiens have made no secret they would like to be active in adding a player via the trade route. While Gorton would not give a guarantee, he did say he is “confident” the Canadiens will keep the No. 5 pick to add a player that would reward them for the difficult season they just had. I would be stunned if they didn’t make the pick at No. 5.

But their pick at No. 26 is a different animal, and I’ve had the impression it would be a disappointment if the Canadiens used that pick to draft a player instead of packaging it in a trade, whether that’s to trade up or acquire more immediate help. But even on that, Gorton suggested the Canadiens are preparing to make that pick if necessary.

“The guys were fighting for hours on that pick today,” he said. “So that tells me that they like people, and there’s some depth there.”

Of course they’re preparing to make the pick, it would be irresponsible not to, but I still feel the preference is to use it in a trade.

One thing I’ve been wondering is just where the Canadiens stand in terms of what they have to offer compared to the market, which is already very active. For example, the Canadiens have a lot of draft capital to offer, including the No. 26 pick, but also all of their picks next year as well. The Washington Capitals acquired Andrew Mangiapane from the Calgary Flames on Thursday for a 2025 second-round pick. The Canadiens have two of those, as well as two 2025 first-round picks as well.

“We can’t sit here and say every year we’re going to take 12, 13, 14 guys and sign them all,” Gorton said. “That’s why you see over the years we’ve made some deals. You saw the (Alex) Newhook deal, you saw the (Kirby) Dach deal, so those are scenarios we’re going through back there.”

But the Utah Hockey Club has even more draft capital than the Canadiens, much more. So do the Chicago Blackhawks, just to name two clubs.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic where there’s more teams out there rebuilding, we all know who they are,” Gorton said. “And sometimes, you’re swimming in the same pools.

“We want to do this quickly and the right way and we want to be the best at rebuilding. Right? That’s the job.”

But Gorton still feels confident in what the Canadiens have to offer on the trade market, particularly their young, NHL-ready players.

“There’s a lot of teams rebuilding, so generally speaking, you’re not matching up so well with those teams unless you have more D, they have more forwards, something like that,” Gorton said. “But generally, you’re speaking to teams that are in a different situation than you.

“But I feel like we have a lot of assets. We have draft capital. We have good, young players. So, our phones are ringing. I’ve been in situations where we didn’t have that, and our phones weren’t ringing.”

Free agency

The Canadiens don’t intend on being big players when the free agent market opens Monday, but it sounds like they do intend on being players.

“Yeah, we’ve gone through those scenarios of what kind of players we might be looking at in that instance,” Gorton said. “We’ll see on Monday whether or not those people feel the same way we do.”

But people should not be thinking that means Jake Guentzel will donning Canadiens colours in the fall.

“I think it’s too soon (for a big name),” Gorton said. “We’ll look and see what those big names are thinking. They have to be thinking the same thing we do, too. We have a lot of young players that are developing and opportunities that they need to play. I wouldn’t want to stunt somebody’s growth for something that was an older player for a long-term deal, stuff like that, that would set back the rebuild.”

Basically, what that means is the Canadiens would be in the market for short-term help, a bridge free agent that could make them more competitive long enough for some of their young players to be ready to make a real impact. I would guess that would be forward help, considering what they already have on defence.

As an example, adding a forward that would not force the Canadiens to push someone like Joshua Roy into a primary role too soon, but could also be someone who could move back in the lineup and be comfortable with that if Roy shows he’s ready over the course of the season.

That’s a very specific type of forward.

Marty St Louis video scaled

Jesse Ylönen will hit the free-agent market on Monday. (Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

Ylönen will test the market

Finally, Gorton announced the Canadiens will not be issuing a qualifying offer to forward Jesse Ylönen, which means he will become an unrestricted free agent on Monday.

Ylönen has great tools, but he struggled to gain Martin St. Louis’ trust in the fourth-line role he was being asked to play, a role he probably isn’t best suited for.

This was not a case of the Canadiens cutting Ylönen loose, however, and more of a case of the player looking for a different opportunity, according to Gorton.

“We talked to his agent and felt like he needed a fresh opportunity somewhere else,” he said. “We’ll see how he does out there (on the market), if he goes out there and something doesn’t turn up for him, then it’s certainly a player that we know we could feel comfortable with going forward. But I think at this point in his career he wants to try something else, and we’re OK with that.”

(Top photo of Jeff Gorton: Vitor Munhoz / NHLI via Getty Images)

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