Canadiens dream draft scenario comes to fruition with Ivan Demidov and Michael Hage

LAS VEGAS – For weeks, months even, the Montreal Canadiens were concerned it would not fall their way, that Ivan Demidov would be gone by the time they picked at No. 5.

They had a decent idea that the four teams picking ahead of them would probably not be taking him, but there was a possibility — a fear even — that another team would jump ahead of them and grab him.

And as it turns out, that fear was very real. It’s a good thing for them the Columbus Blue Jackets like Cayden Lindstrom as much as they do.

And Chicago was not the only team on that train.

That fear was so real, general manager Kent Hughes and executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton purposely did not attend the Gold Star camp in Fort Lauderdale last week, forgoing an opportunity to talk to Demidov, because they didn’t want to tip their hand, didn’t want other teams to know how much they liked him, how badly they wanted him.

In the end, there was never any doubt in the Canadiens’ mind that Demidov was the player they wanted. And this dated back even to last year’s draft when they took defenceman David Reinbacher with the No. 5 pick. They were hoping back then that they would be in a position to draft Demidov this year, and despite all the fear, all the concern, that’s exactly what happened.

“I said at the end-of-year meeting (with the media) that we needed to continue to add offensive firepower to our group,” Hughes said. “We always knew that; it’s not like we woke up at some point this year and figured that out. But we knew Rome wasn’t built in a day, that this was a process for us. We knew about Demidov last year, before we made our pick last year we were already pretty excited about this guy depending on where we ended up after the regular season.

“This week or two weeks leading up to it, and in particular the last four days, was probably the busiest we’ve been in terms of exploring if this happens, what do we do here? At one point Marty (Lapointe) looked at me and said, ‘You got this all written down? Because this is getting complicated.’ So, if you’re asking me of all the ways things could have played out today, this was option one for us. I would say it fell perfectly.”

Hughes was not only talking about Demidov when he said it fell perfectly. Being able to add Chicago Steel centre Michael Hage – headed to the University of Michigan in the fall – is also an important part of the equation, someone Hughes said has the offensive skill to one day play in Montreal’s top six.

Hage grew up a Canadiens fan, he wore No. 9 as a kid because his father – who died tragically a year ago in a pool accident – was a massive Canadiens fan and loved Maurice Richard. Hage speaks perfect French, or pretty close to it, because his parents were from Quebec and he went to French school. But more important than all of it is that Hage is a tantalizing forward prospect, a centre with length and skating and tons of potential.



Through ‘unimaginable’ loss, top 2024 NHL Draft prospect Michael Hage carries on

But this day was, with all due respect to Hage, about Demidov.

And if Demidov were not available to the Canadiens at No. 5, or if they were unable to move up to get him, there was a contingency plan sitting in their back pocket. There was a significant trade the Canadiens would have been ready to make – and it didn’t necessarily involve the No. 5 pick – if Demidov were not there, according to Hughes. It would have presumably been a trade for a forward, but the Canadiens didn’t feel the need to do it once they got Demidov because it “changed the dynamic.”

“We looked at a lot of different things, whether it be picks, whether it be players,” Hughes said. “But some of it’s influenced by who ended up being there at 5, because we don’t want too much duplication in terms of what our roster looks like. Had the draft fallen a different way, we may have done something different.”

The Canadiens feel they have a player in Demidov who, in some sense, completes a puzzle they have been working on for two years. The David Reinbacher pick at No. 5 last year is part of it, as it turns out. There was no way for the Canadiens to know they would be in a position to draft Demidov at that point, that they would have another top-five pick and the draft would play out the way it did, but that was the hope back then.

And when they finally had a chance to talk to Demidov here on Thursday, that feeling got locked down. Hughes said had that interview gone badly it would have “taken the wind out of our sails.”

But that didn’t happen.

“When you meet an 18-year-old who has a maturity, a clarity of purpose,” Hughes said, “I thought I was talking to somebody who could teach me something.”

The Canadiens came out of that meeting feeling similar things to how they felt after talking to Juraj Slafkovský two years ago.

“They have some things in common,” Hughes said. “The maturity at a young age, they both had confidence in themselves without being arrogant. Some guys are arrogant, and often people who are arrogant are that way because they lack confidence. Demidov, like Slaf, really has that confidence, and when you’re betting on a kid that has to leave Europe to come to Montreal, with a lot of pressure, like Slaf has gone through, it won’t always be rosy. It’s resiliency, to be able to take a punch and keep going. And we’re very confident that, like Slaf, (Demidov) has that in him.”

Demidov’s meeting with the Montreal media made that clear. His smile was impossible to knock off his face. He was comfortable expressing himself in English, a language he’s grasped in a year and a half, something he felt compelled to do because he knew his future would be in North America, playing in the NHL. But now, Demidov already realizes his language lessons may have been misguided.

“But now,” he said with a bug smile, “I think I need to start to learn the French?”

But when Hughes is talking about self-confidence, however, this is what he is talking about.

Demidov was asked if he felt he was a game-breaker. The answer came immediately.

“I think, yeah,” he said. “My idol in sports is Kobe Bryant, and this season I tried to take his Mamba mentality. What is the first word, instinct killer? And I think I won many games when I scored the winning goal. I think I can be a gamebreaker for Montreal.”

Yeah, that’s self-confidence. So is this.

“I think my play style is like Jack Hughes mixed with Kirill Kaprizov, like a combo,” Demidov said. “I think maybe a little bit of Nikita Kucherov’s skills, like his vision.”

Demidov didn’t seem the least bit intimidated with his media session, despite speaking in his second language, despite being surrounded by cameras. In fact, he seemed perfectly comfortable, almost in his element, and that was noteworthy.

But what was even more noteworthy to the Canadiens, and what was a big knock on Demidov this season, was the league he played in. The Russian junior league, the MHL, has been watered down in recent years, and Demidov had no business playing in that league. But despite that, despite being the best player on the ice – by far – in every single game he played this season, he never let that show. He always competed, always fought for pucks, always tried to win.

That resonated with the Canadiens.

“I think that’s really important at the end of the day, you’re not always going to have things fall your way in sport or life and the ability to deal with that type of adversity,” Hughes said. “I really believe if you’re a competitive hockey player, you might not like where you are, but that’s not going to change how competitive you are when you step on the ice. My wife and I fight when we play couples pickleball because she says I’m too competitive, that I can’t tone it down a little bit. But I think competitive people, you don’t turn it on and off.”

The Canadiens did not pull of a big trade Friday night – at least not for an NHL player – the way they had the previous two years. Hughes did not discount the possibility of pulling one off during Day 2 on Saturday, but ultimately, he didn’t seem to care much.

Getting Demidov was more than enough. And getting Hage was the perfect cherry on that sundae. The Canadiens had a clear need in their deep pipeline, and they addressed it.

(Photo of Ivan Demidov: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

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