The Canadiens chose Russian forward Nikita Scherbak from the Saskatoon Blades as their first-round pick in the NHL entry draft.
The 6-foot-1, 172-pound Moscow native led the Blades in scoring this season with 28 goals and 50 assists. He was named the team’s most valuable player and rookie of the year.
Ranked No. 15 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, Scherbak was still available when the Canadiens picked at No. 26.
“Obviously we had him higher than we picked him,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told TSN’s James Duthie.
“When he kept sliding, we made the decision to go ahead and make the pick,” Bergevin said.
“It’s someone that we feel has top-skill talent. He’s got a good frame that he can build up on. And with the success we had with Alex Galchenyuk and (Andrei) Markov, and (Alexei) Emelin, we feel that we have a good group of Russian players that could help.
Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting, told The Gazette earlier this week that he considered Scherbak “one of the more exciting players in his draft class.”
He’s “ultra quick” with an impeccable sense of timing to be open — “just to get the puck or take the shot. He finds the openings out there,” said Marr, who thought Scherbak would be selected in the Nos. 10-20 range.
“He’s one of the ones who can break away while he’s being checked, he can get the shot off while he’s being checked. He doesn’t seemed to be fazed by anything that you kind of throw in his way as he’s got the puck, going to the net,” Marr said.
“He really took to his teammates. They took to him.”
“This is a kid with NHL skills,” Marr said.
The Canadiens aren’t scheduled to pick again in the draft until No. 87.
The Florida Panthers hung on to their first pick in the draft, which started Friday evening, selecting defenceman Aaron Ekblad from the Barrie Colts.
The 6-foot-3, 213-pound Ekblad led defenceman this season in the Ontario Hockey League with 23 goals.
Ekblad was ranked No. 2 by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ekblad told TSN’s James Duthie at the Wells Fargo Centre in Philadelphia where the first round of the draft is underway.
“I believe that they’re an up-and-coming team,” Ekblad said of why he wanted to be chosen by the Panthers.
“They have one of the best defensive cores in the next couple of years in the NHL and I feel that this is where I can facilitate my development and I can help a team win a Stanley Cup in a few years.”
The Buffalo Sabres picked Sam Reinhart, a 6-foot-1, 186-pound centreman with the Kootenay Ice, with the No. 2 pick.
The Edmonton Oilers followed by selecting Leon Draisaitl, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound centreman from Germany who scored 38 goals and picked up 67 assists in 64 games this season with the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Calgary Flames chose Sam Bennett with the No. 4 pick. The 6-foot, 178-pound centreman with the Kingston Frontenacs was ranked No. 1 by Central Scouting among North American skaters.
The New York Islanders chose Oshawa Generals forward Michael Dal Colle fifth overall.
The Vancouver Canucks chose forward Jake Virtanen from Abbotsford, B.C. with the sixth pick.
The Carolina Hurricanes opted for a defenceman with the No. 7 pick, choosing 6-foot-2, 202 pound Haydn Fleury from the Red Deer Rebels.
The Toronto Maple Leafs used the No. 8 pick to select William Nylander, a 5-foot-9 forward from MODO in the Swedish elite league.
At No. 9, the Winnipeg Jets chose 5-foot-10 Danish forward Nikolaj Ehlers who plays for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
There was also trade news during the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
The Anaheim Ducks chose Nick Ritchie, a 6-foot-2, 226-pound forward with the Peterborough Petes, with the 10th pick.
The Nashville Predators selected Kevin Fiala, a 5-foot-9, 178-pound centreman who plays for HV 71 in Sweden’s Under-20 league. Fiala was ranked No. 3 by Central Scouting among European skaters.
With the 12th pick, the newly renamed Arizona Coyotes chose 6-foot-2 forward Brendon Perlini from the Niagara IceDogs.
The Washington Capitals landed Czech centreman Jakub Vrana, who played this past season with Linkoping in the Swedish Hockey League.
Finnish defenceman Julius Honka, who plays for the Swift Current Broncos, went 14th overall to the Dallas Stars.
The Detroit Red Wings chose 6-foot-1, 190-pound centreman Dylan Larkin 15th overall. A Michigan native, Larkin scored 31 goals with the U.S. under-18 team in 2013-14.
Sonny Milano, a 6-foot forward from Massapequa, N.Y, went 16th overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Philadelphia Flyers selected 6-foot-3, 181-pound defenceman Travis Sanheim from the Calgary Hitmen 17th overall. Sanheim shot up Central Scouting’s rankings of North American skaters from No. 167 on its mid-term list to 53 on its final list. (Others ranked him higher like The Hockey News.)
The Minnesota Wild chose forward Alex Tuch from the U.S. National Team Development Program with the 18th pick.
Offensive defenceman Angela DeAngelo went 19th overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. DeAngelo finished second in points on the Sarnia Sting this season, posting 15-56-71 totals.
The Chicago Blackhawks moved up to the No. 20th pick (through a trade with the San Jose Sharks involving draft picks) and selected Nick Schmaltz, a 6-foot forward who led the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers in scoring last season.
The St. Louis Blues selected Robby Fabbri, a 5-foot-10 centreman with the Guelph Storm, who was this season’s most valuable player in the OHL playoffs.
With the No. 22 pick, the Pittsburgh Penguins chose Kasperi Kapanen, a 5-foot-11 forward from Finland who was the top ranked European skater by Central Scouting.
Conner Bleackley, a 6-foot centreman and captain of the Red Deer Rebels went 23rd overall to the Colorado Avalanche.
With their second pick in the first round at No. 24, the Canucks selected Jared McCann, a 6-foot centreman with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The Boston Bruins chose forward David Pastrnak, who played this season for Sodertalje of Sweden’s second division, 25th overall.
The San Jose Sharks selected Sarnia Sting forward Nikolay Goldobin 27th overall.
With the 28th pick they acquired from the Lightning in a trade of draft picks, the Islanders picked Josh Ho-Sang from the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.
The draft continues on Saturday.
You can also follow Postmedia’s live blogging of the draft here.
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)