Draft Grade: Montréal

PWHL Montréal did their part to bring surprises, touching moments, and drama to the draft, while following up last year’s productive draft with another solid and promising group.

Draft Grade: Montréal
Anna Wilgren (center) poses with Montréal head coach Kori Cheverie (left) and general manager Danielle Sauvageau. Photo by Heather Pollock, via PWHL.

It would be difficult to follow up on the excitement of last year’s extremely unique PWHL draft, but Monday evening’s event was not without its surprises, touching moments, and drama. PWHL Montréal did their part to provide all three, while following up last year’s productive draft with another solid and promising group.

Round 1: Cayla Barnes, Ohio State, RHD

Round 2: Jennifer Gardiner, Ohio State, LW

Round 3: Abby Boreen, PWHL Minnesota, RW

Round 4: Dara Greig, Colgate University, LW

Round 5: Anna Wilgren, University of Wisconsin, LHD

Round 6: Anna Kjellbin, Luleå HF, RHD

Round 7: Amanda Kessel, USWNT, RW

How It Happened

On Monday afternoon, Montréal announced that they had signed Lina Ljungblom, the final pick of the 2023 draft, to a three-year contract. Ljungblom was named the Most Valuable Player in the SDHL this season, scoring 23 goals and 46 points in 36 games and helping MoDo to a second-place finish. She was the top-line center for MoDo, offering Montréal security at a position where they could have reason to feel some nerves.

In the first round, Montréal took defender Cayla Barnes from the Ohio State University. Barnes is only 25 years old, but she has already been to two Olympics and five World Championships with Team USA. She is certainly one of the most qualified defenders in the draft. After the draft, General Manager Danielle Sauvageau told reporters that the draft team was “very surprised” and “very happy” to find her available at the fifth pick.

Cayla Barnes shows off her offensive instincts at the 2023-2024 Rivalry Series.

In the next round, Montréal selected one of Barnes’ teammates on the Buckeyes, left winger Jennifer Gardiner. These are great picks because these are high-level players who play positions that Montréal very much needed to fill, but also because their selections led to this moment:

Vibe check? Passed.

When Montréal came on the clock in the third round, the draft team used a five-minute ‘timeout’ to take more time to discuss their pick. Eventually they chose to pick right winger Abby Boreen, who spent the last season as a reserve player for PWHL Minnesota while attending graduate school. With four goals and five points in nine regular season games, she has proven that she can play in this league and was projected to be taken in the first few rounds. In fact, it was projected that Minnesota would select the forward who already had excellent chemistry with their top six.

Was the pick a way to take some revenge after Minnesota used their third pick to select Erin Ambrose’s d-partner on Team Canada, Claire Thompson? Perhaps not. GM Danielle Sauvageau said that the team’s draft strategy was to fill their needs first, then take the best available player, and one could say that Boreen checked both of those boxes. Perhaps the draft team used those extra five minutes to argue about who the best available player was. Regardless, Boreen was a great player to take in the third round, and Minnesota fans will be sure to lodge their complaints that she was available.

In the sixth round, Montréal selected defender Anna Kjellbin, an alternate captain on SDHL champions Luleå and the captain of the Swedish national team. Sauvageau told reporters that one of the goals of the PWHL was to bring the best players from around the world to North America and allow fans to see them play on the regular. In picking Kjellbin, Montréal will not only get to show hockey fans a world-class player, but they got themselves a smart, experienced defender they’ll be able to trust on the back end. 

Montréal used their second five-minute timeout prior to making their last pick. With the grand slam of a final pick they made last year in Lina Ljungblom, this move raised the tension, and the payoff was huge when Montréal selected Team USA star Amanda Kessel. Most projections had Kessel going in the first two rounds, and her plummet through the ranks seems to be related to the rumor that she is in talks to become the next general manager of PWHL Minnesota. When asked about the pick after the draft, Sauvageau pointed out that players had until Saturday, June 8 to withdraw from the draft. She said that while she had not had the chance to speak to Kessel yet, she was eager to do so.

Did they fill their needs?

In my pre-draft article for Montréal, I described what kinds of players the team should be looking to draft at different positions, and for the most part my predictions held true.

Montréal indeed used one of their top picks to select one of the best defenders in the draft in Cayla Barnes. They also picked a defensively capable LHD in Anna Wilgren; Danielle Sauvageau called it “a good surprise” that Wilgren fell to Montréal in the fifth round. I also predicted that Montréal would use a late-round pick to take a defender that we would all say at the end of the year was a steal. Montréal took Swedish national team captain Anna Kjellbin in the sixth round; we can check back at the end of the year for the other half of the prediction.

Between their draft picks, their returning defenders, and their other players from this year, Montréal will be able to run a solid camp and have several strong options from which to build their defensive corps.

Up front, Montréal indeed used a top pick on Jennifer Gardiner and strengthened their depth at the position with left winger Dara Greig. While neither Abby Boreen or Amanda Kessel can really be described as ‘depth scoring,’ one could say that those picks, if signed, would improve depth scoring by forcing other talented scorers into depth roles. I can’t criticize a team for outperforming the brief.

I also predicted that Montréal would use their final pick on a player who may not play for them this year, but could contribute later. I’m going to say that the Kessel pick loosely qualifies here. If she does commit to a front-office role, then Montréal gambled and lost the 41st overall pick. If Kessel decides to continue playing as she has previously said she would like to, then this pick could turn out to be not only the steal of the draft, but the steal of the decade. That’s a favorable risk-reward calculation.

Draft Grade: A-

I can only find three critiques of Montréal’s draft plan, all of which may turn out to be non-issues. First, there is the potential ‘waste’ of the seventh round pick. If Amanda Kessel chooses not to play, then this would be a missed opportunity to select a forward who will play. Of course if she does play, this criticism does not apply, and even if she doesn’t, it’s not a huge miss as the team can still issue invitations to any player they like for training camp.

Secondly, it could be considered a slight overreach to take three defenders when the team already has a number of good options at the position. This is another missed opportunity to take a center, but as established, that’s not a huge loss. In favor of the decision, Montréal made excellent selections at what has been considered the weakest position in the league over the last year. Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, and Montréal feels very much in the running at this point.

Thirdly, Montréal didn’t draft a single French Canadian player or even someone who has played in a French market. Sauvageau told reporters in French that the team did have some players from Quebec on their draft board, but it was a question of opportunity and where they had the players ranked. She said they were very happy for Québec native Emmy Fecteau, who was drafted by PWHL New York, and would have liked to draft her, but she wasn’t available when they wanted to take her.

This is not a world-ending issue, but it may be upsetting to some fans. Of Montréal’s returning players, only Marie-Philip Poulin and Ann-Renée Desbiens are Francophones, though Erin Ambrose has some faculty with the language. Montréal had several Québec natives on the roster this season, and if they choose to bring back some of players like Ann-Sophie Bettez or Catherine Dubois, the local fans may be assuaged.

Overall, Montréal did an excellent job at this draft. They took players who play on the left and the right; they filled every position that felt weak; they took a gamble that could result in a huge payoff; and they left themselves areas to work on that they can easily fill in free agency and training camp.

In an interview after her selection, Cayla Barnes said that she took French in high school. If she or one of the other draft picks turns out to be passable in the language or can pick it up quickly, I’ll upgrade Montréal’s draft rating to an A.