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One Down, Six To Go: Kotkaniemi Scores!

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Pre-season is upon us and the Montreal Canadiens got things going against the New Jersey Devils last night, in a game that won’t be remembered passed then next game… except for Habs’ prospect and league’s third overall pick at the last NHL Draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who got a feel for what it’s like to score goals at the Bell Centre. And judging from his smile, it’s something he quite enjoyed and could get used to.

After the Devils, who were then leading 1-0 in the third period, got a goal called back – which should have counted by the way – the Canadiens took over the game with three goals in just over a minute and that was enough to bring hope to fans in dire need of something positive after a very disappointing season last year. Antti Niemi and Charlie Lindgren split the duty in net while Charles Hudon, Victor Mete – on a nice feed by Michael Chaput – and Kotkaniemi found the back of the net for the Habs. Unfortunately for the Canadiens however, rugged winger Nicolas Deslauriers left the game and was taken to hospital for precautionary measures after taking a solid right in a fight that he eventually won.

Mission accomplished

A few players stood out from the crowd in this game:

Charles Hudon was all over the puck and had a few solid scoring chances before eventually scoring from a tough angle.

The pairing of Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen was solid, picking up where they left off last season. Mete could have scored another goal but was robbed in the slot earlier in the game.

Michael Chaput is proving to be a very versatile player by winning puck battles, killing penalties and setting up Mete on a beautiful feed, all of that while playing a physical game.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi is gaining in confidence. Prior to scoring his goal, he set up Hudon with a nifty backhand pass. While far from dominant (yet), he was also solid in his zone and showed flashes of what he can do.

It will now be time for group B to show what they can do when the Canadiens take on the Florida Panthers on Thursday night also at the Bell Centre. Game starts at 7:30 PM and it is televised on RDS and TSN2. Go Habs Go!

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Jonathan Drouin – A Centre of Comparisons

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“Whether you’re trying to learn in hockey or trying to learn in life, I’ve always tried to be observant and tried to learn more, tried to evolve, whether it’s as a hockey player or as a person. With each year, I try to do that.” Do you know who once said that? A hockey player. But not just any hockey player. Only the best hockey player in the last decade. You guessed it, Sidney Crosby came up with this gem of a quote.

If there’s one player on the Montreal Canadiens who has been living by this quote this past season, it’s Jonathan Drouin. Catalogued as the most skilled French Canadian player to wear the Habs’ uniform since Vincent Damphousse last did back in 1999, Drouin’s acquisition was not without controversy amongst some of the fanbase, particularly those who can’t wrap their heads around the team’s importance to get local talent. The Canadiens gave away a bluechip prospect in defenseman Mikhail Sergachev in order to acquire him and that didn’t sit well with some.

Yet, after the trade, Lightning headcoach Jon Cooper had this to say:

To be honest, I thought Drouin was playing at the peak of his development by the end of last year. I remember when the trade officially happened, thinking, ‘Oh, boy, somebody is getting a player that’s starting to come into his own.’

The Canadiens, as we are well aware, went on to have a disastrous season, finishing 28th overall with 71 points. And to add insult to injury, team GM Marc Bergevin was, once again, unable to acquire a much needed top-6 centreman and as if the pressure of coming to Montreal wasn’t enough, the team decided to turn the young left-winger into one. The results were highly criticized by those who were not in favour of the trade but all were forced to admit that he did finish strong, getting 20 of his 46 points in his last 29 games, including a stretch of 13 points in his last 14 games of the season.

But when it’s all said and done, perhaps the best way to better analyse Drouin’s season might just be to compare him to some of his peers at that position. When looking at well established centremen with a similar offensive production, we might be able to put things into perspective.

NAME GP G A Pts Pts/GP Cap Hit
Derek Stepan 82 14 42 56 0.68 $6.5M
Nazem Kadri 80 32 23 55 0.69 $4.5M
Ryan Johansen 79 15 39 54 0.68 $8M
Paul Stastny 82 16 37 54 0.66 $6.5M
Jonathan Toews 74 20 32 52 0.70 $10.5M
Kyle Turris 76 16 35 51 0.67 $6M
Jonathan Drouin 77 13 33 46 0.60 $5.5M
Mikko Koivu 82 14 31 45 0.55 $5.5M
David Krejci 64 17 27 44 0.69 $7.25M

 

Looking at this, let’s ask ourselves: how many from that list were learning to play centre at the NHL level, on a new team to top it all off? Unfortunately, his GM’s inability to find a top-end centre again this summer will force Drouin to keep learning at that position. I don’t know about you folks, but I’m quite optimistic about his future. This is particularly true when considering that he’s only 23 years old. Go Habs Go!!!

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Time To Put Up or Shut Up For Habs’ Hopefuls

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North America, both in Canada or in the United States, is known as the land of opportunities. This is where people are entitled to dream. Where people can hope to make it big, whether it be in business, on the movie screen, in pro-sports. While in most environments, opportunity can come knocking at any time in one’s life, the same cannot necessarily be said in hockey, a league already known for giving chances to younger and younger players each year, or so it seems. For some of them, the window is already starting to close before they will have to make important decisions when it comes to their future in hockey… or elsewhere.

The Montreal Canadiens have a few of those players, those who have turned pro a few years ago. While every opportunity is important, this 2018 training camp is particularly crucial for a few Habs’ hopefuls as time is running out and other younger prospects are pushing hard behind them for their own opportunity. Let’s have a look at the most prominent in this year’s crop for the Habs, as they are getting ready to hit the ice for what could be the last time wearing the red, white and blue.

Byron Froese (1991) – C

After bouncing from the AHL with short stints in the NHL, he managed to crack the Habs’ line-up last season with a career high 48 games with the Canadiens. Sound defensive player, the fact that he is playing centre on a team desperately seeking help at that position helped him, but he did steal the job from veteran Torrey Mitchell. He is one who won’t be pleased to see Tomas Plekanec coming back and Matthew Peca coming into play. To make matters worse, Jacob de la Rose seems ripe for a breakout season. At 27 years of age, time is the essence for him.

Simon Després (1991) – LD

Després is a different kind of bird all together. Once seen as a top prospect with the Penguins and the Ducks, he already has just under 200 NHL games under his belt. Injuries, particularly concussion issues, have contributed to his set-back and the 27 year-old signed a Professional Try-Out contract so he’s a good gamble for the Canadiens and if anyone could help get his career on track, it might just be Joël Bouchard. The skills are there. The confidence and ability to put it all together is what’s lacking here.

Michael Chaput (1992) – C

Chaput has been on the fringe with both the Blue Jackets and the Canucks and at 26, the native of Île Bizard, QC, is hoping that some home cooking will have the same effect on him as it has on Nicolas Deslauriers. Standing at 6-foot 2-inches, he has the size, grit, determination and physicality to be a great agitator. Further, he is very versatile and can be counted on in all situations in all three zones. He signed a two year, two-way contract with the Canadiens this summer.

Kenny Agostino (1992) – LW

Agostino is a newcomer in the Canadiens’ organisation and the 26 year-old is a prolific points producer at the AHL level, but has yet to be able to put it all together in the NHL. Like the other players brought in this summer, Agostino has, you guessed it, a solid two-way game to his repertoire. His game is based on speed and the 26 year-old winger likes to play an up-tempo game.

Xavier Ouellet (1993) – LD

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Xavier Ouellet

Ouellet is perhaps Marc Bergevin‘s most publicized acquisition of the summer after Max Domi. Born in Bayonne, France, the former QMJHL star has 145 career NHL games under his belt with the Detroit Red Wings. The 25 year-old excels at moving the puck up ice. He has excellent mobility from the back end, as well as some offensive ability. He also owns an accurate point shot. Like Chaput, he and the Canadiens’ organisation are hoping that some home cooking will launch his career for good.

Hunter Shinkaruk (1994) – C

I hesitated putting a 23 year-old on that list but this will be Shinkaruk’s third team already. Recently acquired in a trade with the Flames for Kerby Rychel, Shinkaruk was once perceived as one of the Canucks’ blue-chip prospects. In his post-trade assessment of the trade which saw the youngster traded to Calgary, Canucks’ GM Jim Benning told the press that they had analyzed his goals in the AHL and figured that it wouldn’t translate to offense at the NHL level. Fans in Vancouver were very upset at Benning for trading him. It now remains to be seen if Bergevin hit a homerun with this one, or if it’s another one of his low-risk, possible high-reward moves.

Rinat Valiev (1995) – LD

Acquired from the Maple Leafs along with Rychel and the Leafs’ second round pick in 2018 (Jacob Olofsson) in the trade for Plekanec, Valiev owns excellent size (6-foot 3-inches, 215 pounds), plus the ability to use it to shutdown opponents as well as play a physical game. He does have some offensive ability. He is only 23 but the Canadiens’ defense is starting to get pretty crowded with guys with his abilities so he will need to step up his game in order to earn himself a spot.

Michael McCarron (1995) – C/RW

What hasn’t been said about McCarron that could be added here without sounding redundant? Again, we’re talking about a 23 year-old here but would a 6-foot 6-inches, 231 pounds towering forward with power-forward acumen clear wavers if sent down? In my opinion, the Canadiens need to stop trying to make him a centre and play him on the wing, where he can be more efficient. This will be a very important training camp for the Michigan-born young man, one that could very well determine his future with this organization.

 

Don’t believe the anti-Bergevin naysayers forks: the Canadiens’ organization is on the right path and even THEY know it. They simply don’t want to see him succeed for reasons that are well beyond hockey matters. The depth in the organisation is as good as it’s been in many years and the prospect pool is in the Top-6 in the entire NHL according to Corey Pronman, prospects specialist for The Athletic. With competition comes pressure to perform and with that, a team full of players who will have to give their all every day, not to lose their jobs to others who want it just as much. Go Habs Go!

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Top Candidates For a Break-Through Season

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Late August… Back to school sales are full on, as teachers and students are preparing for another year. Summer seasonal businesses are trying to squeeze in every last dollar before the long winter ahead. Hunters, like yours truly, are getting butterflies as they prepare their equipment for the upcoming hunting season, dreaming of a good harvest. And hockey fans are getting excited to finally see their team back on the ice, putting away summer speculation and see first hand the newcomers in action, dreaming of a long playoffs’ run comes next Spring.

Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin didn’t make as big of a splash as everyone seemed to expect by season’s end, as team captain Max Pacioretty, who will be entering the last year of his contract, is still a member of the Habs this late in August and it looks like they might just keep him. But gone is enigmatic Alex Galchenyuk, being replaced by hard-working Max Domi after a deal consumed with the Arizona Coyotes. In a separate deal, Bergevin made great use of his cap space as the Canadiens acquired Joel Armia, Steve Mason – whom the Canadiens bought out immediately – and a seventh-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft in exchange for 21 year-old defenseman Simon Bourque, who had 3 assists in 46 games with Laval of the American Hockey League last season.

 

It’s been a while it seems since the Canadiens held their rookies Development Camp where we got to see 40 of the team’s best prospects. And we will get to see several of them again as they will be invited to represent the Habs at the NHL Rookie Showdown 2018 in just a few weeks, the tournament being held on September 7th, 8th and 9th at Place Bell in Laval.

“This Showdown, featuring several promising young players from three Canadian teams, gives us an opportunity to monitor the development and witness the progression of the rookies within our organization in a competitive environment, while giving our fans a chance to see the Canadiens of tomorrow in action,” said Canadiens general manager, Marc Bergevin.

Ready to make an impact?

The NHL is a huge step from any other league in the world and players soon realize it. While playing in the NHL is a dream come through for most players, several of them are driven to making an impact on their team and having a long, successful career. There are always disappointments, players who simply cannot live up to expectations that they, or others, put on themselves. Then you have the surprises, the late bloomers who end up making their GMs and/or scouting departments look like geniuses. For higher picks, it’s just a matter of time to come into their own, find their game and reach the potential most had seen in them for a while now.

The Canadiens are no different. In their ranks, underdogs like Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher have found their niche in the NHL wearing the red, white and blue. Others like Carey Price and Pacioretty took a few years to find their game, only to become impact players in this league. But which of today’s crew are the next Gallagher, Byron, Price, Pacioretty?…

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Max Domi and Brendan Gallagher will be fun to watch this season.

The Canadiens form one of the NHL’s youngest teams, particularly at the forward position, and the vast majority of that group is reaching the age where they should be set to turn the corner in their career, become the players expect them to become. I’m purposely leaving out Domi and Jonathan Drouin who, by the new NHL standards, are considered ‘young veterans’, but both can certainly become impact players on this team. I would rather focus on a few others who, in my humble opinion, are on the verge of becoming key contributors to this Canadiens’ team, one in desperate need of fresh air after a very disappointing 2017-18 season. Here are my picks, in order, of the young players who will surprise many observers, particularly those who are already writing-off the Canadiens’ season:

5- Charles Hudon has been compared to Tomas Plekanec in the past and the veteran had taken the rookie under his wing last season, both literally and figuratively speaking. Plekanec is back for one last kick at the can and he will get a chance to further help Hudon who could very well copy the Czech’s career development. Plekanec had 9 goals and 29 points in his rookie season, and followed up with 20 goals and 47 points the following season. Hudon finished last season with 10 goals and 30 points… He has shown flashed of what he can do, he only needs to find a bit more consistency in his game and Plekanec is a great mentor, a true pro to follow.

4- After surprising everyone with 18 goals in his first season, Artturi Lehkonen is ready to bounce back from a rather disappointing second year in the NHL. If his last 15 games of the season are any indication, where he scored seven of his 12 goals, the young Fin should be able to make more of an impact, particularly that he is no liability on the ice and can be used in all situations in all three zones. While there is no doubt that he is a quality NHL caliber player, the jury is still out when it comes to his offensive potential and Habs’ fans could very well see him become a consistent 20-25 goals’ scorer on this team.

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Mike Reilly could open some eyes in Montreal this season.

3- Many look at Victor Mete when they think of young puck-moving up-comers on the Habs but Mike Reilly is, in my opinion, closer to having the biggest impact. More experienced, bigger and older, Reilly never got a chance to play quality minutes in a deep Minnesota defensive core and he showed some great things after the trade. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the Canadiens paid very little to acquire him folks, as for having seen him play for a full season here in Penticton, this guy is as talented as they come. It’s just a matter of confidence: from the coach to utilise him regularly, and from himself to believe in his game. He could very well be Shea Weber‘s defense partner when the All-Star defenseman comes back from injury in late-November, early-December.

2- What hasn’t been said about Nikita Scherbak? In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years,  here’s a summary for you: Scherbak has an excellent shot and sound goal-scoring instincts. Standing at 6-foot 2-inches, he has a good frame for the NHL, possesses very good speed and a very high hockey IQ. He also displays some grit and forechecking acumen, with deceptive moves that will keep opposing defenders on their toes. He had 30 points in 26 games in an injury-plagued season in Laval last season. He will come to camp hungry and ready to show that he can be counted on to produce points at the NHL level.

1- In Winnipeg, Joel Armia was playing on a strong team, one with tons of quality depth at right-wing, as he was over-shadowed by the likes of team captain Blake Wheeler and young sensation Patrik Laine. Playing in the Western Conference with limited ice time behind the players named above, combined with the low price paid by the Canadiens are all contributors to the ‘under the radar’ steal Habs’ GM Bergevin made in that deal, at least in the eyes of the team’s casual and not-so-casual fans and media members. Standing at 6-foot 3-inches, Armia has good size for the NHL game, plus the soft hands and instincts of a natural sniper. He knows where to be to score goals and he also has great two-way upside.

Not-so-long shots

There are a few other notables to keep an eye on for next season, but left out of my Top-5 list. One of them is young veteran Jacob De la Rose. The 23 year-old performed extremely well for Team Sweden at the World Championships, playing a key role helping them win Gold. Need I mention Victor Mete, who will be entering his second season at the tender age of 20? Because of the signing of veteran backup Antti Niemi, few give goaltender Charlie Lindgren any chance of making the big club but he is ready to make a strong push to earn an NHL job. Last but not least, the Canadiens are giving a chance to defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Simon Després, both who have shown some great potential before suffering set-backs in their young career. They both do have the skills to have a positive impact on the Canadiens.

As summer months wind down, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the warm weather, the sunshine, the beach and summer sports. But just around the corner is yet another hockey season where, hopefully, this fanbase can rally and cheer this team on together instead of following the lead of a few divisive fans and media personalities. Go Habs Go!