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.
A first meeting. They hadn’t even spoken yet. The ghosts of Canadiens past and future. pic.twitter.com/PzcIwIeybn
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) August 17, 2018
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?…
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.
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.
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!