Here we have it folks, hockey has returned! Players have worked their butts off all summer to come to camp in good shape and just about every team in the NHL thinks that they have a shot at making the playoffs, and therefore winning the Stanley Cup. In Montreal, they are hoping that a second injection of youth will have the same effect has it had last season, where the team had a 25 points improvement over the previous season. And this time, it seems like the talent is oozing from some of the rookies coming into camp.
No matter what some fans or media claim, you never know who will make the team and who won’t. Few had Jesperi Kotkaniemi getting picked third overall and even fewer gave him a chance to make the big club in his first year pro in North America. We know the rest. Same goes for Victor Mete who, at 20, was playing alongside one of the NHL’s best defensemen in Shea Weber, on the top pair. With that in mind, let’s have a look at the top candidates with the best chances to earn a spot on the 2019-2020 Montreal Canadiens.
We know that Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot will be there in early October, and Mete is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the team too. That leaves a strong battle for Brett Kulak, Mike Reilly, Christian Folin, Noah Juulsen and a handful of prospects to earn a spot on the Canadiens’ defensive brigade. Here’s a look at the most likely to cause a surprise:
51 – GUSTAV OLOFFSON
SCOUTING REPORT: Very good size and has puck-moving skills. Smooth skater and true all-round defenseman. His offensive ability is also on the rise and has good potential. Unfortunately, he had a season ending injury last season with the Laval Rockets after only two games, so we barely saw what he can do. He is healthy and ready to go.
64 – OTTO LESKINEN
SCOUTING REPORT: Mobile puck moving defenseman with good speed. Also has very good offensive acumen. A bit undersized for the NHL so needs to rely more on positioning to defend. He was one of the best defensemen at this year’s rookie camp and the fact that he’s left handed gives him a slight advantage, as it’s the weaker side of the Habs’ defense.
46 – JOSH BROOK
SCOUTING REPORT: Excels at rushing up ice with the puck, mostly due to great mobility. Very good at making accurate and quick first passes out of his zone. Positionally sound most of the time and a fairly reliable in his own zone. He was one of the last players cut last year and went on to have a stellar season.
83 – CALE FLEURY
SCOUTING REPORT: Good skater, he moves the puck well out of his zone. His progress was constant last season, his first as a pro, to the point that coach Joel Bouchard singled him as one of the most improved players on his squad from start to finish. He has some offensive upside and managed 23 points in his rookie year in the AHL.
The forward position is also one of contention and the battle will be fearced. Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Paul Byron, Tomas Tatar, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen pretty much have their permanent stall in the dressing room. We can also almost guarantee a spot for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, although some new youngsters are ready to battle hard to get his third line centre position. If the one nicknamed KK is ready for a 1st or 2nd line role, Domi will likely move to the wing. Otherwise, his spot could be in jeopardy… but it’s unlikely.
Newcomers Riley Barber, Nick Cousins and Phil Varone were added in the off-season as was Nate Thompson who signed after finishing the season in Montreal last year. They join Jordan Weal, Dale Weise, Charles Hudon, Matthew Peca in a tight battle for a spot. But they’re certainly not alone. Some young men are determined to take their job and some have a legitimate shot. Let’s have a look at them:
25 – RYAN POEHLING
SCOUTING REPORT: How can someone top a first NHL game like he had in the final game of the season last year? A hat trick and a goal in the shootout! Good size for the NHL, he is mature beyond his age. While he will never be confused with Paul Byron, he moves well on the ice for a bigger guy. Has very high hockey IQ and every coach that he’s had is raving on him. He is compared, at times, to Canadiens’ assistant-coach Kirk Muller. Coming from the NCAA, this is his first professional camp.
14 – NICK SUZUKI
SCOUTING REPORT: Plays a very mature two-way game for a young player. Is a talented playmaker who is also adept at finishing off plays himself. Due to his hockey smarts, he can be used with the game on the line and in defensive situations. He has done his homework and has gained weight and strength. One of the last cuts last year, the Habs asked him to play faster which he did as he went on to be one of the best players in the OHL.
34 – MICHAEL MCCARRON
SCOUTING REPORT: Is a towering presence up front who owns plenty of power-forward acumen. When he is on his game, he can overpower and dominate opponents all over the ice. Can play either center or wing. Is solid on face-offs. Lacks consistency and it became evident that his foot speed was lacking, something he’s been working on all along. He seemed to have turned the corner last season under the coaching of Joel Bouchard in Laval, but got injured and needed surgery. This camp could be his last chance in Montreal.
54 – CHARLES HUDON
SCOUTING REPORT: Is a natural with the puck, and around the opposing goal. Already displays some leadership skills and puts points on the board at lower levels. Owns a lot of scoring ability but struggling to put it all together at the NHL level. Does not have ideal size for the National Hockey League game, so he may face an uphill battle trying to become a top-six forward at the highest level. Likely his last chance in Montreal.
71 – JAKE EVANS
SCOUTING REPORT: Is a work in progress and was singled out by Joel Bouchard as one of his most improved players from start to finish for the Rockets. He started last year on the bottom-six in Laval and finished as the top line centre. His 45 points in 67 games were good for second on the team behind Alex Belzile. He can pass and he can shoot the puck.
60 – ALEX BELZILE
SCOUTING REPORT: Some players are born futur NHL players, others take a bit longer and that’s exactly what he has done. Is benefiting greatly from Alex Burrows‘ advices, he who too took a long time to develop. At 28, he doesn’t have many years left to prove his worth but his 19 goals and 54 points last season was his best AHL production so far. He’s a long shot for sure but when you can score goals, the coach will have a very close look at you.
As you can see, the competition was going to be tight just with players on one-way NHL contracts so when you add the youngsters coming in, the level promises to be at the highest it’s been in years in Montreal… and that is a good thing, a very good thing as the Canadiens will be in a battle for a playoffs’ spot once again. Go Habs Go!