The days are getting shorter. The nights are getting colder. The leaves are turning colour. It’s time to put away the swimming pool equipment and service the snow blowers in preparation for the long winter months. And hockey is back in full force across the NHL, the AHL, in Junior leagues and minor hockey across this beautiful country. Fans are getting excited and in Montreal, they are discovering the amazing job the organisation has done in drafting and developing those who, let’s admit it, were questioned more often than not when their names were called up at the Draft or acquired through trades.
“As a prospect, force me to make room for you in the lineup.” Those are Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin‘s words every single Fall to the team’s young prospects come training camp. Brendan Gallagher made him do it. Victor Mete did the same and just last year, while no one saw it coming, Jesperi Kotkaniemi forced Bergevin to be true to his words… and he did.
This Fall, there are four or five prospects showing that they not only belong in Montreal, but can be serious contributors to the Canadiens and who would force head coach Claude Julien into making some very difficult decisions each and every game. Those young men are pushing hard enough to question if they can play on the top-9 forwards and top-6 defensemen on the team, some of them making a case to play on the powerplay and/or on the penalty kill even. When was the last time so many young men all made a solid case to stay in Montreal? 1986 would be my guess… and we know what happened that year.
Making a case for themselves
Alex Belzile (RW) has been outstanding and at 28, he’s no typical rookie. Jake Evans (C) is smart, quick and was qualified by Laval Rockets’ coach Joel Bouchard as one of his most improved players last year. Ryan Poehling (C) is fresh out of College and in his first training camp, he’s proven that he can play. Nick Suzuki (C) almost made the team out of camp last year and he’s making another strong case this year. Cale Fleury (RD) has seen a steady progression in his play, finishing as the Rockets’ top defenseman last season.
Alexandre Alain (C/RW) was a project by Joel Bouchard and he has immensely improved over last year. Hayden Verbeek (C) came out of nowhere to show some great skills. Josh Brook (RD) is fresh out of junior and needs a bit of maturing under Bouchard in Laval. Otto Leskinen (LD) couldn’t make himself justice due to a shoulder injury but he’s close. Cayden Primeau (G) seems to be ready, or close to being ready, but a year or two in the AHL is a natural progression for the former 7th round pick.
Michael McCarron (C/RW) has no luck. He has improved immensely under Bouchard but is once again sidelined. Joel Teasdale (LW) was the Rockets’ top points getter and seemed ready to show what he could do. Gianni Fairbrother (RD) wouldn’t have made the big club but has shown enough at rookie camp to have a serious look. Noah Juulsen (RD) is a sad, sad story. Let’s hope that his eye and head get better. Gustav Olofsson (LD) was, in my opinion, one of the most likely to cause surprises but injuries decided otherwise.
On the bubble
Riley Barber (RW), Nick Cousins (C), Charles Hudon (LW), Matthew Peca (C), Philip Varone (C), Dale Weise (RW), Christian Folin (RD), Mike Reilly (LD), Charlie Lindgren (G). Some of those guys could still make the team, others have likely skated in a Habs’ uniform for the last time. Barber, Cousins and Folin are the most likely candidates to stick with the big club, depending on what the team decides what to do with the young prospects.
Possible opening day roster
Now before we start a debate on this, let’s just forget line numbers. With this line-up, you would have a top-9 interchangeable getting similar ice time. Then you’d have a fourth line with some special units ice time as well. So no line 1, line 2 or line 3. Fair enough? Well here is what it could look like, based on nothing else but merritt:
Max Domi – Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Nick Suzuki
Tomas Tatar – Phillip Danault – Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin – Ryan Poehling – Paul Byron
Artturi Lehkonen – Nate Thompson – Joel Armia
Spare(s): Alex Belzile, Jordan Weal
Victor Mete – Shea Weber
Ben Chiarot – Jeff Petry
Brett Kulak – Cale Fleury
Spare(s): Christian Folin
Carey Price – Keith Kinkaid
That’s a 23 men roster. Now look at the fire power for a team that has been lacking offensively for years now. Three lines that will contribute game in, game out, and a fourth line that’s defensively responsible but will chip in offensively too.
When you’re forced to have Lehkonen and Armia on your fourth line, it’s a sign of depth… quality depth. Those guys would be used on the upper lines based on games situations. For example, at the end of a game to protect a lead, Lehkonen could replace Drouin, Armia could replace Gallagher and Thompson could be place in defensive faceoffs for Kotkaniemi.
I do have two major concerns though. For one, I’m old school and I feel like there aren’t enough guys who can instate respect by dropping the gloves if or when need be. Yes, Weber can but he’s much, much better on the ice than spending five minutes in the penalty box. And two, the left side of the defense is adequate but not strong enough with Mete up there. He’d be better suited to a second or third pairing so Bergevin, so far, has failed to truly address that top pairing left defense.
Either way, no matter what decisions are made, this team promises to be fast, in your face and difficult to play against. And for the first time in a very long time, it seems to have enough quality depth to survive the inevitable injuries bound to occur during a long, grueling hockey season. They’ll be fun to watch folks. Go Habs Go!