Top Candidates For a Break-Through Season

BreakThrough

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!

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Still Many Reasons for Optimism for The Habs

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The biggest mistake fans and media personalities make every year is to rely too much on the past season’s performances for their assessment of what the upcoming season will bring. While some veteran players can, for the most part, be counted on year in, year out, there are many factors to take into consideration and whether it’s done on purpose or not, too many are being overlooked. Injuries, team chemistry and development are some of the main factors regularly overlooked by most, and are key reasons for disappointing or over-achieving seasons by some players or even some teams.

Much has been said and written about the Montreal Canadiens’ off-season and most hockey “experts” and “not-so-experts” seem to place the Habs at the bottom of the league once again. This negativity is justified by the fact that team GM Marc Bergevin, in spite of address this need through the draft, has failed, once again, to find an immediate solution for his team at the centre position. An aging Tomas Plekanec – who will get to play his 1,000 NHL game in the Habs’ uniform – will bring some much needed depth at that position but he is no longer a top-6 player. It seems like the team will have to rely, once again, on Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault to pivot the top-two lines.

The forgotten – or ignored – intangibles are certainly present however. While loaded with skills, the inconsistency and lack of effort by departing troubled-child Alex Galchenyuk has been replaced with a true team-first player in Max Domi, who will bring a Brendan Gallagher-like type of effort, with more skills.

Pundits will also ignore that usually productive goals’ scorer and team captain Max Pacioretty had his worst season since 2010-11 and it’s very unlikely that, at 29, he will continue on such a slump. It’s also very, very unlikely that the NHL will see Carey Price, its best goaltender, allowing over three goals per game and barely reaching the not-so respectable level of .900 saves percentage. Those two alone will account to more wins for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge for sure and that, in spite of missing a couple of key pieces in their line-up to start the season.

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Carey Price / Max Pacioretty

Last but not least, people tend to forget that young players often do improve from season to season, something a bit mind-boggling to tell you the truth. Here are some of the team’s young players who, with the exception of Pacioretty and Price, should improve over last season based only on the fact that they have gained on maturity and, hopefully, in their development…

MAX DOMI

Much has been said about his goals’ scoring (or lack of there of) by those who were opposed the trade of Galchenyuk but let’s be realistic here: Domi is a great talent. He’s a more talented Gallagher and he has produced at every level. At 23, he’s only a couple of seasons removed from an 18-goals and 52 points rookie season. And you know that this guy will be pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team. My prediction is that he will rapidly become a fan-favourite in Montreal.

JONATHAN DROUIN

Yes, the transition to centre came with bumps and bruises for him, to the point of being unfairly judged as a flop by some of the fanbase, particularly those who hate Bergevin’s guts. But Drouin finished strong, with 20 points in his last 29 games, including a stretch of 13 points in his last 14 games of the season. Would it had been preferable to move him back to the wing? It’s my opinion that yes, Drouin would benefit from playing at his natural position but he has shown that he can improve over last season’s production even if utilized at the centre position.

ARTTURI LEHKONEN

After an 18-goals rookie season, the notorious sophomore jinx appeared to have hit Lehkonen last year, until he too caught fire towards the end of the season. He scored seven of his 12 goals in his last 15 games of the season so everything points into the direction of the 23 year-old bouncing back for the upcoming season.

CHARLES HUDON

One word would, in my opinion, describe Hudon: streaky. Still, in his rookie season, he finished with 10 goals and 30 points, showing good offensive attributes. As he gains in maturity, experience and confidence, he is one of my favourite candidates amongst young players to have a breakthrough season. He has the hands and the nose to the net to make it happen. He reminds me a bit of a former Habs, Christopher Higgins, in his style of play.

JACOB DE LA ROSE

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Jacob De la Rose (right)

We often forget that De la Rose is only 23 years old! Yet at the World Championships in the Spring, he played a key role for Gold medalists Sweden. De la Rose, who was playing in his first-ever tournament as a member of the Swedish senior side, logged 16:32 of ice time in the Gold medal game. That could very well have given him the boost of confidence he needed to take the next step in his NHL career for next season.

MIKE REILLY

Okay, I have a soft spot for Mike, having seen him play for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. He was, in my opinion, the best defenseman to wear that uniform since none other than Duncan Keith (who was 16 at the time though). I liked that acquisition by the Canadiens from day one and the potential is immense with this guy. I do feel like he can become a good top-4 defenseman in this league and he’s ready to take the next step… given the opportunity.

NIKITA SCHERBAK

This kid impressed from the day he spoke to the media at the draft after the Canadiens made him their first pick. He is excitable and he loves playing hockey. He did suffer a couple of setbacks, injury-wise, but he has the speed, the size and the skills to make an offensive impact in the NHL. I would be very surprised if Scherbak didn’t make the team and, by the same token, provide some much needed offense to a team in desperate need of just that.

JOEL ARMIA

Few know this guy and several downplayed his acquisition. Those people looked at the stats, forgetting that he was playing the wing behind Blake Wheeler and… Patrik Laine! Selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, Arnia still managed 12 goals and 29 points from his 6’3″ frame. I would not be shocked one second if Armia was the surprise of the year for the Habs.

You will have noticed that I’m purposely leaving out young defensemen Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Brent Lernout, all of which could provide a push and force Bergevin to unload some veterans in order to make room for them. Get excited Habs’ fans. Don’t let the Negative-Nancy on the Twitter-universe, radio sports show or garbage newspaper reporters get to you. There are many, many positive news to get anxious about for the upcoming season and we – those who cheer for the logo in front of the jersey – can sign along with the great Anakin Slayd!