Young Blueliners Bringing Hope to the Habs

RaisingTheBarHabs

When Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin said, last Fall, that his defensive group was stronger than the one from the year before, it left many people rather perplexed. It didn’t take long for that group to prove their GM wrong as David Schlemko was on the injured list, newly signed UFA Karl Alzner was showing signs of being unable to keep up and Jordie Benn, who was outstanding for the Habs the season before, wasn’t the shadow of his old self.

And to compound the issue, All-Star goaltender Carey Price, usually a saviour in the Canadiens’ net, was having a horrible start to the season. It was later discovered that he was struggling from chronique fatigue syndrome, and a concussion later in the season put him on the shelf once again. Backup goaltender Al Montoya didn’t fair any better and was later traded to the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to the game against the Buffalo Sabres, only six teams in the NHL have allowed more goals than the Habs.

Further adding to the team’s porous defense is an anemic offense, as coach Claude Julien‘s team is third in the league in offensive futility, as only the Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes have scored less goals than them. Brendan Gallagher is the team’s leading points getter with 45 points in 74 games.

Young defensemen

As the season progressed and with the team out of playoffs’ contention, the Habs’ management is able to test the development of some of their top prospects by bringing in some of the Laval Rocket’s players. Charlie Lindgren was given a shot during Price’s injury, as did Nikita Scherbak, Mike McCarron, Jacob de la Rose and Daniel Carr at forward.

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Victor Mete

The biggest tests, however, seem to be at the Canadiens’ blue line. Surprisingly, 19 year-old Victor Mete spent the entire season with the Canadiens and he has shown that he can play in this league. The Woodbridge Ontario native won’t turn 20 until June and he pretty much has a spot on the team comes September.

Brett Lernout has been impressive since being called up. Standing at 6-foot 4-inches tall, he is an imposing physical presence with remarkably good mobility for a guy his size. The 22 year-old Winnipeg native is keeping his game simple and is a pleasant surprise so far. He is on the cusp of playing full time in the NHL.

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Noah Juulsen

Another player who has been a very pleasant surprise since being called-up is Noah Juulsen. Growing up in Surrey BC, Juulsen’s favourite player was former Vancouver Canucks’ Kevin Bieksa and we can certainly see some of the same qualities, a mobile, hard-nosed defenseman. Turning 21 in a couple of weeks, he still needs to fill-in a bit as at 175 lbs for his 6-foot 2-inches frame isn’t quite heavy enough for the rigorous NHL season and competition.

 

It is unfortunate that Rinat Valiev, the 22 year-old Russian defenseman the Canadiens obtained from Toronto in the Tomas Plekanec trade, has been injured two games into his first stint with the club as he is a big, mobile defenseman on the left side. Depending on how young Bergevin wants to get on the blueline and what he will do with the likes of Schlemko and Benn, Valiev could cause some pleasant surprises at camp next Fall.

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Mike Reilly

Perhaps the most impressive to the fan base but not to yours truly, Mike Reilly is finally given an opportunity to show what he can do. When you play behind the likes of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, your ice time and chances to showcase what you’ve got is rather difficult. I was fortunate enough to have watched Mike play here in Penticton for a full season and I remember thinking that he was the best talent playing for the Vees since… Duncan Keith! Don’t get me wrong, he won’t be the new Keith but he does have a lot of the same skills, while giving a fifth round pick to get him is a steal of a deal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him given a chance, along with Mete, to be paired with Shea Weber next Fall.

It is highly doubtful that the Canadiens’ brass would want to start with such a young line-up but as it stands right now, the youngsters have outplayed some of the veterans and do deserve a chance to show what they can contribute.

Reilly/Mete – Weber

Alzner – Petry

Reilly/Mete/Valiev – Juulsen/Lernout

So if someone tells you that there is no future talent in Montreal, do yourself a favour and ignore them. It’s far from the truth. Go Habs Go!

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Cap Situation Handcuffing The Habs

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Remember the good ol’ days when there was no salary cap? When the richest teams could outbid everyone else to get all of the marquee free agents by throwing ridiculous money at them? And it worked so well… NOT! Baseball is ridiculous with some teams spending four times more on payroll than others. The NHL salary cap, in spite of making it difficult to complete trades and to fix teams’ mistakes, is there to stay and for good reasons.

Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin finds himself in a difficult position to start the 2016-2017 season, as he finds his team with approximately $1.4 million dollars of projected cap space with a roster of 22 players (14 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goaltenders), according to generalfanager.com. Granted, the team might decide to go with 13 forwards and/or seven defensemen to start the season, giving a bit more room under the cap, but those cuts are likely to be rather small salaries (relatively speaking) anyway.

Yet, rumours keep circulating through traditional and non-traditional media to the effect that Bergevin is still trying to tweak his line-up for the upcoming season. Just days ago, François Gagnon on RDS wrote that the name of Nathan Beaulieu was circulating around the NHL and Bergevin, just like he did with P.K. Subban, did nothing to appease the rumours:

“My job is to improve the team. Nathan (Beaulieu) is not being showcased, to borrow a hockey expression, but I have received calls and yes, I’m listening to what other teams have to offer. It’s my job to listen, analyse. Nathan is a good young defenseman. We still don’t know what role he will play in the NHL. If I want to improve my team, I must move players who have value. That’s exactly what I did when trading P.K. (Subban) to acquire a guy like Shea Weber. You get nothing for nothing in the NHL.” ~ Marc Bergevin

But what exactly could Bergevin be looking for to improve his team? For one, the Canadiens have been tied to rumours about defensemen for quite some time. While they did improve defensively with the Subban and Shea Weber trade, many believe that this move is showing a “win now” attitude. The Beaulieu rumours would go along those lines, particularly that the Habs have been linked to UFA Kris Russell and more recently, Kevin Shattenkirk, more experienced defensemen.

Another question mark on the Canadiens is the team’s ability to score goals and that, even with the addition of Alexander Radulov who, let’s face it, is a question mark at this point. There is a blatant hole on left wing, behind Max Pacioretty, particularly if Alex Galchenyuk plays at centre. While Sven Andrighetto has shown some good things, is he ready to have an impact on the top-6 on a regular basis?

Rookies

As we’ve explored in a recent look at the team’s Top-12 prospects, there are some very interesting young guns who might be ready to step in this season, due mostly to the fact that Bergevin is building through the draft as he said he would. But on a team where it seems like “win now” is the attitude, it leaves huge question marks. With rookies also comes the learning curve of NHL play. The calibre of play will go up from rookie camp to the main camp. It will go up a couple of notches during exhibition games and will seriously rise when the NHL season starts. And the hockey being played in the NHL in October won’t be at the same level as what will be played comes January. There is no telling how rookies would perform and continue to develop at that point.

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Artturi Lehknonen

Many, including Saku Koivu, seem to feel like Artturi Lehkonen is NHL ready. What no one can predict is at what level he can contribute. While he did well against men in the Swedish Elite League, this is the NHL, the highest calibre of hockey in the world and it’s being played on smaller ice surfaces.

Michael McCarron is also showing great signs and he came close to making the big club as a rookie last year. He showed up at rookie camp at 226 lbs, which is 10 lbs lighter than last year at the same time. He adjusted his diet and training regiment this summer in order to be faster on the ice, speed being a bit of a question mark about him. He will be battling hard for a position but again, can he produce on offense regularly?

Another outstanding rookie trying to make the big club is Nikita Scherbak, who scored a beauty in the rookie tournament against the young Penguins. He has the size and speed, and we know that the talent is there as well.

 

Creating cap space

How exactly could Bergevin do this without creating huge holes in his line-up? That’s the dilemma that he’s faced with at this point.

He could try to trade away some contracts. Rumours have circulated around Alexei Emelin and his $4.1 million cap hit for some time, but he’s still there and one would think that had he had to be traded, it would already be done by now. He is also one of the few physical defensemen on the team so one has to wonder if trading him would make the Canadiens too soft defensively.

Tomas Plekanec had five goals in his first six games to start the season last year. Bergevin extended him for two years at $6 million per season (without a NTC) and he then scored 9 goals in his last 76 games after that. But if you were to trade him, you create a huge hole as the team isn’t rich on points producing centres at the time of writing those lines. While I personally would like to see the Canadiens get bigger up the middle, if you trade Plekanec, you must get another points producing centre in return, which is unlikely.

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David Desharnais

Many (myself included) are puzzled at the fact that David Desharnais is still with the Canadiens. Either the Canadiens are oblivious at what he has shown last year, or they simply couldn’t find a taker for him, which I’m hoping is the case. Buying him out would have freed-up just over $2 million of cap space, but would have added $1.2 million to buyout cap for the next two years, for a team which is already hit with $1.3 million this year for Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau‘s buyout. Unfortunately, the buyout window closed on June 30th.

While this team is much improved from last season, I’m not convinced that it can be considered a contender just yet. If the attitude is “win now”, something has to be done and Bergevin still has some serious work to do. Trades are difficult to complete during the season with so many teams tight against the salary cap. But once some teams start struggling off the gate, we could start seeing some action. That usually starts happening in November. In the meantime, we might just have to see what direction the Canadiens’ brass decides to go, perhaps seeing how those young guns have progressed.