Habs’ Prospects Making Decisions Hard

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.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi is now close to 200 lbs

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.

Notables

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.

Injuries

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

Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling

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!

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Habs Training Camp: Making a Push

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.

DEFENSE

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

Image result for gustav olofsson
AGE:24SHOOTS:Left
HEIGHT: 6’3″WEIGHT:194 lbs

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

Image result for otto leskinen
AGE:22SHOOTS:Left
HEIGHT:5’11”WEIGHT:183 lbs

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

Image result for josh brook
AGE: 20SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:6’1″WEIGHT:193 lbs

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

AGE:20SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:6’1″WEIGHT:205 lbs

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.

FORWARDS

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

Image result for ryan poehling
POSITION:C
AGE:20SHOOTS:Left
HEIGHT:6’2″WEIGHT:204 lbs

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

Image result for nick suzuki
POSITION:C/RW
AGE:20SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:5’11”WEIGHT:201 lbs

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

Image result for michael mccarron
POSITION:C/RW
AGE:24SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:6’6″WEIGHT:230 lbs

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

POSITION:LW
AGE: 25SHOOTS:Left
HEIGHT:5’10”WEIGHT:196 lbs

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

Image result for jake evans
POSITION:C
AGE:23SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:6’1″WEIGHT:181 lbs

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

Image result for alex belzile
POSITION:RW
AGE:28SHOOTS:Right
HEIGHT:6’0″WEIGHT:180 lbs

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!