Canadiens Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Jason Menard

With a young goalie and four other prospects making an impact at the NHL level already, the future is now for the Montreal Canadiens

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Carey Price, G (1)
2. Ryan McDonagh, D (2)
3. Sergei Kostitsyn, LW (9)
4. Max Pacioretty, C (5)
5. Ryan O’Byrne, D (13)
6. Kyle Chipchura, C (4)
7. Ben Maxwell, C (6)
8. Mikhail Grabovski, C (11)
9. Jaroslav Halak, G (10)
10. David Fischer, D (7)
11. P.K. Subban, D (14)
12. Yannick Weber, D (NR)
13. Mathieu Carle, D (18)
14. Matt D’Agostini, RW (17)
15. Alexei Yemelin, D (12)
16. Brock Trotter, C (NR)
17. Ryan White, C (16)
18. James Wyman, RW (NR)
19. Pavel Valentenko, D (15)
20. Andrew Conboy, LW (NR)

1. (1) Carey Price, G, 20

Acquired 1st round, 5th overall, 2005

Price’s stay at the top of the Habs’ prospect chart is coming to an end due to his meteoric rise to the top of netminding depth chart.

This ascension – emphasized by the recent dealing of Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals – culminates a mercurial two-year span for the 20-year-old netminder. As predicted in the fall rankings, Price has taken over the No. 1 this year and met all expectations placed upon him by management. Even a mid-season demotion to the Hamilton Bulldogs was less about his play and more about lack of playing time.

“Carey’s a goalie who thrives on getting a lot of work,” explained Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens director of player recruitment and development. “He’s a guy who needs to play and play a lot and we were at a point in the schedule where he wasn’t going to get in a lot of games.”

Now the decks are cleared and Price begins his era as starter. He has posted a 16-10-3 record in 31 games, with one shutout. His 2.76 GAA and .913 save percentage are solid for a rookie, but beyond numbers, Price has played a key role in keeping the Habs atop the Eastern Conference standings.

In two years, Price has gone from junior star to World Junior Championship MVP to Calder Cup champion netminder to starting goalie in the NHL. At 6’3 and over 220 pounds, Price has the look of a No. 1. With a calm demeanor and steady hand; he has the right attitude. Now the only question that remains is whether this is the right time. A 4-1 record as the No. 1 goalie means that the early returns are positive.

2. (2) Ryan McDonagh, D, 18

Acquired 1st round, 12th overall, 2007

”He really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses in his game,” Timmins said about 2007’s first-round selection. “He’s a pretty solid two-way player, but [the University of Wisconsin Badgers] play a defensive system, so I’d say he doesn’t have the green light that often other players do.”

The 6’1, 203-pound blueliner has played well this season, scoring five goals, seven assists, and adding 34 penalty minutes in 35 games for the Badgers. But what Timmins likes best about him is something integral for the modern-style of blueliner.

“He has dimensional skating ability – he’s just a hell of a skater,” Timmins explained. “[Physically] he’s very much the opposite of [David] Fischer. He’s stronger than Fischer – he’s 6’1, but really put together.”

Timmins would reveal no timetable for when they’d like the Minnesota native to make the jump to the pro ranks, giving instead his common mantra.

“I firmly believe that a player must dominate at the level he’s at before they move to the next level,” Timmins explained. “You can’t quantify development – it all depends on the ice time they get, the situations they’re put in, and each team is different.”

The club will be anxiously awaiting the summer for McDonagh’s appearance at development camp.

3. (9) Sergei Kostitsyn, LW, 20

Acquired: 7th round, 200th overall, 2005

The long-awaited NHL meeting of the Kostitsyn brothers finally occurred – far sooner than most expected. Sergei and his brother Andrei (recently graduated from the prospect rankings) had rarely played together in the past. But with Sergei’s performance this season in the NHL, the foundation’s been set for a long and prosperous pairing.

“I’ve got to give kudos to the coaching staff for the London Knights [Mark and Dale Hunter] for teaching him how to play defensively,” Timmins said. “He has a pretty well-rounded game and [Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau] has had him killing penalties this year."

Kostitysn was called up earlier in the season and has refused to relinquish his roster spot. The Belarusian’s solid defensive play has been complemented by offensive flair. And at 5’11 and 200 pounds with solid skating abilities, he is holding his own at the NHL level. That said, Timmins explained he would like to see Kostitsyn hit the weights to improve his play. “He’s still a little light,” he said. “He will be able to finish stronger when he bulks up a little.”

After averaging a point per game with Hamilton (six goals, 16 assists in 22 games), Kostitsyn has contributed regularly with the Habs. In 38 games, the soon-to-be 21-year-old has nine goals and 11 assists. More impressively, for a young player, Kostitsyn is a +5.

Timmins is effusive in his praise of the forward. “He’s so smart and his hockey sense allows him to do so much,” he said. “He’s a good hockey player with good puck skills, and that allows him to play with players like [Saku] Koivu and [Chris] Higgins."

4. (5) Max Pacioretty, C, 19

Acquired: 1st round, 22nd overall, 2007

The second of Montreal’s two first-round 2007 selections has rebounded from injury disappointment at the WJC’s with Team USA to play a key role on his University of Michigan squad.

“He had a major setback [during the WJCs]. In the first period of the first game, during one of his first shifts against Kazakhstan he was hit knee on knee,” Timmins explained. “He was basically playing on one leg and he went from being on the first line and the first PP unit, to being relegated to fourth-line duty.”

However, he’s performed incredibly well during his rookie season with the Wolverines. In 31 games, he’s been performing at better than a point-per-game rate, with 14 goals and 18 assists, combined with 42 penalty minutes.

These numbers show a continuation of the robust style of play that endeared him to Habs’ brass last year with Sioux City of the USHL. In Pacioretty, the Habs feel that they’ve found their long sought-after power forward. And with a gritty style and ample determination, the future looks bright for this New Canaan, CT-native.

5. (13) Ryan O’Byrne, D, 23

Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2003

After a successful transition from the collegiate ranks to the AHL last season – which was especially evident in the playoffs – much was expected from O’Byrne. It’s safe to say the 6’6 blueliner exceeded all expectations and has become a much-needed physical presence on a Habs’ blueline.

“He had a big run at the Calder Cup and he played a lot of hockey,” Timmins explained. “We saw a big jump in his development after Christmas – he was gaining confidence to match his size and skating ability.”

Paired regularly with veteran Roman Hamrlik this year, O’Byrne has carved out a sizeable niche for himself on Montreal’s second pairing.

“Making a physical presence on our blueline?” Timmins laughed. “He already has – he broke his hand in a fight.”

Starting the season in the AHL, O’Byrne was a force – two goals, six assists, and a +4 rating in 18 games. In fact, the Victoria BC native was named to the Canadian AHL all-star team.

Now with the big club, O’Byrne is showing teams that entry into the Habs’ crease is no longer a free pass. In total, O’Byrne has five points in 23 games, is a +2, and has 30 minutes in penalties. But what he brings the club in toughness, solid positional play, and defensive ability only shows up on the score sheet in the form of a win or a loss – and with the team at the top of the charts, O’Byrne’s impact is being felt.

6. (4) Kyle Chipchura, C, 22

Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2004

With Chipchura’s maturity and leadership qualities, it’s easy to forget that the 6’2 center is only in his second full season as a professional. And while the transition, for the most part, has been smooth, Chipchura’s still going through the growth process.

After unexpectedly breaking camp with the NHL club, Chipchura (along with Price) was sent down to Hamilton, partly to work on faceoff deficiencies, but also to get more ice time. The fact that Chipchura remains in Hamilton is less of a condemnation of his play and more of the reality of being with a successful NHL club.

“He got caught in the numbers game,” Timmins explained. “The coaching staff wasn’t happy with faceoffs, although he was playing well defensively. Now everyone’s stayed healthy so we haven’t had a chance to bring him back up. Again, it depends on the numbers, but I expect he’ll be back up. Basically [Maxim] Lapierre’s played well and has taken his spot on the team.”

In his 25 games in the AHL since the demotion, Chipchura has displayed that strong two-way game, with six goals and 15 points. In 36 games at the NHL level, he had four goals and seven assists. But the fact that he’s somewhat stuck at the AHL level is not an indication of his personal abilities.

“Look at who was scratched [in a recent game]: [Bryan] Smolinski, [Tom] Kostopolous, and [Patrice] Brisebois – that’s a lot of NHL experience,” Timmins added. “It’s a good problem to have and it’s a testament to the depth we’ve developed.”

7. (6) Ben Maxwell, C, 19

Acquired: 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006

Don’t call him brittle, don’t call him injury-prone – just call him unlucky. A pair of freak injuries has set back the 6’0 Vancouver native’s development, but the club remains high on Maxwell’s talent and drive.

“He had a calcification in the thigh muscle – like a golf ball – and there was nothing to do but rest and ultrasound,” Timmins explained. “The first injury last year was just wear and tear on the elbow, the second was a knee on thigh hit. He’s just been unlucky.”

Since returning to the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, Maxwell has been rounding his game into solid form, with nine goals and 17 assists in 27 games. Although missing a large chunk of time (Maxwell only played in 39 games last year) has slowed his development, the extra time in the weight room may be a plus long term, Timmins explained.

“That’s what we’re seeing with Maxwell, coming back bigger, stronger, and more rested.”

Timmins said the extra time watching – and thinking – the game is beneficial as well.  “Maxwell really thinks the game well,” he said. “He’s a guy like Sergei [Kostitsyn] who can play with the top guys because of his understanding and knowledge of the game.

“By sitting out, it gives him a chance to see the game in a way you don’t on the ice. And when you come back, you’re more aware of what’s going on and why.”

Maxwell agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the Canadiens on March 1, 2008.

8. (11) Mikhail Grabovski, C, 24

Acquired: 5th round, 250th overall, 2004

While the club’s depth may be good overall, it does have a downside – especially when players feel they should be playing more. Sometimes frustration bubbles over and we may be seeing this with recent news concerning Grabovski.

The Montreal Gazette recently reported that the German-born forward left the club before a game against Phoenix to meet with his L.A.-based agent, reportedly due to frustrations about being a healthy scratch. He returned to the club, reportedly without facing discipline, and time will only tell where this goes.

Timmins remains high on the player, despite the emotional and physical setbacks he’s experienced.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Timmins said. “Initially he wasn’t able to get into the lineup on a full-time basis, so they sent him down to Hamilton to get ice time. In his first game he suffered a high ankle sprain, which we know takes a long time to heal.”

Since recovering from the injury, Grabovski scored eight goals and added 12 assists in just 12 games, earning him an eventual call-up. Yet the ice time remains scarce. “When winning, coaches are reluctant to change things up,” Timmins said. “We just needed to get him playing, but it’s a numbers problem."

In 16 NHL games this season, Grabovski hasn’t displayed the same prolific performance that he did in Hamilton. He’s accounted for only one goal and three assists, finding his way back to the press box. “He needs to work on his play without the puck,” Timmins added.

9. (10) Jaroslav Halak, G, 22

Acquired: 9th round, 271st overall, 2003

As expected, Halak is the Habs’ backup netminder. What was unexpected was the way he got there.

Beaten out by Price for the spot out of camp, Halak only returned to his expected role following the trade deadline deal of Huet. But it’s Halak’s play both last season at the NHL level and this year in the minors that was a significant factor in the Canadiens feeling comfortable trading the veteran Huet and leaving the club’s fortunes in the gloves of a pair of rookies.

“[Halak] was disappointed at the start and it took him a little while to get over [starting the season in Hamilton],” Timmins explained. “His game now is where it was last year.”

And last year was pretty good. The Slovakian netminder was a key component of the Habs’ eventually unsuccessful run for a playoff spot, going 10-6 with a 2.89 GAA. This year, he posted a 15-10-2 record behind a 2.10 GAA and .929 save percentage in Hamilton. In two NHL appearances this year, he’s posted a 1.50 GAA and .947 GAA – albeit only facing 19 shots in two appearances.

“He was biding his time,” Timmins said. “Both he and Price are in our long-term plans and they both want to be No. 1.”

But instead of causing friction, Timmins feels this drive can only benefit the team long term, again drawing a reference from his past. “Internal competition is good,” he said. “We had that in Ottawa with [Damian] Rhodes and [Ron] Tugnutt.”

10. (7) David Fischer, D, 20

Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2006

At 6’4, Fischer has the height of a solid NHL blueliner. But at 185, he hasn’t got the weight. And an early-season illness didn’t help things.

“In August he had his tonsils removed and he ended up losing 10 pounds before the season,” Timmins explained. “He spent a lot of time catching up.”

Fischer didn’t play much last year on a stacked University of Minnesota club. This year has been the opposite. “He’s playing for probably the worst Minnesota team in years,” Timmins said. “Despite being a sophomore, he’s taken on a leadership role this year and we’ve really seen an improvement in his play from the start of the year to this point.”

The club has long appreciated Fischer’s leadership qualities, often taking such a role over more highly-touted players, such as Kyle Okposo. And with two goals and 10 assists in 37 games this year, he’s far exceeded his five-assist production from all of last year. The offseason will be about putting on that needed weight.

11. (14) P.K. Subban, D, 18

Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007

Sure, Subban didn’t play a whole lot during Team Canada’s WJC victory, but Timmins was not worried.

“In speaking with the coaching staff they were pleased with his demeanor and abilities,” he said. “He should be proud of what he brought on and off the ice as a teammate. And if you look back at Karl Alzner last year, you’ll see he was in the same position.”

The player Timmins referred to as a “wild colt” last year has displayed the consistency for which the club hoped. He showed an ability to take his game to the next level during last year’s OHL playoffs, and this year – despite his overall numbers dropping a bit – he’s displayed a better overall game and leadership. This year, Subban’s seven goals and 34 assists in 54 games is slightly off the pace he set last year when he scored 15 times and added 41 helpers in 68 games.

12. (NR) Yannick Weber, D, 19

Acquired 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2007

This native of Morges, Switzerland is rapidly rounding into quite a nice prize for the Habs as a third-round selection. Not only is he a huge part of the OHL Kitchener Rangers’ success, but he was also the leading defensive scorer in the WJC – despite playing on a weak Swiss team.

“When he came to our training camp this year he really opened a lot of our eyes with his play,” Timmins said. “He’s really, really technically sound in all areas and he’s got a heavy shot.”

Weber’s put that heavy shot to good use, averaging just shy of a point per game with 20 goals and 53 points in 55 games. In addition, his 75 PIMs show he’s willing to get his nose dirty. “He’s really strong and thick,” Timmins said.

As the only NHL-drafted player on his Swiss squad, Weber received much of the opposing team’s attention. Add that pressure to the fact that Kitchener is poised for a deep run in the OHL playoffs, and Timmins feels these experiences are ideal.

“He’s being put into pressure and leadership situations, which will only aid him in his development,” he explained.

13. (18) Mathieu Carle, D, 20

Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006

Last year Carle went from a high-powered offensive club to one with a defense-first mentality with no discernable drop in play.

“He really moves the puck well and his transition game is excellent,” Timmins said. “He’s really enjoying success at Hamilton – he has such an ability to see the ice and move the puck up to forward quickly and with accuracy.”

A knee injury suffered in training camp set the blueliner back a couple of months, but he’s been making up for lost time ever since. In 47 games, he’s accounted for five goals and 15 assists. And with the depth the Canadiens now enjoy on the blueline, Carle will have the time he needs to bring his overall game to the level he needs.

14. (17) Matt D’Agostini, RW

Acquired: 6th round, 190th overall, 2005

What you see is what you’re going to get with D’Agostini. Rarely spectacular, he’s always in the mix during key moments in the game.

This year, his second professional season, D’Agostini is showing the consistency that’s been his hallmark. In 60 games so far he’s scored 17 goals, added 23 assists, and racked up 28 penalty minutes. Last year, in 63 games, he tallied 21 goals, added 28 helpers, and spent 33 minutes in the penalty box.

D’Agostini won’t be a star in the NHL when – and if – he gets there, but he will be the type of complementary player that every team needs to succeed – one that’s willing to do the dirty work and the little things.

15. (12) Alexei Yemelin, D, 21

Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004

Yemelin remains a mystery to the Canadiens. “I haven’t seen him at all,” Timmins said. “We’ve got no comment on the situation – he’s still under contract with Kazan. I guess we’ll try again this summer.”

The Habs thought they had Yemelin inked to come overseas this year and continue his development in Hamilton. Alas, some shady dealings, a mystery agent, and Kazan Ak-bars conspired to keep Yemelin in Russia – something the Habs didn’t find out until the last minute.

Unfortunately, each year Yemelin stays in Russia is another year he’s losing in development. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the league, but rather Yemelin’s style of play and the RSL don’t mesh.

“It’s a concern to us because he’s a physical type of defenseman and he needs to play a physical type of game,” Timmins said. “He can’t in Russia because his style of play is taboo. He spends all his time in the penalty box. It’s not helping his development there – he needs to be here.”

Will Yemelin sign with the Habs? Time and money are conspiring against him, compounded by the defensive – and less stressful – depth the club’s built up on the blueline.

And the question on everyone’s mind? Emelin or Yemelin? “In Russia it’s an E,” Timmins explained, laughing. “Here it’s a Y.”

16. (NR) Brock Trotter, C, 20

Acquired: Free Agent 2009 

Trotter is a potentially high-reward player signed as a free agent halfway through the year.

“Any time you get a chance to pick up an offensive player like Brock without giving up anything, you go for it,” Timmins said, adding that the Brandon, MB native had long been on the club’s radar. “I met him in his house with his parents and said if he wasn’t drafted as a 19-year-old, we’d be interested in him as a college free agent.”

After Trotter’s agent sent out a fax to all clubs saying that Trotter was leaving the University of Denver, the Habs pounced. “We had already done our homework and he had played minor hockey with one of our players – Ryan White.”

Although questions arose as to why Trotter was no longer a part of the Denver squad, Timmins said the club is comfortable with the fact that there are no character issues. “We do extensive background checks to be on the safe side,” he explained. “We found out through various sources that [Trotter]’s a very good person, so we had no hesitation in signing him.  He’s a hell of a hockey player.”

Trotter led (and still leads) the University of Denver in scoring with 31 points in 24 games, which included 13 goals. In his four games in Hamilton, he has one assist as he works his way back into game shape. Trotter had not practiced in three weeks before being signed by the Habs and assigned to Hamilton.

“His strength lies from the offensive blueline in,” Timmins said. “He’s like a [Ray] Whitney, although I’m not saying he is Whitney.”

As to why he was passed over in the draft, Timmins feels it’s a number of issues. “Maybe the first year was exposure, he missed most of the first year with a severed Achilles tendon,” he explained. “Last year may have been size – he’s 5’9.”

17. (16) Ryan White, 19, C

Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006

While the Canadiens were anxious to draft the young Calgary native back in 2006 – so much so that they maneuvered in the draft to obtain him, Timmins feels that patience is going to be required for those awaiting his chance.

“Whitey’s going to be more of a hard-nosed type of player in the league,” Timmins said. “He’s going to need some seasoning a the AHL level. There are a lot of good things to be worked on at the AHL level.”

White’s been a consistent offensive force at the WHL level, pacing the Calgary Hitmen with point totals of 53, 89, and 68 to date this year. He’s also consistently found his way to the penalty box with 121, 97, and 94 PIMs to date. Yet despite his hard-nosed, rugged play, White has stealthily avoided the injury bug, playing in 72 games the past two seasons and on pace for that total again this year.

Despite the offensive abilities, White projects to third or fourth-line duties – an energy forward with the ability to chip in where necessary. That said, Timmins hates to pigeonhole him right now. “It’s hard to say at this stage of his development where he’ll eventually be,” Timmins said. “But he’ll be in good hands [in Hamilton next year.]”

18. (NR) James (J.T.) Wyman, RW, 22

Acquired: 4th round, 100th overall, 2004

Senior year at Dartmouth appears to agree with James Wyman. A player with all the requisite gifts: size, speed, and strength, he’s finally putting them together.

“He’s on fire,” Timmins said. “He’s having a very productive year goal-scoring wise.”

In fact, in 27 games Wyman has already exceeded his collegiate high of 13 goals with 15 this year. Add 15 assists and he’s averaging over a point per game with 30 in total.

Timmins said the Habs weren’t pleased with how Wyman was used last year. “Last year he played half the time on offense and half the time on defense,” he said. “We weren’t happy with him playing defense. This year, he’s full-time on offense and he’s on a scoring tear.”

Long-term, the Habs are interested in seeing how he adjusts to the jump to the professional ranks. “We expect to see him in Hamilton – maybe even this year when he’s done,” Timmins said.

19. (15) Pavel Valentenko, D, 20

Acquired: 5th round, 139th overall, 2006

The young Russian blueliner’s first season in Hamilton is going roughly, but in a good way.

“I’d probably say he’s one of the most hated players in the AHL,” Timmins laughed. “He wants to make a big hit every time he’s on the ice. He wants not just to hit you, but to hurt you.”

Despite his aggressive play, with only 39 PIMs in 45 games, he’s not dirty. And at 6’2, 220 pounds, Valentenko’s got the size to make a few dents in people. Coming over to North America has been beneficial for his development.

“He’s made a commitment to us – he could be getting a lot more money in Russia, but he’s here and it’s paying off,” Timmins said. “He’s a character player.”

Beyond the big hit, Valentenko’s also got the big shot, recently winning the AHL’s hardest shot competition with a 102.7 mph blast – and while that booming cannon isn’t translating into goals, he is creating scoring chances, evidenced by his 12 assists.

“He really learns quickly and we’re just taking his development day by day,” Timmins added. “By Christmas he was the player who had improved the most according to his coaches.  At the start of the season he was taking too many risks to make the big hit,” he said. “We need him to be reliable every night to play in the NHL as a call-up.”

20. (NR) Andrew Conboy, LW

Acquired: 5th round, 142nd overall, 2007

“He’s tough,” Timmins described the 6’4, 200-pounder who’s terrorizing the USHL. In 49 games with the Omaha Lancers he’s racked up 168 penalty minutes – a big increase over the 105 he earned last year in a full season.

And as his penalty minutes increase, Conboy’s offensive numbers have decreased. After scoring 50 points, evenly split between goals and assists, last year, this year’s offensive totals have dropped to 14 goals and 20 assists.

Headed to Michigan State next year, Conboy may figure out it’s that offensive ability that sets him apart.

“Andrew is potentially able to fill that tough guy role on a team,” Timmins explained. “But you have to have guys who can play the game in that role.  He can play the game and play it tough.”

Missing the cut: Ryan Russell (17), Mathieu Aubin (18), Cameron Cepek (NR)