The Montreal Canadiens truly value the experience players get both through participation in the World Junior Championships and CHL playoffs, believing that it contributes greatly to their ability to acclimatize to the pressure cooker that is playing for the bleu, blanc, et rouge. With a pair of blueliners currently in the OHL championships, one major award winner, and a handful of WJC participants in the fold, the Habs’ junior prospects are well on their way to suiting up for the Canadiens.
Of course, there are a few steps along the way and three of the six junior players will find themselves making the jumps to the pro ranks as their junior eligibility is complete. A fourth may join those ranks, but he’s still got a little thing like competing for the Memorial Cup on the horizon.
Olivier Fortier, 3rd round, 65th overall, 2007
In 67 games, the young forward scored 23 goals en route to 46 points – a drop from the previous season. However, the Rimouski Oceanic were quite pleased with his performance because his commitment to developing his defensive game earned him the Guy Carbonneau Trophy for the QMJHL’s best defensive forward.
Now Fortier needs to continue his development to get a shot at playing for the man after whom the trophy was named.
At a slight 168 pounds, Fortier needs to bulk up a little to handle the rigors of the NHL schedule, which would make Fortier a solid candidate for an overage season in the Q. But what has served the young forward well has been his willingness to realize his strengths and work to develop himself into the type of dedicated role player who’s so important at the NHL level. In many ways, Fortier could find himself pushing Maxime Lapierre for the role of defensive energy forward in the pro ranks.
Impressively, Fortier earned his defensive commendation playing for an Oceanic squad that gave up more goals than it scored and finished out of the playoff chase.
Ben Maxwell, 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006
Maxwell’s Kootenay Ice squad was bounced out of the WHL playoffs after 10 games, but it was another issue that occupied the young forward’s mind for much of the season.
Maxwell, who came back from an injury last season, was looking to prove his ability to stay healthy for an entire season to build upon the offensive prowess he’s already shown at the junior level. Unfortunately, a freak injury caused by a routine body check set him back again. Last year, wear and tear took its toll on the Vancouver native’s elbow; this season, a knee on thigh hit resulted in the development of a golf-ball-sized calcification in the thigh, for which there was no recourse but rest.
When he did return to the team, though, Maxwell performed well. Taking a while to get his legs under him, the 20-year-old forward scored nine goals in 31 games, adding 18 assists. These numbers represented a drop from his injury-shortened totals from last season when he scored 19 goals and 53 points in 39 games.
Maxwell also got better as the season wore on, approaching a point-per-game pace in the playoffs with nine points in 10 games. He also signed his first professional contract on Mar. 1.
Ryan White, 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006
White led the Hitmen to the WHL’s Eastern Conference championships, where they bowed out in four straight to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. And while this wasn’t the way he wanted his junior career to end, the disappointment of this season can add to that already-sizable motivational chip he already acquired to drive him to the next level.
Back in 2006, with some projecting him as a first-round selection, conditioning issues dropped him into the third round, when Montreal made a draft-day trade to move up and acquire his rights. Since then, White has worked to prove the doubters wrong.
While his overall numbers were down from last season (72 points versus 89 last year), he turned in a monster performance in the playoffs, leading an offensively challenged Hitmen squad with 17 points in 16 games. That bodes well for the Calgarian, as the Canadiens must sign the forward by June 1st to retain his rights.
Assuming he puts ink to a contract, White will most likely spend a couple of years in Hamilton working on the various aspects of his game and filling out his 6’0 frame to handle the rigors of the NHL. That said, a commitment to defense and his ability to find the back of the net (20, 34, and 28 goals over the last three season) project that the young forward will have the opportunity to play a strong, versatile role on a checking or grinding line down the road.
Cameron Cepek, 7th round, 199th overall, 2006
Injuries dropped the blueliner to the seventh round back in 2006, prompting the Habs to take a flyer that they had scouted early in that draft year. Unfortunately, injuries have continued to hamper the defenseman, making it tough to accurate gauge what – if any – future the Huntington Beach, CA product has with the club. Like White, Cepek must be signed by June 1.
After the past two injury-shortened seasons with the Portland Winter Hawks, an off-season claim by the expansion Edmonton Oil Kings appeared to be the tonic he needed to remedy his ailments. After seasons of 21 and 49 games, respectively, Cepek broke out with both a 58-game season and a 25-point performance. However, he still missed games with a groin injury, among other ailments.
With a deep prospect pool of blueliners, combined with the minimal investment the Habs have in this player, it’s hard to imagine that the Canadiens will offer anything but a minimal contract to retain his professional rights – and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be broken-hearted if he chooses not to sign. That said, the scouting staff liked what they saw in Cepek and felt that they may have chosen a sleeper in the seventh round – the question is whether the nightmare of injuries will ever allow this sleeper to live out his dreams.
P.K. Subban, 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007
Subban’s already got a professional quality when it comes to quotes – this year, he’s shown that he may have a professional-quality game to match the mouth.
The 18-year-old blueliner took his game to another last season in the playoffs, which prompted the Habs to take a long look at the defenseman. This year, he picked up right where he left off during the regular season and has found yet another gear in leading the Belleville Bulls to the OHL championships and a berth in the Memorial Cup.
Subban leads all blueliners in playoff scoring, with 21 points in 19 games to date. His 13 assists are also a league-leading total – matched by fellow Habs’ prospect Yannick Weber. Subban’s regular season was on par with last year’s breakout season, with eight goals and 38 assists in 58 games. He also showed an increasing willingness to mix things up with 100 penalty minutes during the regular season.
The young blueliner also gained some valuable experience at the World Junior Championships. While he did not play an integral role on the gold-medal-winning Canadian squad, he was a valued locker-room presence, acquitted himself nicely when he did see the ice, and has set himself up for an increased role at next year’s tournament.
Yannick Weber, 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2007 5’11, 19
This truly has been a breakout season for the young blueliner who the Habs took in the third round of the 2007 entry draft. Playing for the Memorial Cup hosts meant that Weber was assured of a long post-season experience – but his play showed that this was something he wasn’t going to take for granted.
In 59 games this season, Weber quarterbacked the Kitchener Rangers’ potent power play and was a strong two-way presence on the blue line. In the playoffs, despite being assured of a spot in the final round, Weber has taken his game to another level. In 17 games to date, the young Swiss defenseman has contributed at a point-per-game level, while displaying the steady commitment to two-way play that’s been a hallmark of his game.
The Canadiens’ scouting and development staff are very big on post-season experience and international competition as character-building endeavors. Weber has surprised many this year with the way he’s stepped up on a veteran-laden, built to win it this year club in Kitchener. Even more so, he was a clear standout at the World Junior Hockey Championships where he finished as one of the tournament’s top defensemen, despite being the only NHL prospect on his overmatched Swiss squad.
At 5’11 and 194 pounds, the 19-year-old blueliner has decent NHL size, but could probably stand to bulk up. Eligible for an overage year in the junior ranks, it wouldn’t surprise too many if Weber was ready to crash the party with the triumvirate of junior graduates and continue his development in Hamilton.