Canadiens Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Jason Menard

While the Canadiens’ gaze remains fixed firmly on the here and now, they’ve come to this season with the understanding that while the present looks promising, a deep and varied prospect pool ensures the future will be in excellent hands.

1. (1) Carey Price, G, 21 
2. (2) Ryan McDonagh, D, 19 
3. (3) Sergei Kostitsyn, LW, 21
4. (4) Max Pacioretty, C, 19 
5. (5) Ryan O’Byrne, D, 24 
6. (8) Jaroslav Halak, G, 23 
7. (7) Ben Maxwell, 20 
8. (8) Kyle Chipchura, C, 22 
9. (10) P.K. Subban, D, 19 
10. (9) David Fischer, D, 20 
11. (12) Matt D’Agostini, RW, 21 
12. (11) Yannick Weber, D, 19 
13. (12) Mathieu Carle, D, 20 
14. (NR) Danny Kristo, F, 18 
15. (14) Alexei Yemelin, D, 22 
16. (18) Pavel Valentenko, D, 20
17. (NR) Cedrick Desjardins, G, 22 
18. (7th MIN) Shawn Belle, 23 
19. (15) Brock Trotter, C, 21 
20. (16) Ryan White, C, 20 
 

1. (1) Carey Price, G, 21 
Acquired 1st round, 5th overall, 2005

With 41 NHL regular season games under his belt, the young B.C. native seemingly solidified his position atop the Canadiens depth chart. His combination of grace under fire and a cool demeanor led to comparisons to former Hab goaltending great Ken Dryden. Those comparisons were tempered, somewhat, by a so-so postseason performance, which served to remind people that — despite his mercurial rise through the Canadiens’ ranks — Price is still a 20-year-old, playing under arguably the hottest spotlight in Montreal.

However, his 11 post-season games should be considered a sacrifice upon the altar of future expectations. The Canadiens should benefit from the added experience Price earned between the pipes. In his 41 regular season games, Price posted a 24-12-3 record with a 2.56 GAA and a .920 save percentage. His post-season performance was up and down, with a pair of less-than-stellar outings followed up by an impressive stoning of the Boston Bruins in the final game of the first round.

Barring a catastrophic injury, Price will graduate from these rankings early in the season, and he is expected to play a significant role in the Canadiens’ future for years to come.

2. (2) Ryan McDonagh, D, 19 
Acquired 1st round, 12th overall, 2007

The Canadiens have placed a premium on blueliners over the past few seasons, and McDonagh represents the cream of the crop. Not only does he possess solid size on the blue line, at 6’1 and well over 200 pounds, but he represents the type of defenseman who’s prized throughout the league — a mobile, puck-moving presence with the ability to both start and finish the rush.

His skating has been described as "dimensional" by the team’s player development guru, Trevor Timmins. McDonagh is expected to anchor a strong University of Wisconsin blue line this year. He is also expected to play a key role on Team USA for the upcoming WJC, despite being left off the squad last season.

3. (3) Sergei Kostitsyn, LW, 21 
Acquired 7th round, 200th overall, 2005

The younger Kostitsyn brother enjoyed a coming-out party of sorts last season during the playoffs, when he was matched with his elder brother Andrei and played a key offensive role for the club. This season, he may play an even greater role right from the start as some expect Sergei to be shifted to the middle of the ice to center one of the top two lines.

Kostitsyn’s game is not just approaching elite status, but it’s also diverse. More gifted as a playmaker, the younger Kostitsyn is also able to put the puck in the net. But what’s most impressive to those watching him — and what enabled him to make the jump from the junior ranks to the pros in one season — is his skill in his own end. 

He plays a gritty game with an edge that one wouldn’t expect from a player with his offensive tendencies. And this season the younger Kostitsyn will be expected to build upon his nine goals and 18 assists in his first 52 NHL games. 

4. (4) Max Pacioretty, C, 19 
Acquired 1st round, 22nd overall, 2007

It’s no secret that the Canadiens absolutely love Pacioretty. In fact, despite completing only one season at the NCAA level, the club inked the offensively gifted center to a three-year contract.

While that means the Connecticut native forgoes his collegiate eligibility, it does allow the Canadiens to accelerate his development by matching him up against tougher competition — something Pacioretty showed he was more than ready for. He’s expected to contribute strongly to the Hamilton Bulldogs this season and could even see time as a late-season call-up to the big club.

Bringing offensive talent matched with solid size and grittiness, Pacioretty would be a welcome addition to a team that’s not overly big up front.

5. (5) Ryan O’Byrne, D, 24 
Acquired 3rd round, 79th overall, 2003

A mid-season injury set O’Byrne back, but during his inaugural season with the Canadiens he showed that he provides the club with imposing size and impressive defensive-minded play on the blue line.

Appropriately, the 6’6 rearguard broke his hand during a fight. While he was kept out of the lineup during the playoffs, O’Byrne should nail down a regular spot on the blueline, continuing the development that he enjoyed paired with veteran Roman Hamrlik during the last campaign.

O’Byrne is never going to be known for his offensive prowess, although he did contribute a one goal and six assists in 33 games. That said, his value to the club is weighted heavily on the pucks that he keeps out of his net, rather than the ones he could put in the opposition’s goal. And with a new three-year deal in his pocket, he has the security of the club’s faith in his continued development behind him.

6. (8) Jaroslav Halak, G, 23 
Acquired 9th round, 271st overall, 2003.

Halak ended last season as the Canadiens’ backup netminder, but showed during the playoffs that when called upon he could more than adequately fill the No. 1 role. 

The club is high on the value of internal competition, which makes Halak — who recently signed a two-year contract with the club — a valued piece of the overall puzzle. In addition to providing solid play between the pipes, Halak’s presence also will serve as a continual source of pressure on Price, ensuring that both players remain at the top of their game.

In limited action last season, Halak posted a 2-1-1 record, with an impressive 2.11 GAA and .934 save percentage. That performance was built upon an all-star campaign in the AHL. And despite the signing of veteran Marc Denis, Halak and Price should form the tandem at the NHL level and could remain that way for years to come.

7. (7) Ben Maxwell, 20 
Acquired 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006

The club remains very high on this Vancouver native, although injuries over the past two seasons have served to hamper his development. An elbow injury two years ago preceded a freak calcification problem in the thigh last year. 

Although Maxwell has only completed 39 and 31 games respectively over the past two seasons, his playoff performance last year showed many of the reasons the club is so high on the 6’1 forward. In 10 games, he scored six goals and added three assists, finishing the playoffs with a plus-six ranking.

This season, Maxwell will return to junior as an overager, hoping to make it through the entire season. And after registering 19 goals and 34 assists in just 31 games last season, many observers will be extremely anxious to see what a full season could bring.

8. (8) Kyle Chipchura, C, 22 
Acquired 1st round, 18th overall, 2004

Chipchura’s currently caught in the numbers game. After surprising many and starting last season with the Canadiens, he was sent back down to Hamilton less for what he couldn’t do and more for what others were doing. This season he is expected to battle for a fourth-line job and continue to develop his strong two-way game.

In 36 games, Chipchura scored four goals and added seven assists. His plus/minus rating was a passable minus-one, but his biggest deficiency came from taking faceoffs. Following his demotion to the AHL ranks, Chipchura posted an impressive 10 goals and 11 assists in 39 games. He has a strong chance of cracking the roster this season, depending upon which — if any — comparable veterans are retained this season. 

9. (10) P.K. Subban, D, 19 
Acquired 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007

The club anticipates that this will be a breakthrough campaign for the loquacious blueliner. He’s expected to play a key role on Team Canada this season at the World Junior Championships after spending most of his time on the nation’s gold-medal squad last year as a spectator.

Subban was unable to match his stellar second season in the junior ranks last year, scoring seven fewer goals and totaling 10 fewer points (albeit in 10 fewer games), but during the playoffs the offensively gifted blueliner showed his worth to his Belleville club and confirmed why the Canadiens are so high on his potential. In 21 playoff games, Subban performed at a better than point-per-game pace, totaling 23 points on eight goals and 15 assists.

In his fourth campaign at the OHL level, Subban is expected to become one of the league’s dominant blueline presences. Although not overwhelmingly large, he has a solid stature and is able to use his speed and excellent first-passing abilities to transition from defense to offense. 

10. (9) David Fischer, D, 20 
Acquired 1st round, 20th overall, 2006

The former Minnesota Mr. Hockey spent his first season at the University of Minnesota in 2006-07 languishing at the bottom of the club’s depth chart. Although he played in 42 games at the collegiate level that season, he only saw limited ice time — which also limited his production.

Last season was a little different. As a sophomore, he assumed more of a leadership role on the club and was able to contribute both on and off the ice. In 45 games, the blueliner scored two goals and added 12 assists. And this production came despite a tonsillectomy that resulted in his losing 10 pounds off his already slight frame.

At 6’4, Fischer has the height to be a dominant force. But at 185 pounds last season, he didn’t have the all-over body strength to do so. This year, the club is expecting a larger presence from Fischer — both literally and figuratively. Now entering his junior season, he’s looked upon as one of the club’s leaders and his offensive opportunities should increase. 

11. (12) Matt D’Agostini, RW, 21 
Acquired 6th round, 190th overall, 2005

D’Agostini is never going to blow you away with awe-inspiring displays of raw, unbridled talent. In fact, for the most part, you may not notice him — at least until he’s somehow chipped in with that key goal, or outworked his opponent to obtain possession of the puck during a key moment of the game.

D’Agostini’s commitment to the less-glamorous roles on the ice earned him a one-game call-up — ahead of other flashier, more marquee names in the Canadiens system. But this season the winger should play an even more significant role in the fortunes of the Bulldogs — especially now that Corey Locke is no longer in the organization. 

Steady and effective (21 and 23 goals in his first two professional seasons), D’Agostini will be looked upon not only to shoulder a larger offensive role, but also to serve as a team leader and mentor for some of the new talent coming to Hamilton, including Pacioretty and university graduate J.T. Wyman.

12. (11) Yannick Weber, D, 19 
Acquired 3rd round, 73rd overall

The Canadiens recently said goodbye to one Swiss blueliner, but it may not be long until another one cracks their ranks. Weber, playing for a Kitchener Rangers team that was built for the Memorial Cup, ended up opening a lot of eyes and wresting a leadership role on that club.

Not only did he shine on one of junior hockey’s best clubs, he also stood out at the WJCs, admirably leading his woefully undermanned Swiss club throughout the tournament.

Weber finished last season just shy of a point per game with 53 points in 55 games — including 20 goals. In the playoffs, he contributed 17 points in 17 games. 

As a result of his impressive 2007-08 campaign, Weber was inked to a three-year contract with the Canadiens over the summer, which should see him ply his trade in Hamilton this season.  He turns 20 later this month.

13. (12) Matthieu Carle, D, 20 
Acquired 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006

Carle’s jump to the professional ranks was not all that smooth, initially, as the young blueliner suffered a knee injury during his first training camp. However, once he got on the ice and got acclimated, he quickly became a key component of the Bulldogs’ offense.

In 64 games, Carle accounted for seven goals and 17 assists — steady but not spectacular numbers for a player whose game is predicated on offensive transition. That said, a sophomore season in the AHL should see him greatly improve those numbers and hasten his transition to the NHL ranks. He’s looked upon as a long-term solution at the point on the power play and has been described by those in the organization as a prototypical defenseman of the future. 

Good with the first past, a strong skater, and excellent in transition, Carle’s poised to make a huge jump in his development this season in Hamilton. 

14. (NR) Danny Kristo, F, 18 
Obtained 2nd round, 56th overall, 2008

Although the Canadiens ended up without a first-round selection in the 2008 NHL entry draft, it’s safe to say they’re delighted with their haul. While the acquisition of Alex Tanguay got the most immediate response, Kristo’s addition could prove to be the biggest steal long-term.

Kristo still has one more year of high school development ahead of him, even before breaking into the collegiate ranks (he’s committed to the University of North Dakota). He’s a high-motor player who skates like the wind and has a nose for the puck. In 47 games with the USNTDP Under-18 squad, Kristo netted 18 goals and added 13 assists. 

A young 18 (his birthday was just three days before the draft), it will be a few years before Kristo makes it — but the club firmly believes that it will be well worth the wait.

15. (14) Alexei Yemelin, D, 22 
Acquired 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004

The club remains high on Yemelin, but a series of questionable business decisions may have irreparably harmed his future with the club — and in the NHL as a whole. 

Last season, Yemelin was expected to come to North America to play with the Bulldogs. The Canadiens are strong supporters of European players coming overseas to acclimatize to the language, the culture, and the style of game on this side of the ocean. But after some cloak-and-dagger dealings with someone who came out of the woodwork to claim to be Yemelin’s agent, the blueliner has found himself under contract with Kazan Ak-bars.

While the idea of Russians playing in Russia isn’t bad, in Yemelin’s case it’s a case of right player, wrong league. Yemelin has the skills and the talent, but the style of game he plays results in him spending most of his time in the penalty box. His rugged style isn’t outside the rules in North American, but — fairly or not — he’s been targeted overseas.

Unfortunately for Yemelin, each year remaining in Russia means another year of development not just lost, but wasted. And with an impressive cadre of blueline talent coming up through the system, Yemelin could very quickly find himself the odd man out.

16. (18) Pavel Valentenko, D, 20 
Acquired 5th round, 139th overall

For everything Yemelin’s done wrong, Valentenko’s done right. He came over to the AHL last season and immediately made an impression — for better or for worse.  Not everyone likes the way Valentenko plays — especially those who line up opposite him. At 6’2, 220 pounds, Valentenko’s not afraid to throw his body around, although he has been known to put himself out of position with his desire to make the big hit. In 57 games, Valentenko contributed 16 points (only one goal) and added 58 penalty minutes.

In addition to the big hit, Valentenko’s also shown that he’s got a big shot. Last season he won the AHL’s hardest shot competition with a 102.7 mph slapshot. Valentenko just needs to work on his consistency. Once he’s learned the value of that, he’ll be a welcome (at least in Montreal) addition to the Habs blueline.

17. (NR) Cedrick Desjardins, G, 22 
Acquired Free Agent July 2006

Desjardins has scratched and clawed his way through the Canadiens’ system since being signed as an undrafted free agent from Quebec of the QMJHL. Since then he led the Canadiens’ ECHL affiliate to the league championship. This summer he was rewarded with a two-year contract from the club.

Following Yann Danis’ departure from the organization, Desjardins has a strong opportunity to be the starting netminder in Hamilton this season. Veteran Marc Denis was signed earlier this summer for insurance, and Loic Lacasse appears bound for Cincinnati (newly-drafted Jason Missaen will remain in the OHL), so Desjardins’ opportunity is upon him.

The Edmunston, NB native appeared in 22 games in the ECHL regular season last year and posted an impressive 16-4-2 record and 1.92 GAA. In the playoffs he performed equally as well, winning 11 games and losing only four en route to the championships. Desjardins also enjoyed some experience at the AHL level, getting into 12 games, posting a 4-4-1 record and a passable 3.04 GAA with a .908 save percentage.

18. (7th MIN) Shawn Belle, 23 
Acquired in a trade with Minnesota for Corey Locke, 2008

After years of frustration and anticipation, the Canadiens finally gave up on the former CHL player of the year when they traded Corey Locke to Minnesota for someone with a little more size in Shawn Belle. At 6’2, Belle provides the Canadiens with yet another physical presence on the blueline.

Belle, a former first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, was obtained by the Canadiens for both potential and organizational depth. A promising junior career has yet to translate into anticipated performance at the professional level and he will join a deep Hamilton squad looking to rebound from a less-than-stellar follow-up campaign to their 2006-07 Calder Cup championship season.

19. (15) Brock Trotter, C, 21 
Acquired as a Free Agent 2008

The Canadiens pounced upon the young center following his departure from the University of Denver. At the time of his departure, Trotter led the squad with 31 points in 24 games. In 21 games at the AHL level he scored nine points, including three goals.

With half a season at the pro level under his belt, the club is expecting Trotter to build upon the promise he’s displayed throughout his minor hockey career. Despite his small stature (5’9), Trotter is extremely strong from the blueline in and displays a strong nose for the net. He’ll also be counted upon by the Bulldogs to shoulder more of an offensive role with the club for the coming season.

Trotter was among a group of Bulldogs (including Carle, Valentenko, Chipchura, and D’Agostini who were called up by the Canadiens to tour with the club during its playoff run. The club has made a habit of doing this in order to provide their most promising players with a sense of the experience that they’ll encounter at the NHL level.

20. (16) Ryan White, C, 20 
Acquired 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006

White ended his junior career on a high note, scoring 17 points in 16 games during the Hitmen’s 2007-08 playoff run. Now, as a new member of the Bulldogs, he’ll be expected to bring the grit and goal scoring he’s shown throughout his career to the next level.

The Canadiens moved to obtain the rugged forward after he fell from a first-round projection to third-round status at the 2006 draft. They feel their patience will be well rewarded as White is projected as being a third-round energy forward, with the added benefit of knowing how to put the puck in the net. Don’t expect White to join the big club any time soon, though, as he’s expected to require a couple of years of seasoning — not to mention the fact that he’s in a deep organization.