The Montreal Canadiens head into the 2014-15 season with key positions up for grabs on their NHL roster. The battle between Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi is the most intriguing. The Canadiens two most promising prospects will compete directly for the opening on left defense. Whoever successfully wrestles away this opportunity will make a great leap toward developing into a top-pairing NHL defenseman.
General Manager Marc Bergevin has repeatedly expressed a preference for creating an atmosphere of internal competition, awarding playing time and roster spots to players who distinguish themselves. Just two years into his tenure, this meritocracy is emerging, not just on the NHL club, but throughout the prospect pipeline.
Top Pro Prospect
Nathan Beaulieu, D, Montreal Canadiens (NHL)/Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)
Beaulieu is a supremely gifted all-around defenseman and he seems to know it. A dangerous puck-mover, he is one of the best skaters in Montreal’s entire defensive corps. During his regular season call-ups, Beaulieu played with the same poise and confidence he displayed in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs. His finest moment came in the 2014 NHL playoffs. Facing elimination, Michel Therrien scratched Douglas Murray in favor of young Beaulieu. The move helped alter the complexion of the series, accentuating Montreal’s speed gap.
A major concern with Beaulieu is his attitude. After playing superbly in a call-up to Montreal, he was demoted back to Hamilton for further seasoning during the Sochi Olympic break. His response was reportedly pouty. His on-ice play in Hamilton lacked focus and ultimately regressed. It was an alarming enough reaction to management that they elected to leave him in the AHL throughout the remainder of the season.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Jarred Tinordi, D, Montreal Canadiens (NHL)/Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)
Where Beaulieu’s attitude might break his career, Tinordi’s character might be one of his most endearing qualities. The second-generation pro is a natural leader. He served as captain for the London Knights in his OHL days and captained several United States national teams.
Tinordi differs from the silky-smooth Beaulieu on the ice as well. At 6’6, 227, he knows exactly how to use his size to punish the opposition. He excels in front of the net, in the corners or anywhere else physical confrontation is inevitable. Although his finesse attributes do not rival Beaulieu’s, for his size, Tinordi possesses good skating, puck-handling and passing skills.
Because of the composition of Montreal’s defensive corps, Tinordi’s blend of skills may be a better fit than Beaulieu’s for Montreal in 2014-15. With PK Subban, Andre Markov, and newly signed Tom Gilbert, Montreal has a fleet of puck-movers on defense, capable of distributing and jump-starting the rush as well as any team in the league. However, they seem to be lacking that big body that clears the crease and matches up against the punishing power forwards in their division. Also, Montreal’s decision not to sign an enforcer suggests they will delegate these duties out among their roster players. This combination of needs is a load Tinordi seems uniquely qualified to carry.
Magnus Nygren, D, Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)
The 2013-14 season was supposed to be Nygren’s first in North America. The offensive-minded defenseman was slated to play for the Hamilton Bulldogs. He dressed for 16 games before bolting back to Europe, finishing off his season in Karlstad in the Swedish League. It was a curious sequence that never seemed fully explained.
This season, the right-handed defenseman and his blistering shot were back, attending training camp with the Canadiens. He was among the first cuts but Therrien had said he would play in North America which would seem to indicate Hamilton. Although he was a favorite to sit in the pressbox as Montreal’s seventh defenseman, this demotion makes sense. Bergevin constantly preaches about his requirement for character. Nygren will have an opportunity to prove his character this season in Hamilton.
Montreal’s first-round selection in 2014 carried his subpar Saskatoon Blades team throughout 2013-14. He scored 28 goals and 50 assists, almost doubling the point total of the second-leading scorer. As a Russian, the stigma of being a KHL flight-risk, dropped Scherbak’s stock to the late first round.
Scherbak’s game is eerily similar to Alex Galchenyuk‘s. Galchenyuk probably has a little more playmaking wizardry while Scherbak looks to shoot more often. He had an excellent training camp with Montreal leading to whispers about him hanging around for a nine game NHL audition. However, he was returned to the WHL with the first round of cuts. Scherbak was traded to the Everett Silvertips.
At the 2013 Entry Draft, Bergevin’s selection of McCarron left many scratching their heads. He had clearly reached for the 6’5 229 pound Michigan native. To many, it seemed that the Canadiens were overreaching in order to address the lack of size and toughness throughout the organization. Following the draft, McCarron signed with the London Knights in the OHL. His play was average at best, nowhere near meeting the expectations of a first round selection. His scoring touch was not evident. Even more alarming, McCarron did not show any sign of the physical dominance he displayed with US National Development Program.
To be fair, he battle through nagging injuries most of last season. McCarron had a strong 2014 training camp, using his size to his advantage playing against pros. However, he went down with a shoulder injury and is expected to miss six weeks. It is important for him to get over this injury and dominate the dirty areas in the OHL this season.
Brett Lernout, D, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
Like McCarron, Bergevin went off the board to draft this big, rugged defenseman. Not only did the Canadiens reach for Lernout, they traded away the 87th and 117th picks to Arizona in order to draft him at 73.
Lernout plays well in his own end but, in order to project him confidently as an NHL defenseman, he needs to display better puck skills. Defensemen who lack confidence with the puck in the CHL rarely pan out in any role in the NHL.
Top Amateur Prospect
Josiah Didier, D, Denver Pioneers (NCHC)
Didier is entering his senior year at the University of Denver. He will serve as a captain for a Pioneers squad looking to repeat as NCHC champions and qualify for a remarkable eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
At the collegiate level, Didier is a strong all-around defenseman. He abuses opponents in his own zone and distributes the puck very efficiently. In professional hockey, he may be able to develop into a dependable bottom six defender provided his physical dominance translate puck skills cope.
Colin Sullivan, D, Miami Redhawks (NCHC)
Sullivan missed out on a year of NCAA hockey last season. He attended Boston College in 2012-13 but, due to concerns about playing time, he elected to transfer. NCAA rules dictate players sit out a season when transferring, leading the defenseman to play with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. This season, he is enrolled at Miami-Ohio and fully eligible to play.
Sullivan has had trouble committing throughout his amateur career. Before attending Boston College, he committed to Yale, only to back out in hopes of playing in the CHL. He second-guessed this decision leading to his enrollment at BC. Sullivan should be a fixture on Miami-Ohio’s defensive corps this season. Hopefully, he proves to be more decisive on the ice in 2014-15.
Freshman to Watch
Hayden Hawkey, G, Omaha Lancers (USHL)
The aptly named Hawkey was Montreal’s sixth round selection in the 2014 draft following a stellar USHL season with the Omaha Lancers. He is committed to Providence College in 2015-16 where he could compete for appearances behind Jon Gillies (CAL).
Hawkey’s most valuable attributes are his athleticism and quickness. With Montreal’s tremendous depth in goal, Hawkey should be able to take full advantage of all four years of his NCAA eligibility to refine the technical aspects of his game. He will first however play one more season in the USHL, where he will be expected to see the bulk of the starts.
Top European Prospect
Artturi Lehkonen, LW, Frolunda (SHL)
Despite questions about his size, Lehkonen has been very competitive the past two seasons, playing against men in Finland‘s Liiga. In 2014-15, Lehkonen is stepping up to the SHL with Frolunda.
Lehkonen is an agile skater with a quick and deadly shot reminiscent of Michael Ryder. An instinctual forward, he has a knack for rolling out of trouble toward the soft spots in the opposition’s defensive zone coverage. Although he lacks strength, the winger never hesitates to engage physically, scoring more than his share of garbage goals. Still, adding some lower body strength would help dispel doubts in Montreal’s front office as they decide whether to invest in another small yet talented winger.
After a standout QMJHL career for the Gatineau Olympiques, Reway signed with HC Sparta Praha. So far, he has shown no need for a learning curve in his jump into professional hockey. In the inaugural Champions Hockey League, Reway has registered five points in four games.
Reway’s play in Europe may be difficult to measure. His skating and puck skills are already NHL-caliber. His size and strength remain in question. While the Czech Extraliga will be more physical than the QMJHL, it is nowhere near as punishing as the AHL or the more competitive European leagues like Liiga or the SHL. It may require AHL competition to reveal the presence and scope of Reway’s deficiencies.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Joonas Nattinen, C, MODO Hockey (SHL)
Despite playing with Hamilton in the AHL over the past three seasons, Naatinen decided to play in Europe in 2014-15. Montreal extended him a qualifying offer in order to retain his rights but his future with the organization remains questionable.
Nattinen came to North America touted as a disciplined defensive forward with the strength to excel in a cycle game. This billing held true but he never developed the offensive side to his game. Forwards with better pucks skills, like Michael Bournival, were chosen over him for call-ups. The simplest way to read this is that Montreal feels he is unlikely to develop into an NHL hockey player. The qualifying offer is nothing more than the Canadiens due diligence in case Nattinen’s development catches a second wind in Europe.