Canadiens Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By Jason Menard

For a club that’s long professed staying the course and developing from within, the 2009 off-season represented a marked departure in philosophy. The Habs overhauled their roster, their coaching staff at all levels, and parted with their top prospect in return for the long-sought-after No. 1 center.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Max Pacioretty, LW 7.5 B
2. Ben Maxwell, C 7.0 B
3. P.K. Subban, D 7.0 B
4. Yannick Weber, D 7.0 B
5. Louis Leblanc, C 7.5 C
6. Matt D’Agostini, RW 6.5B
7. Mathieu Carle, D 7.0 C
8. David Fischer, D 7.0 C
9. Kyle Chipchura, C 6.0B
10. Danny Kristo, RW 7.0 C
11. Joonas Nattinen  6.5B
12. Alexei Yemelin, D 6.0 B
13. Steve Quailer, RW 7.0 C
14. Mac Bennett, D 6.5 C
15. Alexander Avtsin, RW 7.0 D
16. Ryan White, C 6.0 B
17. Brock Trotter, C 6.0 B
18. Olivier Fortier, C 6.0 B
19. Maxim Trunev, RW 7.0 D
20. Robert Mayer, G 6D

1. (2) Max Pacioretty, C, 20
Acquired 1st round, 22nd overall, 2007

The Canadiens have long been searching for that oversized pivot thought to be needed to take them to the next level. And while some may have criticized General Manager Bob Gainey’s decision to bring in marquee — but smaller — free agents, the fact that this rugged center is ready for the spotlight had to have factored into his thinking.

At 6’2 and over 200 pounds, Pacioretty has the size to make and impact up front and he’s blessed with offensive instincts that complement his willingness to engage in rugged play. while he finished last season with just three goals and eight assists in 34 NHL games, he should be poised to make a significant jump in his contribution this season.

While the club has big expectations for this former first-round selection, he won’t be rushed.
This season, with the comprehensive overhaul of the lineup and his versatility, there should be plenty of opportunity for Pacioretty to fill some of the void. Pacioretty should find his way to the third line right away, but don’t be surprised if he rapidly finds himself in the top six.

2. (3) Ben Maxwell, C, 21
Acquired 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006

Maxwell will be looked upon to fill the offensive void left by the departure of Yannick Lehoux and others in Hamilton, and should find the back of the net more than he did in his impressive 22-goal, 58-point (73-game) rookie campaign.

His seven-game sojourn with the Habs should also help his confidence. Look for Maxwell to be among the club’s first call-ups in the event of injury at the NHL level. The young North Vancouver, BC native showed that he could handle the physical rigors of the game, participating in a full campaign after two junior seasons disrupted by freak injury. 

3. (5) P.K. Subban, D, 20
Acquired 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007

Subban managed to receive as much ink for his on-ice play last season as he regularly did for his off-ice personality, and now the 20-year-old blueliner looks to make a successful transition to the pro ranks. 

The Habs’ revamped blueline leaves little room in Montreal for a blueliner to crack the ranks. Even if a prospect does, it’s likely to be Yannick Weber. However, Subban’s managed to vastly improve his defensive play, while assuming a key role both with his junior club and the gold-medal winning Canadian junior team. 

He was named top blueliner in that tournament and has seen his stock rise. Subban is gifted offensively, but questions remained about his commitment to defense. Those questions were answered in part last season, and he’ll likely be called upon to work on that part of his game this year. He’s also displayed leadership qualities, which are well regarded within the organization.

Subban probably won’t see much, if any, action in Montreal this year. He’s behind Weber and Mathieu Carle in the call-up order, but he’s likely to be a key part of the club’s offensive game plan from the blueline in the not-too-distant future.

4. (9) Yannick Weber, D, 20

Acquired 3rd round, 73rd overall

When the Canadiens needed help on the blueline last season, specifically in terms of a power-play quarterback, they turned to this 20-year-old Swiss defenseman. He’ll likely be in the mix for one of the club’s seven spots this season, although if he’s not in the top six, he’ll likely be sent down to Hamilton to gain more ice time.

One advantage that Weber (and Ryan O’Byrne) have in the blueline competition is that the Habs are overloaded with left-handed defensemen. Weber shoots from the right side, and that would be an advantage in balancing the play from the point — especially with the man advantage.

Weber showed that he’s well-versed in all aspects of the game and combines this with a solid offensive game. He’s an excellent passer and has experience on the power play.

5. (NR) Louis Leblanc, C, 18
Acquired 1st round, 18th overall, 2009

The 18-year-old Pointe-Claire native was overjoyed to be selected by his hometown club. But it will be a while before the six-foot center dons the bleu, blanc, et rouge.

Leblanc’s offensive game is solid and he looks to develop at Harvard. He’s also a candidate to join Team Canada at this year’s World Junior Championships. Leblanc’s game is extremely highly regarded, which is evidenced by the fact that although he decided against going the Canadian junior route, he was still invited to the national team’s camp.

Last year’s USHL rookie of the year is looking to make a similar immediate impact with the Harvard squad. Leblanc will benefit from the seasoning he’ll receive at the collegiate ranks. However, Harvard fans shouldn’t grow too attached as Leblanc could follow the development path of Pacioretty.

6. (8) Matt D’Agostini, RW, 22
Acquired 6th round, 190th overall, 2005

D’Agostini recently signed a one-year deal with the Habs, and the highly-regarded winger brings grit and a surprising scoring touch to the club. 

Many have been surprised by D’Agostini’s rapid rise through the ranks since his selection in the sixth round of the 2005 draft. However, while not as skilled as some of the other players on the list, D’Agostini plays with heart and dedication, and will be a valuable part of this club for years to come.

With all the new players added to the Habs roster this season, D’Agostini will be hard-pressed to make the club out of camp, but he should benefit from another year in Hamilton. 

7. (10) Mathieu Carle, D, 21
Acquired 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006

The Habs’ defensive corps at the NHL level seems fairly set and it will be a challenge for the young blueliner to crack the lineup coming out of training camp. 

With 22 assists in 59 games last season, Carle showed the offensive flair that appealed to the club when they selected him in the second round of the 2006 draft. He’s also a solid option on the power play, but has yet to take his game to that next level. A couple of head injuries set him back a little last year, and he’ll be looking to remain injury-free this season, while dominating the point and playing a key role on the Bulldogs’ power play. 

Paired with Weber on the man advantage, Carle should help Hamilton lead a powerful power play unit and will likely see some action in Montreal as an injury replacement.

8. (8) David Fischer, D, 21
Acquired 1st round, 20th overall, 2006

Fischer suffered through a couple of injuries last season, including a damaged tendon and a torn thigh muscle. This year, his senior campaign with the University of Minnesota, he’s packed some more pounds on lanky 6’3 frame.

The club remains high on their former first rounder and the former Minnesota Mr. Hockey has slowly but surely progressed in his development. He’s going to play a key role on the Gophers’ fortunes this season and will almost assuredly find his way to Hamilton after his collegiate campaign — and career — is complete this year.

Things do look promising for the Minneapolis native. In 31 games, his 13 points were only one off his collegiate high set the previous season over a full campaign. If he can avoid injury this season, his numbers should be well above the standard he’s already set.

9. (6) Kyle Chipchura, D, 23
Acquired 1st round, 18th overall, 2004

Chipchura’s approaching make-or-break time with the Habs. While the club continues to appreciate his leadership and maturity, he’s remained stuck in a numbers game. Unfortunately, he’s been unable to prove unequivocably that he deserves a roster spot above other comparable players.

In 51 games last season, he showed a flair for the offensive game to complement his superlative defensive play. He scored 15 goals and added 21 assists in 51 games with Hamilton last year, but was only held to three assists in 15 games of spot duty with the Habs. Chipchura also found himself as a press-box regular last year and needs to use this year’s training camp to show that he’s ready for a regular role on the big club.

10. (11) Danny Kristo, RW, 19
Acquired 2nd round, 56th overall, 2008

Kristo’s already been introduced to the Canadiens way through his experience with the development and rookie camps. This season, he’s going to have a daily reminder of what the future may hold in store for him. Not only will Habs’ seventh-round draft pick Michael Cichy join him as a freshman at the University of North Dakota, he’ll also room with the 2008 second-rounder.

Kristo played with Team USA at last season’s World Junior Hockey Championships, and he’ll be expected to assume a much larger role as a returning veteran. 

Kristo’s known as a goal scorer, but this year — especially at Team USA’s development camp — he’s shown that he’s worked on his speed and all-around aspects of his game.

In 50 games last season with Omaha, he scored 22 goals and finished with 58 points. As a freshman, he should bring a strong offensive component to North Dakota’s offense and, despite his underclassman status, looks to assume a leadership role on this club.

11. (NR) Joonas Nattinen, C, 18
Acquired 3rd round, 65th overall, 2009

Big, skilled, and fast — the 6’2 Nattinen may eventually develop into the large center for whom the club has been searching.

With excellent hockey sense and a strong ability on faceoffs, Nattinen is highly regarded and has been touted as a can’t-miss talent. He’ll remain in Finland this season and the club will look to bring him to North America the following season.

Nattinen, who remains with Espoo Blues in Finland, will play a larger role on that squad. The young forward also played on the top power-play unit at last year’s World Junior Championship and will be looked to fill a similar role long term with the Habs.

12. (12) Alexei Yemelin, D, 23

Acquired 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004

Yemelin remains on the radar, despite the fact that he’s recently signed a two-year deal with Kazan AK Bars, although there have been rumors that there’s an out clause should he want to come to North America next season.

The six-foot, rugged blueliner decided to stay in Russia due to financial considerations, but he remains an appealing talent — especially in light of the Mike Komisarek departure. He plays a similar game, albeit without the size. While the money in Russia is right, the style of game isn’t for Yemelin. In addition, he has expressed on record his intention to play in the NHL one day.

13. (14) Steve Quailer, RW, 20
Acquired 3rd round, 86th overall, 2008

In the third round in 2008, the Canadiens plucked what they feel is a diamond in the rough in Quailer. They saw his size, they say his goal-scoring ability, and they saw his flaws.

But unlike other teams who just saw somewhat shoddy skating, they saw correctable hitches in his style — ones they’ve been able to correct. Since then, Quailer’s improved his skating by leaps and bounds, he’s likely to play a key role in Northeastern’s season, and he’s on track to finally fill the role of the Canadiens’ long-sought-after power forward.

Quailer should improve upon the 10 goals and 15 assists in 41 NCAA games last season. And he should add bulk to his 6’3, 185-pound frame this year, as well.

14. (NR) Mac Bennett, D, 18
Acquired 3rd round, 79th overall, 2009

Bennett’s next couple of years are already planned out — a year in the USHL this season, followed by a verbal commitment to the University of Michigan. The talented blueliner is blessed with talent and bloodlines; now he just has to show the work ethic and development to progress through the organization’s ranks.

Coming from a prep school background, Bennett hasn’t had the same opportunity to play against elite opposition — a fact that may have hampered his draft status. Some projected Bennett with first-round talent, but average size and lack of exposure may have conspired to push him down some team’s draft boards. He’s still got time to grow and could add a couple of inches to his frame. 

15. (NR) Alexander Avtsin, RW, 18

Acquired 4th round, 109th overall, 2009

Avtsin is a classic low-risk, high-reward selection for the Canadiens. A combination of a weak Russian draft class and recent challenges in bringing Russians overseas (see the aforementioned Yemelin and recently traded Pavel Valentenko for Canadiens examples) may have pushed Avtsin down the draft board.

At 6’2 and roughly 200 pounds, Avtsin already has the size that the club likes to see up front. He also played extremely well in the Russian junior league last year, scoring 56 goals and adding 54 assists with Dynamo in the Russian third league. He’ll be playing against higher quality competition this year as he’s staying in Russia for another season. The club, although they would have loved to bring him to Hamilton this year, likely won’t see him in North America for another year.

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

White is looking to build upon his 11-goal, 18-assist rookie pro campaign in Hamilton. The agitator has shown an ability to get under the skin of opponents and he continues to show the all-around game that made him such an attractive commodity in the 2006 third round.

The six-foot, 200-pound forward likely needs another year in Hamilton before realistically challenging for a roster spot with the Habs. He’s behind players like Maxime Lapierre, Chipchura, and D’Agostini on the depth chart and there’s little impetus to move him up at this point in time.

17. (16) Brock Trotter, C, 22
Acquired as a Free Agent 2008

The free-agent signee finished his first full professional campaign last year with 18 goals and 31 assists in 76 AHL games. This year he’ll be looked upon to assume an even greater role in the offensive fortunes for the Bulldogs in light of several departures from the upper echelon of last year’s squad.

Only 5’9, Trotter’s size remains a challenge, but he’s shown an ability to play larger than that. He showed a willingness to play both offensive and defensive hockey, displaying an aptitude for both, and with increased ice time and exposure this year, his development should progress markedly.

18. (NR) Olivier Fortier, C, 20

Acquired 3rd round, 65th overall, 2007

Despite suffering a significant knee injury last season, Fortier earned a three-year contract with the Canadiens in his final year of junior. This year, he’ll start earning his keep as a member of the Bulldogs.

The club loves Fortier’s defensive abilities and work ethic. He’s a strong competitor who projects to third-line duty with the Canadiens in the distant future. This campaign will be about rebounding from the injury and acclimatizing to the professional ranks. Prior to his injury-shortened campaign, Fortier finished with seasons of 28 and 23 goals, and the club will be looking to him to chip in some opportunistic goals while focusing on defensive play.

19. (NR) Maxim Trunev, RW, 18

Acquired 5th round, 138th overall, 2008

Trunev, whose CHL rights are now held by the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, saw limited action in the KHL last season. In 32 games last year with Cherepovets, he scored four goals and added one assist.

This year, he’ll likely see more ice time and be counted upon to develop his offensive game. While the Canadiens would love to see him come overseas, chances appear slim and he’ll probably spend at least one more year in Russia.

20. (NR) Robert Mayer, G, 19

Acquired as a Free Agent 2008

Mayer’s going to be attending the Habs’ training camp this season and is likely to be in the mix in Hamilton as either a backup or starting netminder. Having recently experienced the birth of his first son, the family will be staying back in Saint John until after camp. Once Mayer’s playing status is settled, they’ll follow him to his new destination. In the meantime, Mayer will likely have ample opportunity to learn the professional ropes with recent signee, journeyman veteran Curtis Sanford. Last year as the Sea Dogs’ starting netminder, Mayer compiled a 26-25-4 record behind a 3.25 GAA and a .900 save percentage. 

While he likely won’t see as much action in Hamilton (as Cedrick Desjardins is also in the mix), he’ll challenge Desjardins for playing time behind Sanford.