The Canadiens have undergone a drastic organizational overhaul over the past season, with an entirely new coaching staff at both the NHL and AHL levels. In addition, the club shipped out two of its top blueline prospects to obtain a proven goal scorer. The club was able to make such a major move — including packaging its No. 1 prospect, Ryan McDonagh, due to their significant depth.
A solid NHL-level roster affords the club the luxury of not rushing their prospects to the NHL — something that may have hampered someone like Guillaume Latendresse, and also sets up a culture of competition where positions are earned.
The organization has spent the last few years amassing a stable of centers, some of whom can, have, or will be moved to the left side as it’s easier to convert a center to wing than the opposite. While the overall depth of the club’s left-wing prospects may appear to be lean, they do have their top prospect manning that side of the ice. Max Pacioretty has rocketed through the ranks, earning his way to the NHL in his first professional season. Last year he split his time evenly between Hamilton and Montreal, whereas this season he seems to be comfortably ensconced at the NHL.
He’s joined by the robust Greg Stewart, who has added a measure of physical play to the roster. Last year, with Georges Laraque sidelined by injury, Stewart ably stepped up and filled the role of the club’s enforcer. He has gotten into only two games so far this season for Montreal.
The remaining left-wing prospects are of the longer-term variety. Brock Trotter has made the jump from the collegiate ranks and has assumed more of an offensive leadership role on the Bulldogs. Free-agent signee Dany Masse offers a bunch of offensive potential compressed into a small package, and Andrew Conboy could be the best of the bunch, combining Stewart’s physicality with Pacioretty’s offensive ability. In the long run, Conboy who made the jump to the professional ranks last season after starting the season with Michigan State, could fill that long-sought after power forward role with the club. This season, he has two points in seven games for Hamilton.
The Canadiens have gone from center being a position of weakness to one of relative strength. But the same old problem — a lack of size — continues to plague the club.
For example, David Desharnais appears to have all the offensive capabilities to thrive at the next level. The knock against him is his size. Generously listed at 5’6, Desharnais has to show an ability to absorb the punishment meted out at the professional level. A recent injury doesn’t exactly help him shed the gifted but fragile label.
Kyle Chipchura has adequate size, but has failed to make the most of his opportunities. He has been called up to the Habs on numerous occasions, but can’t seem to stick. Early on, faceoffs were a problem, but now a lack of production has curtailed his professional goals. Chipchura has long-term captain potential and a solid defensive game, but until that translates into regular, two-way production, he will remain on the roster bubble and in danger of falling out of favor with the club.
The Habs attempted to gain size this year by drafting Joonas Nattinen. The Finn isn’t overly physical, but has an imposing physique. Much like Mats Sundin (without making a direct comparison), Nattinen combines premium size with a booming shot and offensive gifts. Another year in Europe should advance his progression and leave him ready for the North American game.
However, Nattinen wasn’t the only center drafted by the club this year. In fact, he wasn’t even the first — hometown boy Louis Leblanc was selected with the club’s first-round selection and offers the promise of offense and grit. Leblanc is a freshman at Harvard.
He’s joined in the organization by the similarly styled Ben Maxwell, who is looking to improve upon his 22-game performance from last season. Maxwell, likely an early call-up this season, is another two-way threat and has rebounded from a couple of injury-plagued junior seasons to show solid and sustained performance.
With so many prospects in the system, it’s no wonder that several of the team’s draftees are in the U.S. collegiate ranks. The club buys time because it does not have to sign them for several years. Michael Cichy, another offensively inclined pivot, currently plays at the University of North Dakota, and Dustin Walsh is at Dartmouth College. Patrick Johnson is a junior at Univ. of Wisconsin.
The Canadiens have also amassed a number of defensive prospects to fill those key third and fourth-line roles. Ryan White has been solid in Hamilton, while Tom Pyatt has joined the team thanks to the McDonagh trade. Olivier Fortier and Ryan Russell round out the defensive-minded quartet. The club has also mined the European market with the addition of Andreas Engqvist and Mikael Johansson, and Gabriel Dumont also is on the long-term track to the club.
Some of the Canadiens most intriguing prospects line up on the right-hand side. Matt D’Agostini has already carved out a niche on the Habs thanks to his determination, grit, and opportunistic offense. And while D’Agostini is a serviceable addition to the roster, some of the newer prospects offer much more promise and potential.
The club is extremely high on former second-round selection Danny Kristo. Of average size, Kristo has excellent hands and a nose for the net. Among the youngest players in last year’s World Junior tournament, Kristo is growing into his talents and will have ample time to do so as a freshman at UND. Chances are that he won’t stay in college very long, and could follow a similar path to the one Pacioretty laid.
Despite some poor luck with prospects from the former Soviet Union (see: Valentenko, Pavel; Perezhogin, Alexander; Yemelin, Alexei; and — potentially — Kostisyn, Sergei), the club has gone back to the well on two occasions, picking up Maxim Trunev and Alexander Avtsin. Both are offensively talented players with the potential to be elite scorers in the NHL. But despite the similar results in goal scoring, they are completely different players. Avtsin has the size and reach at 6’2; Trunev is a more modest height, but has a bit more flash to his game.
Collegiate prospect Steve Quailer has elite size and could race the aforementioned Conboy as a premier power forward prospect. And rounding out the organization’s right-wing prospects is James Wyman, another player who progressed through his full collegiate eligibility, but projects as a long-term depth forward at the AHL level.
Long a source of concern for the Canadiens, the blueline’s fortunes have been markedly turned thanks to the savvy drafting and development of a bevy of defensive prospects. In addition to already providing home-grown talent for the big club, the Habs’ defensive depth afforded them the luxury of packaging elite prospects in return for an elite — and proven — offensive spark plug in Scott Gomez.
With McDonagh plying his trade in New York, P.K. Subban has rocketed to the top of the club’s depth chart. In addition to superlative offensive talent, Subban has been diligent about improving his all-around play and his defensive-zone responsibility. He was a leader both with Team Canada and his junior club, and has the personality and effervescence to handle the pressure of playing under the microscope in Montreal. Currently in Hamiton, Subban could find his way to the Habs in the not-too-distant future.
Of course, there are a couple of elite prospects looking to delay Subban’s ascension to the NHL ranks. Yannick Weber has already earned a couple of call-ups and has shown the ability to be an effective power-play specialist. Mathieu Carle may have more pure offensive potential than either Subban or Weber, but he hasn’t been able to put together a complete game with any consistency. He remains a solid prospect and would be a welcome injection to the team’s offense.
McDonagh wasn’t the first former Mr. Hockey Habs draftee. David Fischer was the first — taken by the Habs in the first round. His development has been slow, but steady, and the young blueliner has finally come into his own with the University of Minnesota. Joining him in the collegiate ranks is recent draftee Mac Bennett. Currently playing in Cedar Rapids, Bennett will be heading to the collegiate ranks next season and will be given ample time to fulfill his all-around potential. Joe Stejskal, currently playing with Dartmouth, and Scott Kishel, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, both have less upside than Bennett, but will be given as much lead time as the aforementioned two.
Overseas, the Canadiens have a pair of prospects plying their trade in the European leagues. Alexei Yemelin, likely ready to join the North American professional ranks now, remains comfortably earning a living in the KHL — although the league does not necessarily play to his strengths. Nichlas Torp, a defensive defenseman with a third-pair potential remains in Sweden.
The Canadiens have a substantial amount of what could charitably be called depth, but is more appropriately labelled chum — players like Michael Busto, Greg Pateryn, and Shawn Belle. All are capable defensemen who could fill a sixth or seventh-defenseman role at the NHL, but could also remain mired in the AHL.
While the organization’s depth between the pipes reveals a less-than-satisfactory collection of players, it’s due to the fact that both NHL roster spots are held by premium youth: Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak.
The goaltending prospect with the greatest potential could be the one who earned the title of Mr. Irrelevant as the last pick in the 2009 draft — Petteri Simila. The club is high on the Finnish prospect, believing that he would have been a first-round selection had he re-entered the draft next season. The fact that he’s in Niagara getting used to the North American ice and angles is a bonus, and Simila will be given plenty of time to adjust.
Jason Missiaen was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 and appears to have been a reach. The 6’8 Missiaen hasn’t taken the expected jump in his play — not even after being handed the starter’s role in Peterborough last season when their incumbent was sent packing. He remains awkward between the pipes and will likely need plenty of seasoning.
Robert Mayer and Cedrick Desjardins, both of whom enjoyed success in the QMJHL, are depth netminders at best. Both of them could become adequate backups if given the chance, but neither have the skills or the potential to be starters.