Patience beginning to pay off for Montreal Canadiens prospects

By Shawn Wilken
Photo: After competing for the Memorial Cup last season, Simon Bourque is back as an alternate captain with the Rimouski Oceanic. (Courtesy of Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

Photo: After competing for the Memorial Cup last season, Simon Bourque is back as an alternate captain with the Rimouski Oceanic. (Courtesy of Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

 

 

The Montreal Canadiens have been known for excellent drafting and patience in prospect development, and we are beginning to see major results. Several of their first- and second-round selections are on the verge of taking the next big step to becoming a regular NHL player, after progressing through the farm system. Among those names, Nikita Scherbak and Mike McCarron head the list, with Charles Hudon trailing not too far behind—all names that are a big part of the team in Saint John’s.

Meanwhile, some hopefuls look to earn a bigger role with the club at a later time. Zachary Fucale hopes to shake away any doubts of him turning into a wasted pick as he guides the IceCaps to victories, while newly-signed Mark Barberio and George “Bud” Holloway hope to leave a big enough impression to earn that some time with the Canadiens.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Nikita Scherbak, RW, Saint John’s IceCaps (AHL)

Entering the second year under the Canadiens brass, it’s no wonder why Nikita Scherbak is at the top of the prospect pool. His unique blend of tenacious play, quick hands and excellent shot has made him a hot commodity in Montreal. In 130 games in the WHL, he amassed 55 goals and 160 points.

Having entered training camp this season, Scherbak had to battle through an ankle injury and as a result, did not get to see much action in the preseason. He was promptly sent down to the team’s AHL affiliate in Saint John’s, where he’ll be playing top six minutes and honing his craft before he is ready to make the jump.

Offensive Breakout
Charles Hudon, LW, Saint John’s IceCaps (AHL)

A fifth-round selection in 2012, fans are clinging to the idea of Charles Hudon turning into another Brendan Gallagher. He possesses similar traits; a fiery attitude, goal-scoring prowess and leadership qualities. He spent his first full season in the AHL last year and managed 19 goals and 57 points as a 20-year-old.

This year, Hudon showcased maturity beyond his years and was one of the best rookies to show up to training camp. He was one of the leading scorers in preseason action, and was among the last crop of prospects to be cut from the team. In Saint John’s, he’ll get top-six minutes with the IceCaps and will surely add to his point totals with his acute sense of driving the puck forward.

Unsigned for 2016-17
Sven Andrighetto, RW, Saint John’s IceCaps (AHL)

Sven Andrighetto came onto the scene last year, playing in 12 games with the Canadiens and making an immediate impact before fizzling out. He scored two goals and an assist in his first few games before being demoted to the fourth line and then being sent back down. His performance at this year’s camp was underwhelming, and his cut came to no surprise. His contract is up after this season and he’ll need to impress in the AHL in order to earn a new deal and another chance at the big club.

Under Sylvain Lefebvre, Lehkonen should expect to play in an offensive role in order to develop a finer top-six game. With center Jacob de la Rose also making his way to Saint John’s to fine-tune his offensive game, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that these two are paired together at some point to see if there is any chemistry.

Junior

Top Prospect
Noah Juulsen, D, Everett Silvertips (WHL)

Leading the crop at the junior level is 2015 first-round draftee Noah Juulsen, who was returned to the Everett Silvertips of the WHL after a stellar showing in pre-season. In one game with the Canadiens, Juulsen looked like he belonged and impressed general manager Marc Bergevin, who had never seen him play live before. The blueliner impressed scouts last year when he posted 9 goals and 52 points in 68 games last season, and he’ll continue to lead the team on the back-end.

As of this writing, Juulsen scored a goal in his 2015-16 debut, which turned out to be the game-winner in a 3-1 victory over the Portland Winterhawks, but also finished with four minutes in penalties.

Offensive Breakout
Simon Bourque, D, Rimouski Océanic (QMJHL)

Being an all-situation defenseman in the QMJHL is no easy task, but it’s something Simon Bourque prides himself in being. Last season, he impressed Rimouski fans by playing on both the penalty kill and the powerplay and finishing the season with 10 goals and 38 points. His demonstration of being close to a complete defenseman and possessing the traits of a leader on and off the ice led Bergevin and Trevor Timmins to picking him up.

This year, a bigger test awaits him, as Samuel Morin and Jan Kostalek have both graduated, leaving a giant hole to fill with the Océanic. Morin will undoubtedly receive increased ice-time and responsibility, but also become a bigger leader on the ice for the newer defensemen coming in.

Bounceback Prospect
Daniel Audette, C, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL)

Last season was a true test for Daniel Audette, who entered his second full season with the Sherbrooke Phoenix. His total games played and point totals trended downwards and his performance at training camp did not leave much room for positive remarks from his skeptics. Despite all of that, he still has attained the 70-point plateau in two consecutive seasons and is currently on a pace to repeat that feat for a third time. Perhaps this is the year Audette surpasses all expectations, helps the Phoenix to a longer playoff run and shows he is ready to take the next step in his development.

He’ll need a big season in Sherbrooke this year, with doubters knocking at his door. Putting up a surplus of points is one side of the game he excels at, but there’s still work needed on the defensive side of the puck. If he hopes to carry the team to the QMJHL playoffs, Audette will have to channel his father’s drive and passion to push his game to the next level.

Amateur

Top Prospect:
Hayden Hawkey, G, Providence College (Hockey East)

It was an up-and-down run with the Omaha Lancers, in the last two years. He went from a goaltender that stood on his head in 2013-14, posting a goals-against average of 1.99 and a .926 save percentage, to seeing significant drops the following year, and averaging a goals-against of 2.99 and a .896 save percentage. What’s promising about this individual is the step he took in the off-season, joining Providence College, a prominent hockey program that will aid in his development. He’ll need to battle time away from goaltender Jake Ellis, but the spirit of competition can only help his will to improve.

Bounceback Prospect
Colin Sullivan, D, Miami University, Ohio (NCHC)

An early-season injury knocked out Colin Sullivan for the majority of 2014-15 with Miami University. Coming over as a transfer student, Sullivan suited up for just nine games and posted one assist. Naturally a defenseman, Sullivan played both defense and offense with Miami, showing flexibility and fluidity at both positions. Earlier this March, Sullivan centered the Redhawks first line, paired up with wingers Devin Loe and Conor Lemirande.

While it will be interesting to see which position he develops under, Sullivan is in a good spot to leave the nine-game season behind him and improve this year with Miami.

Offensive Breakout
Nikolas Koberstein, D, University of Alaska-Fairbanks (WCHA)

After splitting last season between the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and Bloomington Thunder, Nikolas Koberstein made his NCAA debut with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks this season. While he is mostly known for tough play and grittiness in the defensive zone, Koberstein’s increased role with the Thunder last season proved he can do more than just throw his weight around. When Alaska showed him the commitment to bring him over, he showed equal interest and has worked hard in the offseason to make sure he can bring his best. Look for a rejuvenated Koberstein with Alaska.

Europe

Top Prospect
Martin Reway, LW, HC Sparta Praha (Czech)

Martin Reway made headlines last year when he decided to move on from the CHL and return to the Czech league. Having felt he dominated in his two seasons with Gatineau—scoring 112 points in 90 games—and no real shot of going pro following that accomplishment, Reway returned home in order to continue developing his game. Off to a hot start this season, Reway came out the gate firing, with three goals and eight points in his first eight games.

His first season saw him go above a point-per-game with 37 points in 34 games, yet the criticism from his coach was that he did not play a complete game at a consistent level. This year, Reway is determined to put that to rest, logging above average minutes in every game thus far, while playing on the powerplay. Reway can be found playing the point on the man-advantage, where his accurate slapshot is utilized. While he is still undersized, he continues to tear up every league he appears in, and at 20-years-old, the scoring touch he possesses is not something you can teach.

Offensive Breakout
Artturi Lehkonen, LW, Frölunda HC (SHL)

Having moved from SM-liiga to the Swedish Hockey League, Arturri Lehkonen quickly learned that he’d have to adapt in order to keep up with the pace of the game. The learning curve was solved sooner rather than later, and Lehkonen starting playing a more efficient two-way game. His offense suffered because of it, but he still managed 8 goals and 16 points in 47 games, which is nothing to scoff at. When moved to center, Lehkonen was poised and focused on playing the back-check, but having moved between center and wing at the start of this season, it’s clear he’s more productive on the wing. With Mattias Janmark getting time in Dallas, Frolunda may lean towards Lehkonen to play more time down the middle.

Lehkonen’s play, along with the rest of the team over-achieving this early into the season, has made the possible loss of Janmark easier to take. Whether Lehkonen is moved back to the center position, or Frölunda looks to call up a younger player or receive another via loan, the team itself has kicked off the 2015-16 season in a big way.

First Year Pro
Lukas Vejdemo, C, Djurgårdens IF (SHL)

Having played with Djurgårdens IF for three games last season, Lukas Vejdemo made it clear he was going to work hard in the offseason to secure that spot on more of a full-time basis. Montreal’s third-round pick in 2015 had gone somewhat under the radar and before long, it became clear why so many general managers were envious of the pick. This season, Vejdemo has started with the big club in Sweden, playing on a line with Robin Alvarez and David Rundqvist, and has even received some time on the powerplay, showing confidence is building between him and the head coach.

The question on everyone’s mind now is if this young line of Vejdemo, Alvarez and Rundqvist can keep up with the grind of Djurgårdens schedule. If Vejdemo is able to remain healthy and keep up with the grind, his line should remain very effective and continue to be a big reason for the team’s success.