The Montreal Canadiens' vastly improved their organizational prospect pool over the 2012 off-season. As many as eight prospects could start their professional careers in Hamilton for the 2012-13 season. There will also be a huge amount of focus on 2012 first round draft pick Alex Galchenyuk who has already signed his NHL entry-level contract. A prolonged NHL lockout will bring bigger than usual exposure to the team's prospects pool from the Montreal Canadiens' hockey-starved fan base.
Below are some of the Canadiens' prospects to watch more closely headed into the 2012-13 season:
After gaining some NHL experience last season, Leblanc has to be considered the Canadiens' top prospect at the professional level to start the year. Compared to his difficult off-season of last year, the versatile forward had a full and healthy five months of training to get bigger, stronger, and faster while also working on his offensive game. With an extended lockout looming, he will have the chance to stay in the AHL and grow his two-way game. If the NHL returns quickly then Leblanc could compete for the open spot in the Canadiens' line-up for the injured, Rene Bourque who could be out until early December.
Prospects like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, and Brendan Gallagher will need to prove themselves all over again at the AHL level but one of them could jump to the top of the pack this season if Leblanc has a setback.
Brendon Nash, D, Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)
Nash has missed one full hockey season with a shoulder injury which has really stunted his development and pushed the mobile defender down the organizational depth chart. With good junior level defensemen like Tinordi, Beaulieu, and Morgan Ellis, along with graduating NCAA defender Greg Pateryn joining the AHL Bulldogs this season, Nash will be pushed by the coaching staff to step up his performance and help mentor the young blueliners.
Nash should be highly motivated to take a leading role on Hamilton's defense corps. It could be now or never for him as he could be out-performed by some of the younger prospects.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Blake Geoffrion, LW, Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)
Geoffrion had an up and down year between the Nashville Predators and the trade to the Canadiens. The physical winger played better after his arrival in Montreal but saw limited NHL action before finishing the season in the AHL with the Bulldogs. The 24-year-old is an excellent two-way forward that combines size, power, and energy. He has good hockey sense and vision while thriving at the physical game down low and along the boards. The skilled winger has a good hard shot and can get pucks through to the net but he just needs to shoot more often.
Geoffrion will start the season in the AHL with the Bulldogs but could challenge for a roster spot on the Canadiens when or if the NHL season begins. The big left winger needs to return to the kind of game he played coming into the league a couple of years ago in order to be a third or fourth line NHL player. He will be playing hard to bounce back offensively and fighting to obtain a longer one-way deal with Montreal.
Top Junior Prospect
Alex Galchenyuk, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Galchenyuk has excellent offensive skills, vision, and hockey sense along with an ability to make the difficult plays look easy. He has the character and work ethic as well as a strong commitment and desire to be the best. The 18-year-old will be expected to carry the scoring load on an offensively weaker Sarnia team this year. He will however have to work off some rust early in this season and improve the timing of his shot when under pressure.
The Stings' coaching staff decided to implement a more defensive system this season due to strengths on defense and in net. The new system will improve Galchenyuk's defensive awareness and the newly appointed captain will have to set the example for his teammates in order to have success. The high expectations from Montreal fans for Galchenyuk to dominate the OHL in 2012-13 should be tempered as he learns to balance his offensive game with the responsibilities of being his team's captain, and the new defensive system. He could be challenged by Tim Bozon and Charles Hudon for the most offensively productive junior prospects this year.
Charles Hudon, LW, Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QJMHL)
Hudon is looking to bounce back after playing through injuries last season which slowed his offensive improvement and dropped his overall draft position in the 2012 NHL entry draft. To start this year, the gritty little winger suffered a high ankle sprain in an early QJMHL pre-season game and may have returned a little too early but after missing just one regular season game has really picked up his offensive game.
The talented winger is blessed with superior hockey sense, a great vision, and quick hands, which allow him to control the play in the offensive zone and create scoring opportunities for him and his linemates. The third year junior had a strong showing for Team Canada at the Canada-Russia Challenge in early September and will be a likely choice to represent his country at the 2013 WJC tournament this year. If Hudon can stay healthy for the whole year, a breakout offensive season in 2012-13 might not be out of the question.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Olivier Archambault, LW, Drummondville Voltigeurs (QJMHL)
Archambault is an offensively talented winger who possesses excellent speed, acceleration, very quick hands, and great vision, but needs to use his teammates more often in order to create more scoring chances. He also needs to show a greater willingness to play better in his defensive zone. The third year junior had a very good pre-season and is off to a good start but he must stay healthy this year.
Unsigned for 2013-14, the skilled winger will need to earn a contract through hard work, as he will not receive an NHL entry level contract from Montreal on raw talent alone.
Top NCAA Prospect
Danny Kristo, RW, North Dakota Sioux (WCHA)
Kristo has quick acceleration, a powerful stride, and uses his explosive speed to help make offensive chances. He is equally fast with or without the puck and has developed the ability to shoot the puck while in full stride toward the net with a quick, accurate release. The 22-year-old has improved his two-way game and can play on both of the specialty teams. He projects as a top-six forward but still needs to play with more consistency, a better work ethic, and more heart in order to make the NHL.
Kristo decided to return for his senior year at UND to hopefully complete the unfinished business of winning a National Championship with the Sioux. He was suspended for the opening game of the 2012-13 season along other teammates due to an off-ice issue, so he has not started the season well.
Mark MacMillan, LW, North Dakota Sioux (WCHA)
MacMillan is a skilled two-way forward with good speed and vision along with good playmaking skills. The feisty young forward has added some size in the off-season which will help his physical game. He should see time on the Sioux's top forward lines for most of the year and could be poised for a very good season after such strong finish at the end of 2011-12.
MacMillan will be expected to bring more offense for UND and continue his overall development as a two-way player. He should also help the Sioux challenge for a NCAA National Championship for the upcoming season.
Freshman to Watch
Colin Sullivan, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Sullivan took an unusual approach after being drafted at the 2011 NHL entry draft by the Montreal Canadiens. He decided against moving to the USHL or the CHL and opted to stay with his prep school coach, John Gardner at Avons Old Farms. The big defenseman work really hard on and off the ice to improve his strength and overall game. This decision could cause the seventh rounder to struggle at the start of the season as he adjusts to the size and speed of the players in the NCAA.
Sullivan will start his freshman season at the NCAA level for the National Champions and number one ranked, Boston College Eagles. Canadiens fans will finally get to see what kind of defensive game their young blueliner possesses and his highly touted skating skills. The big defender will have four years of development with Eagles in the NCAA but still has to be considered a longshot to make it to the NHL.
Dustin Walsh, C, Dartmouth Big Green (ECAC)
Walsh had a very difficult, injury-plagued junior season in 2011-12. The smooth skating centerman played in only eight games but was on a pace for 40 points. He is a slick playmaker with elite passing ability, a strong work ethic, good poise around the net, and excellent at protecting the puck. He also has soft hands around the net, though he does not shoot the puck nearly enough.
He will be returning for his senior year at Dartmouth and the highly skilled forward will be expected play a starring role in the Big Green's offense this coming season. It is going to be a difficult task as the team is not highly ranked in the ECAC. He will also need to stay healthy for the whole year and improve the defensive aspects of his game if he hopes to earn a professional contract.
Top European Prospect
Sebastian Collberg, RW, Frölunda (SEL)
Collberg will be trying to play the whole season in the SEL and work his way onto the top two lines. The talented winger needs to produce points in order to increase his ice time and get off the fourth line. It is going to be a difficult task for the 18-year-old with more NHL stars coming over to play in the SEL during the NHL lockout. He could even be sent to the J20 super-elite league, where the young winger would most likely dominate and play top line minutes.
Collberg is a very skilled forward with excellent skating, speed, and one-on-one ability. The Swedish forward does not shy away from the dirty areas, knows how to find the soft spots to score goals, and has an elite wrist shot which he can release in a hurry with great accuracy and velocity. The sniper will get the opportunity to help Sweden defend their gold medal at the 2013 WJC and show his talent against the elite of his age group.
Erik Nystrom, LW, MODO (J20 Super-elite)
Nyström has very good hockey sense, a good work ethic, can make things happen with his speed and excellent distribution skills. He will however need to play stronger along the boards while working on his shooting skills and improving his defensive game. The physical winger gives an all-out effort every shift and has jumped out to a great start to his year with 11 points in just nine games. This will be an offensive breakout year for the 18-year-old as most Canadiens' fans had never heard of the Swedish winger before Montreal drafted him this off-season.
Nyström is on the bubble to have the opportunity to help Team Sweden defend the Gold Medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship. The sixth rounder could see more time in the SEL if the NHL lockout ends early, especially if he continues to excel offensively for MODO in the J20 Super-elite league.