Canadiens junior prospects update

By Jason Menard

When it comes to on-ice training there is one thing that can’t be taught, it must be experienced – and that is winning. With five of the club’s prospects playing key roles on successful junior clubs, the culture of success that’s being ingrained in these players bodes well for the franchise’s future.

The Montreal Canadiens have eight prospects in the junior ranks, with four out west in the Western Hockey League, one in the Ontario Hockey League, and a trio in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

WHL

Ben Maxwell, C – Kootenay Ice
(2nd round, 2006)

One of two second-round picks in the 2006 draft, Maxwell has lived up to his expectations and more. After enjoying a career season last year with 28 goals and 32 assists in 69 games played, the bulked-up center has been tearing up the WHL to the tune of 13 goals and 26 assists in just 28 games.

This offensive display bodes well for the 19-year-old North Vancouver, B.C. native as he continues to round out his solid two-way game. In fact, Maxwell’s offensive performance finds him third in WHL scoring, five points behind Red Deer rookie Martin Hanzal (PHO).

His Kootenay Ice squad is 17-8-1-2 on the season and Maxwell’s all-around game has been a key component of his squad’s success. He’s been involved in all phases of the game, with seven power play goals complemented by four short-handed markers. And his offensive upside has not compromised his commitment to defense, as he’s second on his club with a +10 rating.

Most importantly, Maxwell has displayed the leadership, grit, and commitment to two-way play that the club expected out of him entering this season. Although gifted with solid hands, it’s Maxwell’s grittier side that’s going to see him progress through the ranks. If he can continue to chip in offensively, while maintaining his defensive responsibilities, his future looks bright.

Ryan White, C — Calgary Hitmen
(3rd round, 2006)

Many were surprised to see the much-ballyhooed White fall to the third round of the draft, but concerns about his work ethic and conditioning scared some clubs away. The Habs traded up to get the young forward when they felt he would fall no further and the young center from Brandon, Manitoba has rewarded the club’s faith with a stellar campaign for the Calgary Hitmen.

White finds himself in fourth — trailing Maxwell — in the WHL’s scoring race with 12 goals and 24 assists in just 29 games. At that pace he should shatter his totals from last season, when he tallied 53 points in 72 games, buoyed by 33 assists. Not only does he lead his club in scoring, but he’s also pacing the team in plus/minus with a +13 rating.

The Hitmen are enjoying another successful campaign, posting a 17-10-0-2 record to date, and White’s grittiness and willingness to stick his nose into the corners and battle for positioning in front of the net are a large reason behind the club’s success.

Like Maxwell, White’s ticket to the NHL will be punched with hustle and effort, but the offensive display he’s shown to date is a pleasant addition for the club’s brass that held out high hopes for the young forward. Instead of being discouraged by his precipitous fall down the draft board – some pundits had him ranked as a first-round talent – White has used the experience as motivation to prove his doubters wrong.

Carey Price, G — Tri-City Americans
(1st round, 2005)

You could forgive the highly-touted netminder for saying to himself, “So this is what winning feels like?” Despite all the accolades and hyperbole bestowed upon him, the Habs’ surprise first-round pick in 2005 had yet to enjoy a winning season with the Tri-City Americans.

Sure, facing a lot of pucks each night helped his development, but questions lingered about Price’s ability to win. This season, Price is working to put those questions to rest and back up his hype with some W’s. Entering this year, Price’s WHL career totals were a pedestrian 53 wins, 63 losses, and 17 ties in 146 games played. To his credit, he also posted 12 shutouts, but concerns arose last year when his GAA ballooned to 2.87 and his save percentage plummeted to .896. This season, Price – in part due to the team in front of him – has rebounded, posting 10 wins and six losses in 17 games. His GAA is down to 2.77 and his save percentage is back above 90 percent. Most importantly, Price has backstopped the Tri-City club to a 16-9-0-0 record, good for second place in the U.S. division behind the Everett Silvertips.

Price hopes to play a key role in Canada’s quest for World Junior gold at the 2007 event, after taking part in the team’s summer development camp. If selected as the club’s goaltender, the young netminder will hope to show that he has the goods to win the big games – and opportunity that’s been less than abundant to date.

Cameron Cepek, D — Portland Winter Hawks
(7th round, 2006)

It was an injury that allowed the Portland Winter Hawks’ defenseman to fall to the seventh round of the latest NHL entry draft, and it’s an injury that continues to frustrate the Huntington Beach, CA native.

After missing majority of the 2005-06 season with a broken wrist, his 2006-07 campaign has been interrupted by a broken jaw that sidelined him after just five less than impressive games. The rugged rearguard, who is familiar with penalty boxes around the WHL, posted an underwhelming -5 in the five games he has played this season, in addition to just one goal.

Cepek’s the only one of the Habs’ junior prospects to play on a losing club, as the Winter Hawks have stumbled to a 9-16-0-1 record. However, his impact on the club has been minimal considering the fact he’s missed 21 games to date.

The club indicated that they hoped they had taken a sleeper when they picked the 6’2 blueliner in the seventh round, but two serious injuries in two years – fluky as they may be – could seriously hamper the defenseman’s progress.

OHL

Sergei Kostitsyn, RW — London Knights
(7th round, 2005)

Although eligible to play in the American Hockey League this year at age 19 (due to the fact that he was drafted by the Habs out of Europe), the younger brother of Habs’ prospect Andrei Kostitsyn was sent back to the London Knights to take on a leadership role and gain experience playing a dominating role for the club.

What’s that they say about the best-laid plans? Whether it’s a result of a National Hockey League hangover, or frustration at finding himself back in the junior ranks, the younger Kostitsyn has not had the same dynamic spark that he enjoyed last year with the Knights. Of course, most players in the league would kill to have the kind of “down” season Kostitsyn’s enjoying – and perhaps this is simply a case of inflated expectations.

After leading the OHL in rookie scoring last year – and finishing second in rookie-of-the-year voting – Kostitsyn has continued to display his offensive prowess with 13 goals and 24 assists in 25 games this season for the high-flying Knights. Again a part of the club’s five-man power play on the point, Kostitsyn has netted seven power play goals and chipped in with a pair of short-handed markers.

In addition, Kostitsyn is wearing the “A” for the club, fulfilling the Habs’ desire that he take on a leadership role. His command of English is improving and he’s acclimatizing to the North American game. And with London poised to make a long playoff run (18-4-1-2 to date), the 19-year-old Belarusian should have a chance to repeat his dominating playoff performance from last year where he scored 13 goals and 24 assists in 19 playoff games.

QMJHL

Mathieu Carle, D — Acadie-Bathurst Titan
(2nd round, 2006)

The second of two second-round picks in the 2006 entry draft, Carle has rewarded the Habs’ faith in him by leading the QMJHL in scoring by a defenseman with seven goals and 29 assists in 25 games.

A smooth-skating rearguard with offensive upside, Carle has also used his booming shot to pot four power-play goals for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, en route to a 17-11-1-0 record. His performance this season has not gone unnoticed either by those in his division, as Carle was named to the QMJHL’s representative in the Canada-Russia challenge series, playing a strong role in the league’s two victories.

The Gatineau, QC native has filled out his 6’ frame, tipping the scales at over 200 pounds, adding some bulk to his game. However, Carle wasn’t drafted to be a bruising blueliner. His role is to move the puck and skate – two things he’s been doing exceedingly well to date this season. In fact, the fourth-year player is well on his way to demolishing his previous-best totals of 18 goals and 51 assists, earned last year in 67 games.

Juraj Mikus, C — Chicoutimi Sagueneens
(4th round, 2004)

The Habs were adamant that the Slovakian winger leave the comforts of home to continue his development on North American shores. Their hope was that the 19-year-old would acclimate to the game here, learn the language, and be ready to join the professional ranks next season – and he’s more than delivered.

Joining the Chicoutimi Sagueneens for his first season of North American hockey, Mikus has displayed the offensive flair and nose for the net the club expected of him. In 30 games to date, Mikus has been chipping in at almost a point-per-game clip, scoring 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points. He’s also shown a willingness to play a grittier game, racking up 26 minutes in penalties during his brief tenure.

Although Mikus had played well in the past with his hometown Skalica club, the Habs’ brass was concerned that the level of competition was not where it needed to be to ensure their forward’s continued progress. The fact that he’s been able to enjoy this level of success for a club that hasn’t exactly set the QMJHL on fire (team record of 10-16-4-1) has to be seen as a positive for the club.

Loic Lacasse, G — Québec Remparts
(6th round, 2004)

Lacasse already has an uphill battle ahead of him when looking at his place in the Habs’ goaltending future depth chart and his performance this season has done nothing to further his cause. Although the defending Memorial Cup champion Québec Remparts own a 17-13-0-0 record this season, the much-traveled netminder hasn’t been a big part of the club’s success, unlike his other prospect brethren.

Lacasse is the odd man out in a three-man battle for playing time with the Remparts. With Kevin Desfossés entrenched as the club’s No. 1, the Granby native has been jockeying with rookie Nicolas Barrière for back-up minutes. The problem is, when he’s received the minutes he’s done little to earn more.

To date this season, Lacasse is sporting a 5.30 GAA and a horrific .866 save percentage – both numbers that find him firmly ensconced at the bottom of the QMJHL goaltending leader board. In his eight games he’s won two and lost four and barring injuries or a trade – something he’s familiar with moving from Baie-Comeau to Drummondville and now Québec), opportunities for playing time seem to be few and far between.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.