Elite scoring, injuries, World Junior success and heartache – the Montreal Canadiens‘ junior prospects have seen it all this season. And with prospects from coast to coast, the Habs have an exciting collection of solid prospects that appear to represent a bright future for the storied NHL club.
The Habs had four prospects in the WHL – two of whom saw their seasons stunted by injuries, one prospect in the OHL, and a pair in the QMJHL. For the most part, all played key roles in their clubs’ respective fortunes this season.
Ben Maxwell, C – Kootenay Ice
(2nd round, 49th overall, 2006)
After a promising debut, Maxwell’s season suffered its share of disappointments. In addition to being cut from the Canadian World Junior Hockey Championship entry, the 6′ center aggravated an old elbow injury that put him on the shelf for a significant period of time.
Despite the limited exposure, the NHL club has high hopes for Maxwell, explained Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s Director of Player Recruitment and Development.
"We see him as a high-end prospect – he was one of the leading scorers in the league prior to his injury, and was leading the league for a while. We really liked what we saw in the preseason in Montreal.
"He’s a smart hockey player with speed and that type of player is worth a lot in today’s game."
In 39 games this season, Maxwell tallied 19 goals and 34 assists. Those numbers weren’t far off his season totals from the previous year where he scored 28 goals and added 32 assists in 30 more games. Big things were expected from him until an exacerbated elbow injury put Maxwell on the shelf.
"He had a great start to the season until the elbow surgery," Timmins said. "He had a bone chip removed last spring – and when he re-injured it this year they found more bone chips. We wanted to make sure it was taken care of right, so we took care of it in Montreal."
Timmins said he expects Maxwell to spend another year in the WHL and alluded to the belief that he’ll play a key role for Canada’s next WJC club. "He has to rehab his elbow and get that healed up, then he’s got to work on his conditioning. He needs to add some weight too. He should – no, he’ll get an invite to the World Junior camp and hopefully he’ll make the team."
Ryan White, C – Calgary Hitmen
(3rd round, 66th overall, 2006)
Many were surprised when the rugged Hitmen center slipped to the third round. At that draft, the Habs engineered a trade to move up and select the plummeting White figuring his drop would end soon. Their bold moves have been richly rewarded as White has rebounded from that disappointment and has been a dominant force in the WHL.
"I think he was a pretty good and complete player last year. The drawback last year was probably due to his conditioning level," Timmins explained. "He’s definitely a character person and we’ve been able to work on his conditioning this year with him."
That conditioning work has paid off. White finished the regular season fourth overall in WHL scoring, netting 34 goals and 89 points in 72 games – a total that saw him only four points behind league leader Zach Hamill. In addition, White added 97 penalty minutes to his totals, a sign of what Timmins feels the forward will bring to the NHL.
"We see him as a solid two-way center, third-line potential," he said. "He’s an old-time style player. He protects the puck well, finds his teammates, and is difficult to play against."
A lack of conditioning sent White down the draft board, so maintaining a high fitness level is key for the player to progress, Timmins added. "He knows what he has to do," he said. "He has to work on his conditioning this summer to play at the next level."
Carey Price, G – Tri-City Americans
(1st round, 5th overall, 2005)
While White dominated on the offensive end of the ice, Montreal’s elite goaltending prospect turned in a stellar performance between the pipes all season both in North America and abroad.
Price enjoyed a magnificent World Junior Championship, backstopping the Canadian squad to gold, playing every game, and walking away with top goaltender and tournament MVP honors. Even more impressive, Timmins explained, was how he approached his return to the WHL.
"We were really happy when he came back from the World Junior Championship because he kept his performance level equal to what he did at the World Juniors for his [junior] team," Timmins explained. "He didn’t come back with a swollen ego."
In 46 games, Price posted a 30-13-1 record behind a stellar 2.45 GAA and .917 save percentage. After three years of futility, the Americans enjoyed a winning record and a playoff berth – both which Timmins attributes in large part to the play of his goaltending prospect.
"His team wasn’t as talented as Everett or Vancouver, but they managed to beat them regularly," he said. "They ran into a tough Seattle club that played great defense. Carey did all he could do, but he can’t go and score goals."
But he can certainly keep them out. After the Americans were eliminated from the playoffs, Price signed with the Habs and joined their AHL affiliate in Hamilton. Continuing his dream season, he posted a shutout in his first game and he’s also been a key player in the Bulldogs’ playoff run.
"Pressure-wise he’s handled it well," he said. "After all, how much more pressure can you face than a shootout at the World Juniors?"
In fact it’s not the workload that’s a challenge for Price, but rather the lack of work. "He’s getting used to not getting as many shots taken on him – he’s used to 40 to 50 and now sometimes it’s just 19," Timmins said. "We’ve played him in the playoffs because we think he can handle it. We want to move forward at the big-league level, so we want to give our prospects every opportunity to succeed and eventually help us in Montreal."
That day will likely come sooner rather than later, and while Timmins isn’t forecasting a meteoric rise to the NHL for Price, he’s not ruling it out either.
"He’s going to come to camp and compete for a job and we’ll go from there," he said. "I’m not specifically talking about Carey here, but in general it’s not a bad thing developmentally for a rookie goaltender to be a starter at the AHL level for a year."
That being said, with Cristobal Huet and Jaroslav Halak comfortably ensconced at the NHL level, Price will likely assume the starter’s role in Hamilton next season.
Cameron Cepek, D – Portland Winter Hawks
(7th round, 199th overall, 2006)
Cepek is a low-risk, high-reward prospect for the Habs, but for that reward to pan out, the young blueliner has to find a way to spend less time in the infirmary and more time on the ice.
After a 2005-06 season that was limited to 21 games due to a serious wrist injury, Cepek again found himself on the disabled list this year with a broken jaw. In the end, he finished the season with a respectable 49 games under his belt.
"The big thing for him is that he has to stay healthy," Timmins said. "He has to be getting bigger and stronger too."
Those two concepts may not be mutually exclusive. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder and maybe sometimes his body can’t handle it. By getting bigger and stronger it may help avoid injuries," Timmins said.
It was that early promise and willingness to throw caution to the wind that attracted the club’s scouts to Cepek – that and 10 points in 21 games, combined with 71 penalty minutes.
"What happened last year, to be honest, was that I never saw him play," Timmins explained. "I went with what my scouts said and they really wanted him. They saw him play at the beginning of last year and he dominated."
This year, his totals were modest in comparison. One goal and eight assists, along with 87 penalty minutes are a far cry from the promise shown last season. Timmins alluded to the fact that next year, again with Portland, Cepek has to start showing the reward that the club is expecting.
"He has to have a big year next year in Portland. He needs to step up and be a leader on that club," he said. "Missing an entire season has really set him back."
Sergei Kostitsyn, RW – London Knights
(7th round, 200th overall, 2005)
At the beginning of the year, there were expectations that two Kostitsyns would be patrolling the ice in Hamilton – at least there were those expectations in the younger brother. However, the Habs had other ideas for the younger Belarusian.
"Basically we had to convince him to come back and play in London, but eventually he agreed it was best for his development," Timmins said.
Early returns weren’t overly promising. Kostitsyn didn’t play with the same "je ne sais quoi" that endeared him to the London Knights fans. Part of that is attributable to the let down of finding himself back in junior – and part of that was the heavy turnover his junior club underwent.
"He got off to a bit of a sluggish start and part of that was probably adjusting to new linemates, as London brought in Pat Kane and Sam Gagner," Timmins said. However, a trip to the World Juniors, where Kostitsyn enjoyed personal, if not team, success, seemed to mark the turning point.
"In the second half of the season, when he came back to the OHL from the World Junior tournament, he took his game to another level," Timmins explained. "He was probably one of the best players in the OHL."
The numbers bear that out. In 59 games, Kostitsyn scored 40 goals and added 91 assists to finish third in league scoring behind regular linemate Pat Kane’s 145 and wunderkind John Tavares’ 134.
What’s stood out, however, has been the younger Kostitsyn’s commitment to his own end. In fact, his head coach Dale Hunter recently opined that his defensive play could find him in Montreal next year as a member of the fourth line – akin to the way Jordan Staal made the jump to Pittsburgh as an 18-year-old based on defensive play.
While Timmins said he’d compete, like everyone else, for a roster spot, there are some lessons learned in London that must be unlearned – especially due to Hunter’s penchant for riding his top players throughout a game.
"We’ll see how things play out. I’ve been very happy with his development from a defensive perspective. Mr. Hunter has been using him in all situations: five on three, end of games, short-handed," Timmins said. "What we’ll have to do is deprogram him from those long shifts they have in London. He was doing the same thing at rookie camp and that can become a problem sometimes."
Regardless, Timmins doesn’t see Kostitsyn spending an overage year in the OHL. "No, it’s time for him to move on and play his game at a higher level."
Mathieu Carle, D – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
(2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006)
A mid-season trade from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan may have signaled a change in style of play, but Carle’s performance and value stayed the same in the eyes of the Habs’ brass – high.
"He was traded to a team where Rejean Houle is a part-owner. He went from a high-offence team to a high-defense team and he was able to fit right in," Timmins said. "He was a leader there – in fact, they gave him a letter as soon as he was traded and I think that says a lot about him as a person."
In 25 games with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Carle scored four goals and added 15 assists, totals that were slightly down from his Titan pace of 12 goals and 39 assists in 38 games. But Timmins said the team was delighted with the way he transitioned to the different styles of play the teams employed and the club feels they have a valued commodity for the future.
"Why we picked him and what he does best is the way he moves the puck in transition and the way he gets the puck moved to the forwards," Timmins said. "You see now that there’s a high price to pay for defensemen with those skills."
Timmins added that Carle needs to work on his backwards skating and pivoting ability, but expects he’ll do so in Hamilton.
Juraj Mikus, C – Chicoutimi Sagueneens
(4th round, 121st overall, 2005)
For some time now, Timmins has maintained that this young Slovak center needed to come overseas to further his development. This season, although he left the cozy confines of Skalica for the more frigid clime of Chicoutimi, QC, his game heated up – much to the pleasure of the Habs brass.
In 60 games in his first season in North America, Mikus scored 29 goals and added 42 assists. But more impressive has been his ability to adjust to the style of game he’s encountered in North America.
"The thing that’s impressed me most, I think, is his effort level and his ability to compete and adjust to the physical style of play," Timmins said.
In addition to a solid season, Mikus performed well for his home country club at the World Junior Championship – an event that coincided with the time of year where things seemed to fall into place for the young Slovakian.
"It took him until December to get acclimatized to the game here. It takes a while – he was getting used to new surroundings, a new language, new teammates, a new style of play, a coach who likes to raise his voice…" Timmins said, laughing. "He figured it out and has really developed well."
Mikus needs to be resigned by the Habs by June. Assuming he is, Timmins forsees Mikus continuing his development in the AHL. "He’s ready to play in Hamilton."
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