Canadiens Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By Jason Menard

The great Montreal Canadiens dynasties of the 1960′s and 1970′s were built upon shrewd drafting and development of players, and that was brought into clear focus with the recent passing of former General Manager Sam Pollock. The Habs’ late 90′s decline from the elite can be traced directly to poor decisions made at the draft table – a situation that has been reversed drastically since the addition of savvy draftniks such as Trevor Timmins and Bob Gainey to the management team.

The fact that the Calder Cup now resides in Hamilton is some evidence of the club’s ability to develop homegrown talent. Allowing the club’s youth to play key roles over the past two seasons also shows the Canadiens’ commitment to building from within. Looking at the strength of their farm system, a return to the elite may be in the not-too-distant future for the Habs.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Carey Price, G
2. Ryan McDonagh, D
3. Andrei Kostitsyn, RW
4. Kyle Chipchura, C
5. Max Pacioretty, C
6. Ben Maxwell, C
7. David Fischer, D
8. Maxim Lapierre, C
9. Sergei Kostitsyn, LW
10. Jaroslav Halak, G
11. Mikhail Grabovski, LW
12. Alexei Emelin, D
13. Ryan O’Byrne, D
14. P.K. Subban, D
15. Pavel Valentenko, D
16. Ryan White, C
17.  Matt D’Agostini, C
18.  Mathieu Carle, D
19.  Ryan Russell, C
20.  Mathieu Aubin, C

1. (2) Carey Price, G, 20

Acquired 1st round, 5th overall, 2005

Don’t be surprised if this young netminder finds his way between the pipes as the main man at the NHL level as early as this season. The club’s brass is very high on the native of Williams Lake, BC and with good reason.

Last season, the stoic netminder handled every challenge sent this way. He earned tournament MVP honors en route to backstopping Team Canada to World Junior gold. He then followed that up by making the jump right from the junior ranks to the AHL where he backstopped the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Cup title. There is a strong chance that a solid NHL training camp will earn the 20-year-old a spot with the big club.

At 6’3 and over 220 pounds, Price has the size for the NHL. And his calm demeanor, often mistaken for aloofness or lack of passion, allows him to avoid the extreme highs and lows that plague some netminders.

2. (NR) Ryan McDonagh, D, 18

Acquired 1st round, 12th overall, 2007

The Canadiens were absolutely thrilled that the hulking blueliner from Minnesota fell into their laps with the 12th overall selection in the recent NHL entry draft. The club was so enamored with the 6’1, 200-pound blueliner that they made serious efforts to trade up in the draft to obtain him.

While they weren’t able to find a dance partner, they still walked away with the belle of the ball in their eyes. Described as the complete package on defense, McDonagh brings an element of power to his game both offensively and defensively. That said, the Habs are high – very, very high — on the long-term potential that McDonagh has. They see him sliding very comfortably into a first pairing by way of talent, not necessity.

Blessed with a solid shot and a physical presence, McDonagh will refine those skills for one season at the University of Wisconsin, but the club is so high on the potential of this young blueliner, his ascension to the professional ranks could come sooner rather than later.

3. (3) Andrei Kostitsyn, RW, 22

Acquired 1st round, 10th overall, 2003

The eldest of the two Kostitsyn brothers in the Habs organization, Andrei has enjoyed a few cups of coffee with the big club, and it’s expected that he’ll take up permanent residency there this year. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Last season, the young Belarussian finally seemed to get it, adding a semblance of defensive awareness to his prodigious offensive talents. In addition to learning to play away from the puck, Kostitsyn also started taking more control of the game. In the past, he was content to have the game come to him, but last season he finally figured out that sometimes you have to make something happen.

Although he only scored once in his 22 NHL games last season, he did account for 10 assists and showed that his defensive lessons were well learned, finishing his NHL campaign with a +3 rating. He was better than a point-per-game player at the AHL level, with 51 points in 50 games, paced by 21 goals.

4. (4) Kyle Chipchura, C, 21

Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2004

In his first season as a professional, Chipchura showed the leadership qualities and defensive presence with which he made a name of himself in the junior ranks. At every level prior to his AHL assignment, including with the Canadian World Junior club, Chipchura has been a captain and there’s a sense that he could assume that mantle one day at the NHL level.

In fact, despite being a rookie himself, Chipchura was the player who helped acclimatize Price into the AHL ranks during the playoffs – a playoff in which he displayed an unexpected offensive streak.

Chipchura’s value to the club won’t be found so much on the score sheet, but rather in how he keeps his opponents off of it. As well, his innate leadership and ability to come up big in pressure situations has the club excited about his long-term prospects with the Canadiens.

With the departure of defensive stalwarts like Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson from the NHL club, Chipchura has an opportunity to crack the Canadiens roster this season.

5. (NR) Max Pacioretty, C, 18

Acquired: 1st round, 22nd overall, 2007

If McDonagh was the main course the Habs were looking for when they sat down at the draft table this year, then Pacioretty was the premium dessert. The club was elated to obtain the 6’1 center out of Sioux City as they feel he could address their long-unfulfilled need for a true power forward.

Pacioretty has been on the fast track to success, making the jump from the high school to the USHL and now the University of Michigan. His combine fitness training results have him at the NHL level already and he has impressed the club with his dedication and conditioning.

In the past, Carolina’s Eric Cole has been a nemesis of the Canadiens. In Pacioretty, the scouting staff feel they’ve found a similar player, and look forward to his blend of toughness and talent in the future.

6. (11) Ben Maxwell, C, 19

Acquired: 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006

Before an elbow injury put him on the shelf, the 6’0 center was leading the WHL in scoring and showing why the club made him one of their two second-round selections in 2006.

The club took the extra steps of bringing him to Montreal for surgery to ensure that the procedure was done to their specifications as they fell Maxwell will blossom into a high-end goal scoring talent who will fill a top-two line role in the not-too-distant future. He needs to improve his conditioning – a challenge since he was off the ice so much last season, and add some weight to his frame.

Despite being an early cut from last year’s World Junior roster, the Canadiens expect Maxwell to play a key role on this year’s edition of the team. In addition, if he’s able to avoid the injury bug, don’t be surprised to see Maxwell’s name at the top of the WHL scoring charts at the end of the season.

7. (6) David Fischer, D, 19

Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2006

Last season was a challenging one for the young blueliner out of Minnesota. The first of two straight Mr. Hockey’s from the state drafted in the first round by the Habs, Fischer found himself on the wrong end of a very deep University of Minnesota blue line, which included highly-touted prospect Erik Johnson (STL).

He saw limited action in the games and, as such, hasn’t developed to the extent that the Habs would have liked. This season, Fischer is expected to play a more integral role on the Minnesota blue line and continue to fill out his 6’4 frame.

Last year, at a playing weight of 190, Fisher was quite lanky. The hope is that with added weight, he’ll be able to further develop an imposing physical game to complement his offensive talents. And the one thing that the Canadiens stress when discussing Fischer is his ability to lead. Even as a young player on more established teams, Fischer has long been looked upon as a team leader and the club hopes that this ability will be put to the test this season in Minnesota.

8. (7) Maxim Lapierre, C, 22

Acquired: 3rd round, 61st overall, 2002

The St-Leonard native quickly won over the hearts of both the Canadiens’ fans and its coaching staff last season as the rookie quickly assumed a vital role on the club, adding an infusion of grit, determination, and energy to a roster that was at times missing all three.

He played 46 games and while his 11 points aren’t anything to get overly excited about, the fact that the coaching staff knew exactly what they were getting from him each and every time they sent him over the boards quickly endeared him to them.

Lapierre represents a different kind of prospect for the Habs. The organization is rich in talented players with offensive abilities, but it takes all types to make a team and Lapierre is rapidly becoming the type of glue guy that all winning franchises have.

9. (9) Sergei Kostitsyn, LW, 20

Acquired: 7th round, 200th overall, 2005

The story’s been told often enough — the Canadiens were not exactly certain of what they were getting in the younger of the Kostitsyn brothers when they drafted him. But since he made his debut with the London Knights, the club has been delighted with his combination of offensive flair, edginess, and defensive awareness.

Sergei returned to the Knights last season against his better wishes, although the season in junior turned out to be a wonderful thing for his development. In addition to being among the OHL‘s leaders in scoring, the younger Kostitsyn saw action in all facets of the game: power play, penalty killing, and even strength. In fact, his junior coach has opined that his ability to play defense could earn him a roster spot with the NHL club this season, although a year in the AHL would seem more likely.

And with Andrei expected to earn a roster spot at the NHL level, it would seem that the long-awaited full-time Kostitsyn brother reunion would be another year off, at least.

10. (10) Jaroslav Halak, G, 22

Acquired: 9th round, 271st overall, 2003

Halak’s mercurial ride to the NHL appears to be eclipsed only by Price’s anticipated ascension to the professional ranks. The Slovakian netminder played a huge role in the Canadiens’ late-season surge for a playoff spot – although he wasn’t able to go all the way due to a decision to reinsert Cristobal Huet into the net for a key game, which the club lost.

His performance has been so impressive that it’s easy to forget that just over one full season ago, Halak was starting in the ECHL. Since then he’s outperformed and assumed Yann Danis‘ mantles of AHL starter and NHL goalie of the future. And there has been some speculation that Halak and Price will form the Canadiens’ goaltending tandem in the not-too-distant future.

In the end, Halak posted a 10-6 record for the Habs with a 2.89 GAA and a .906 save percentage. His AHL numbers were equally as impressive with a 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage leading to a 16-11 record in 29 games. Although anything can happen, it’s fairly safe to assume that Halak will have, regardless of who is the No. 1 netminder, a firm grip on the NHL backup role this season.

11. (5) Mikhail Grabovski, LW, 23

Acquired: 5th round, 250th overall, 2004

Grabovski instantly electrified the Bell Centre’s crowd with his dynamic rushes and offensive prowess last year as a mid-season call-up to the NHL. He only played in three games, but he left quite an impression and the expectations of more.

However, it’s easy to forget that this will be only Grabovski’s second season on North American soil. Last year he played in 66 games at the AHL level, scoring 17 goals after coming back from a pre-season shoulder injury. His stellar play and offensive promise earned him a call-up to the NHL ranks and he will be battling for a roster spot this season.

Most important for the Habs is that Grabovski has been able to acclimatize to the North American game, to the point where he earned that NHL call-up in less than a full season. He will be looked upon to inject offense into the attack at whatever level he’s found this year – most likely back in Hamilton.

12. (8) Alexei Emelin, D, 21

Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004

The game du jour at the beginning of the off-season was ‘Where’s Alexei?’ After some cloak and dagger-esque Russian intrigue, the Canadiens went from expecting Emelin to suit up for their club, to finding out that his name was on a contract with another Russian franchise.

The long and the short of it now is that the promising blueliner will be plying his trade overseas for at least one, if not two more years, and the Canadiens will have to wait to see if their investment in the multi-talented defenseman will pay off.

Unfortunately, the one thing that Emelin needs to do – learn the North American game – has been retarded by the somewhat nefarious workings of one of his Russian agents. He remains a prized prospect of the Canadiens, but the longer he remains overseas, the faster his window of opportunity – considering the impending arrival of Valentenko, O’Byrne, McDonagh, and Fischer – will shut.

13. (17) Ryan O’Byrne, D, 23

Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2003

O’Byrne made a successful transition from the collegiate ranks to the AHL last season. In fact, his play was so impressive that there was much talk that the 6’5 blueliner would break camp with the Habs this season.

While that may be the case, recent acquisitions, including the arrival of Habs retread Patrice Brisebois, somewhat call that assumption into question. But what O’Byrne brings to the table is something the Habs desperately need on the point – size.

With the departure of Sheldon Souray, who despite his size never played overly big, the club is slight on the blue line. O’Byrne blends imposing size with defensive responsibility in an attractive package that should find him in the NHL sooner rather than later.

The product of Cornell University won’t win any speed records, nor will he invoke memories of Doug Harvey’s offensive talents, but he is expected to be an effective crease-clearer who has shown an ability to make the smart first pass out of the zone.

14. (NR) P.K. Subban, D, 18

Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007

If it were up to the scribes in Montreal, Subban would make the squad based on his personality alone. That said, don’t expect Subban to crack the professional ranks any time soon.

The Habs feel they may have found a diamond in the rough with their second-round selection as Subban’s regular-season play left much to be desired. However, a stellar playoff performance in the OHL combined with his intelligence and grittiness won over the Canadiens scouting staff.

Subban will remain in the OHL this season needing to work on his consistency – in that he must consistently play at the superlative level he displayed during the playoff. Described as a "wild colt" by Timmins, Subban showed an ability to rein in those freelancing ways and play a more controlled game. Now he needs to maximize his offensive talents while showing an understanding of his overall responsibilities on a night-in and night-out basis.

15. (14) Pavel Valentenko, D, 19

Acquired: 5th round, 139th overall, 2006

Valentenko is very much the wild card on the Canadiens blue line. His performance with Team Russia at the WJC impressed all who saw him. He was easily Russia‘s best defenseman and showed the edge to his game that first attracted the Canadiens’ scouting staff.

Where Valentenko winds up this season is the question. Unlike Emelin, he’ll be in North America and he has a solid opportunity to claim an NHL roster spot. More likely, at least for the first part of the season, the 6’2 blueliner will set down roots in Hamilton to transition to the game on this side of the Atlantic.

However, long-term the Canadiens have high hopes for Valentenko. Despite his low-round draft selection, the club feels it has a premium sleeper in the Russian. His offensive game isn’t the stuff of legends, but he plays with grit and – ask Steve Downie – nastiness.

16. (20) Ryan White, C, 19

Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006

The Canadiens were elated to be able to maneuver their way into selecting the rugged center out of Calgary when he fell into the third round. And White responded by showing that chip on his shoulder didn’t get in the way of his shot.

White was among the WHL‘s leading scorers all season long and the Canadiens feel they’ve got a solid two-way, third-line center with some offensive pop on their hands. White posted 89 points in 72 games last season – a number that was only four off the league lead, and more of the same is expected of him.

In White, the Canadiens have a player with a fire in his belly, determined to show that his fall from potential first rounder to the third round was a mistake – and the Habs would be more than willing to reap the benefits of his redemption tour.

17.  (16) Matt D’Agostini, C, 20

Acquired: 6th round, 190th overall, 2005

No less of an authority than Timmins himself has pointed to D’Agostini as a player to watch for the Habs’ future. In fact, during his freshman season with the Bulldogs a noticeable trend appeared – when D’Agostini was in the line-up, they won; when he was out with an injury, they struggled.

D’Agostini doesn’t excel in any one particular facet of the game, but he is always in the middle of the action and seems to make a key contribution and key moments of the game.

Stamina and endurance will be the key growth indicators for D’Agostini this season. Last year the grind of a professional season got to him on occasion, and the hope is that his sophomore season will see him learn to better prepare for the rigors of the nightly on-ice grind.

18. (13) Mathieu Carle, D, 19                

Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006

Carle was one of two players the Canadiens coveted in the second round of the 2006 entry draft and through deft maneuvering of their draft picks, they were able to obtain a second second-rounder to pick up the puck-moving blueliner.

The Habs see Carle as a prototype for the modern defenseman. But what’s most appealing for the Canadiens is that Carle has shown an ability to adapt his game to any style of play. Last year he went from a high-powered offensive club to one with a defense-first mentality with no discernable drop in play.

Solid with the first pass and able to move the puck well, Carle has all the offensive potential in the world. Defensively, he needs to work on pivoting and backwards skating and will have plenty of time to do so in Hamilton.

19.  (NR) Ryan Russell, C, 20

Acquired: Trade with New York Rangers, 2007

When it came down to it, the Canadiens were presented with a choice – re-sign prospect Juraj Mikus to a contract, or obtain Ryan Russell for a seventh-round selection in the 2007 entry draft. And then re-sign him.

The Habs chose the latter as they felt that, straight up, Russell was a better prospect than Mikus. The club let Mikus re-enter the draft, re-upped with Russell, and will now be looking for the WHL veteran to display the offensive talent that he’s shown with Kootenay.

In his last three seasons in the WHL, Russell has scored 32, 33, and 30 goals respectively. Not overly large at 5’10 and 165 pounds, the Habs nevertheless like the combination of soft hands and acerbic play that they’ve seen from the winger who was originally selected in the seventh round of the 2005 entry draft by the New York Rangers.

20. (18) Mathieu Aubin, C, 20

Acquired: 5th round, 130th overall, 2005

The Canadiens are expecting big things from Aubin offensively this season. Last year he bounced between Hamilton and Cincinnati, never comfortably finding a home. This year, the club will be looking for him to fill some of the offensive void that may be created should the elder Kostitsyn, Chipchura, and/or Grabovski make the jump to the NHL.

Aubin has the hands of a natural goal scorer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t yet have the wheels to match. A late birthday, the club would like to see him work on his foot speed and overall strength – two aspects which could have been well served playing frequently as a junior overager, but he did make the jump to the pro ranks.

The thought is a more settled environment and regular shift could help accelerate Aubin’s growth and take advantage of his offensive potential.

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