NHLers P.K. Subban and Lars Eller headline prospect pool for Montreal Canadiens

By Ian Bross
Photo: After a standout freshman season at Harvard, Louis LeBlanc opted to take the CHL route, and has since been tearing it up with the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The upper portion of the Montreal Canadiens prospect list remains largely unchanged, though the top tandem of P.K. Subban and Lars Eller will most likely not linger much longer.

1. (1) P.K. Subban, D, 8B
Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2007

Subban still reigns as Montreal’s top prospect. The 21-year-old has made a name for himself around the league, and all the while cemented himself as a fixture of the Canadiens’ blue line. Already, Subban has scored 7 goals and 18 assists in his rookie campaign, while earning the ire of opposing players. Humble, yet hardly shy, Subban leads Montreal with 86 penalty minutes. He is active in the offense, poised with the puck, and not afraid to take the body. Having played 54 games this season — as well as an additional 14 in the postseason — Subban will soon graduate from prospect status barring any unforeseen circumstances.

2. (2) Lars Eller, C, 7.5B
Acquired: via trade, June 2010

Eller has appeared in the bulk of Montreal’s contests this year, after cracking the lineup with a strong showing in training camp and the preseason. He has suited up in 54 games this season, with three goals and six assists over that span.

The 21-year-old Danish centerman has been brought along slowly thus far. He has skated primarily on the wing on the team’s third and fourth lines. Though the scoring has not yet come, his quickness will make him a natural fit with the Canadiens. Eller’s effort and hockey sense is unquestionable, but he is still learning the finer points of the NHL game.

3. (3) Danny Kristo, LW, 7.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 56th overall, 2008

The 2009-10 WCHA rookie of the year, Kristo has had an up and down season. Expectations were high for the sophomore, who lagged out of the gates, struggling to find the scoresheet early on. He did not score his first goal of the year until mid-November, the deciding tally of a 6-5 comeback win. In all, Kristo has managed five goals and 17 assists in 29 games. A powerplay specialist as a freshman, two of Kristo’s goals have come with a man-advantage. Well behind his goal-scoring pace from a season ago, Kristo is however on track to surpass his assist total (21) from 2009-10. No opportunities have simply been handed to the 20-year-old all season. An energetic player, Kristo has missed the Fighting Sioux’s last two games due to frostbite, from which he has so far made a full recovery.

4. (4) Louis Leblanc, C, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2009

For the third consecutive season, Leblanc has skated with a new team in a new league. A USHL Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 and Ivy League Rookie of the Year with Harvard in the NCAA in 2009-10, Leblanc made his CHL debut in 2010-11. Playing in the QMJHL with the Montreal Juniors, Leblanc has managed a point-per-game scoring pace. His 18 goals and 23 assists in 40 games have helped lift his club to the upper echelon of the league standings.

Leblanc also demonstrated his talents on the international stage, as a member of Canada’s World Junior Championship team. In his first appearance in the U-20 tournament, Leblanc had three goals and four assists in seven games, good enough for fourth-best on his team, en route to a gold medal game appearance.

5. (5) Jarred Tinordi, D, 7.5D
Acquired: 1st round, 22nd overall, 2010

The transition from the USHL to the OHL hasn’t been easy for Tinordi, Montreal’s top draft choice last summer. Tinordi has had somewhat of a modest season with the London Knights. Standing 6’7 tall, Tinordi’s offensive contributions have been few and far between, with nine assists in 50 games played. Rather, his defensive capability has been the strongest aspect of his game. With his overwhelming size, the 19-year-old can throw the big hit and match-up against the other team’s top players. He leads the Knights in penalty minutes this season with 106. Tinordi provides the defensive complement to his partner, London’s leader in points among defensemen, and receives plenty of ice time in all situations.

6. (6) Yannick Weber, D, 7B
Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2007

With injuries rampant on the Montreal blue line, Weber has spent the majority of his 2010-11 season with the Canadiens. Weber started the year with the Bulldogs, where he has played each of the last two seasons. After 15 games, Weber had managed eight goals and four assists. He has remained with the Canadiens ever since, with whom he has a goal and nine assists in 30 games.

At 5’10, Weber’s skill-set is that an offensive defenseman. Especially at the NHL level, Weber still has strengthening to do physically, and room to grow on the ice defensively. However, Weber has held his own thus far, and armed with a terrific shot and excellent hockey sense, he is beginning to establish himself outside of the AHL.

7. (8) Aaron Palushaj, RW, 7C
Acquired: via trade, March 2010

Palushaj has settled in well in his first full season with the Bulldogs, after joining the team in the latter stages of 2009-10. This year, by finding the back of the net with greater frequency, Palushaj has taken a significant step forward in Hamilton, a team that distributes goal scoring throughout the lineup. He has scored 10 goals and assisted on 22 others in 44 games this season.

Currently, with key members of the Bulldogs skating with the Canadiens, Palushaj’s opportunities have increased in quality and quantity. Already, the 21-year-old possesses a relatively well-honed game all around. Palushaj should be poised for a standout year next season, assuming the NHL is still beyond his reach.

8. (10) David Desharnais, C, 7C
Acquired: Free Agent, 2008

A cornerstone member of the Bulldogs, and one of the greatest reasons for their success in recent years, Desharnais has finally turned a corner in his development as an NHL prospect. After multiple seasons of carrying a bulk of the Hamilton offense, the 24-year-old was called up to the Canadiens early in 2011. Desharnais boasted 10 goals and 35 assists through 35 AHL games. The undrafted 5’7 forward fit in quietly, before eventually posting five goals and seven assists in 20 NHL games.

9. (12) Alexander Avtsin, RW, 7D
Acquired: 4th round, 109th overall, 2009

Having faced no shortage of obstacles, Avtsin cleared a major hurdle simply by joining the Hamilton Bulldogs this season as a 19-year-old. The teenaged Russian, a burgeoning talent, has done a commendable job acclimating to his new surroundings. Over the course of the year, he has been in and out of the lineup sporadically, often due to nagging injuries.

Assuming more regular playing time at the beginning of the calendar year, Avtsin began to put up points with consistency. With seven points in 10 games in January, he nearly matched his total output in the months prior. To date, Avtsin has four goals and 11 assists in 35 games.

10. (NR) Brendon Nash, D, 7D
Acquired: Free Agent, 2010

In 2009-10, Nash was the highest-scoring defenseman for Cornell in the NCAA. With his successful senior campaign, the undrafted Kamloops, B.C. native, who stands 6’3 and weighs 210 pounds, was signed to a two-year contract by the Canadiens.

As a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs, Nash has continued to provide an offensive spark. Right away, he was a noticeable presence, particularly on the powerplay. The 23-year-old has scored three goals and 20 assists. Though his scoring rate has slowed as of late, Nash earned a call-up to Montreal to help ameliorate an injury-depleted defensive corps.

11. (7) Mathieu Carle, D, 7D
Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2006

Carle has been able to stay relatively healthy during the year, when in the past, injuries have cost him significant playing time. Returning in 2010-11 for his fourth go-around with the Bulldogs, Carle is one of a few blueliners with above average offensive acumen. He has scored 10 goals and eight assists in 45 games.

Injuries over the course of Carle’s Hamilton tenure may have set him back. The Canadiens elected to retain the 23-year-old during the summer, when they re-signed him for this season. At the very least, Carle can be a valuable player in the AHL, but the competition for spots on the Montreal blue line will be fierce. At the conclusion of this season, Carle will face possible free agency for the second consecutive year.

12. (11) Andreas Engqvist, C, 7D
Acquired: Free Agent, 2009

In his first professional season in North America, Engqvist has found a niche for himself with the Bulldogs as a top penalty killer and defensive forward. Since arriving from Sweden, where he played the last four seasons, Engqvist has quickly demonstrated he can be relied upon in different on-ice situations, even if he is not producing points on a large scale. With Hamilton, through 46 games, he has scored six goals and assisted on eight others. Engqvist even earned a brief stint with Montreal. He averaged roughly 10 minutes of ice time in two games, registering an even plus/minus. Given his size, Engqvist’s versatility is encouraging. The 23-year-old, signed as an undrafted free agent in July 2009, already seems to have ingratiated himself with the Canadiens.

13. (9) Ben Maxwell, C, 6B
Acquired: 2nd round, 49th overall, 2006

Maxwell has been an able contributor with the Bulldogs again this season, with nine goals and 26 assists in 44 games. Still, he has not done enough to impress Canadiens’ brass, whose expectations of him have always been high. At the age of 22, Maxwell is far from a bust, but his window of opportunity to prove himself is closing. Even more troubling, is that over time, this task will only become increasingly difficult. At the AHL level, Maxwell is a reliable top-six forward, though he still struggles with bouts of inconsistency at times. At the NHL level, however, Maxwell has not yet earned the trust of the big club. Montreal has recalled four different forwards this season. Maxwell was not among them.

14. (16) Mac Bennett, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2009

Bennett made the jump from the USHL to the NCAA this season, joining the University of Michigan. The Wolverines’ ample defensive depth has cost the 19-year-old freshman some playing time. Having played in 20 of Michigan’s 32 games, Bennett has a goal and six assists.

Bennett is an excellent skater with keen puck moving ability. Yet at the collegiate level, it is evident he is still a raw talent. Bennett will hope to improve upon his positioning, as well as reading plays in his own zone. Bennett is only beginning to learn at the NCAA level.

15. (14) Ryan White, C, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006

The 2010-11 season began promisingly for the 22-year-old White, who fought tooth and nail with top prospect Lars Eller for a spot with the Canadiens in training camp. After being edged for the job, White returned to Hamilton for his third tour of duty with the Bulldogs. At times, he has been a bit more inconspicuous on the ice, and has been out of the Bulldogs lineup due to injury. Ultimately however, he is the same player. Checking, and providing grit and energy is what White does best. He has three goals and nine assists in 33 AHL games this year. White is now in his second stint with the Canadiens, dressing in seven games and earning one assist.

16. (17) Brock Trotter, C, 7D
Acquired: Free Agent, 2008

Trotter has been a mainstay with the Hamilton Bulldogs since joining the team during the 2007-08 season. But as a restricted free agent this summer, Trotter signed a new deal to play in the KHL with Riga Dynamo. A point-per-game scorer in his final season with Hamilton, Trotter has scored a very respectable nine goals and 16 assists in his first season abroad.

Trotter, having signed with the Canadiens at the age of 21 after three years in the NCAA, will graduate from prospect status at the conclusion of the season. Montreal will continue to hold the 24-year-old’s NHL rights, though he will remain under contract in the KHL through 2011-12.

17. (13) Gabriel Dumont, C, 6.5D
Acquired: 5th round, 139th overall, 2009

In his first full season as a professional, Dumont has been relegated to the bottom six of a deep Hamilton team. A noted scorer at the conclusion of his junior hockey career, it has been Dumont’s other, less glamorous qualities that have been on display in AHL play. He has tallied four goals and nine assists in 47 games this season. The 20-year-old is far from timid and not at all deterred by physicality, despite not being very big at 5’10. Dumont is an intense competitor who possesses a great deal of determination, and will certainly contend for a larger role next season.

18. (18) Maxim Tru
, RW, 7D
Acquired: 5th round, 138th overall, 2008

Also in the KHL, the 20-year-old Maxim Trunev. The Russian winger has once again bounced between the KHL with Severstal Cherepovets and the country’s major junior league, the MHL. At the lower level, he has scored three goals and four assists in eight games. More often that not, however, Trunev has suited up for Severstal. Though very few young players amass substantial point totals in the KHL, Trunev has eked out a new career high in points with seven (one goal and six assists in 37 games). A highly skilled player, Trunev’s chances will increase in due time.

19. (NR) Brendan Gallagher, RW, 7D
Acquired: 5th round, 147th overall, 2010

Gallagher is the second of two 2010 Montreal draft choices to crack the top 20, and the youngest player of all. In the season heading up to the recent draft, Gallagher produced a noteworthy 41 goals and 40 assists in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants. This season, the fifth-round pick is on pace to increase those totals. So far, he has scored 38 goals and 37 assists through 56 games, lingering among the league’s scoring leaders all-year round. This, despite being a smaller player, listed at 5’8 and 170 pounds.

At the junior level, Gallagher has displayed a high amount of skill. He has terrific quickness, as well as a hard and accurate shot. He is also assertive, able to find open space, while entering high-traffic areas as well.

20. (15) Steve Quailer, RW, 6.5D
Acquired: 3rd round, 86th overall, 2008

Quailer’s sophomore season is underway, back from a leg injury which meant he was unable to dress in any games last season for Northeastern University. For the low-scoring Huskies, Quailer has scored three goals and six assists this season in 28 games. Though his stat totals appear trivial, the 21-year-old has made noticeable improvements. Added strength has supplemented the 6’4 forward’s game, especially in one-on-one battles for the puck. Quailer has shown no reservations putting shots on net, and his play away from the puck has has also improved considerably.