Beaulieu debuts as top prospect for Montreal Canadiens

By Ian Bross

Photo: Nathan Beaulieu looks to be the next in a long line of talented, puck-moving defensemen to play for the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Recently drafted defenseman Nathan Beaulieu takes over atop the top 20, in a spot most recently occupied by fellow rearguard P.K. Subban. There are several notable risers in the newest edition of the list, particularly David Desharnais, Alexei Yemelin and Brendan Gallagher. Not including Beaulieu, three other prospects make their debuts: trade acquisitions Mark Mitera and Michael Bournival, as well as free-agent signing Alain Berger.

1. (NR) Nathan Beaulieu, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 17th overall, 2011

The Canadiens’ number one selection in the 2011 entry draft debuts in the number one spot. Beaulieu spent last season with the stacked Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL. With Saint John, Beaulieu won a Memorial Cup championship, and was named to the tournament’s all-star team. He had 12 goals and 33 assists.

A mobile, puck-moving defenseman, Beaulieu rounded out his play during his draft year. In addition to his array of skills and awareness on the ice, namely an ability to quarterback the powerplay and make things happen offensively, Beaulieu is a sound risk-taker. His talent is part of a greater, more complete package. Scouts have considered Beaulieu to be developing a "special" skillset.

2. (3) Danny Kristo, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2008

Kristo enjoyed a lauded freshman season with the University of North Dakota, but his sophomore season was decidedly less agreeable. He got off to a slow start, before finding his game. An otherwise terrific year was interrupted when Kristo suffered frostbite in his foot. He returned to action after a period of uncertain recovery, to finish the season with eight goals and 20 assists in 34 games. What is most appealing about Kristo is his confidence and his combination of offensive creativity and defensive responsibility, all boosted by his skating ability. Kristo should play a huge part of the team’s success this fall. He enters his junior season with the Fighting Sioux as the team’s active leader in points.

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

The 2010-11 season was Leblanc’s first QMJHL season, and perhaps his last. It didn’t take long for the former collegian to become an important part of the Montreal Juniors. He finished in the team’s top three in scoring during the regular season with 26 goals and 32 assists. He also participated in the World Junior Championship, taking home a silver medal, and was a member of Team QMJHL in the 2010 Subway Super Series. If Leblanc returns to the QMJHL, it will be with the Shawinigan Cataractes, who acquired him in the offseason from the Juniors. Given Leblanc’s balanced skillset, he is probably on his way to the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

4. (8) David Desharnais, C, 7.0B
Signed as Free Agent, November 2008

Desharnais ascends into the top five by virtue of his breakthrough into the NHL. A star in Hamilton, the 24-year-old lingered for an extended period on the cusp of graduating from the AHL. He finally accomplished the feat midway through this past season, his minor-professional career effectively coming to an end with the conclusion 2011 calendar year. Beginning his tenure with Montreal on January 2nd, Desharnais stuck with the club the remainder of the season. After signing a two-year contract extension in the summer, the question as to whether or not Desharnais could reach the NHL seems to have been answered.

5. (6) Yannick Weber, D, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2007

Weber is becoming increasingly accustomed to patrolling the Canadiens’ blue line. In all likelihood, the 22-year-old’s AHL days are now behind him. The Swiss defenseman never had any difficulty doing what he does best at the minor league level — contributing to the offense. Weber tallied more than 70 points in his first two seasons with Hamilton. In 2010-11, before long, it was apparent Weber’s offensive ability was NHL caliber. Still, Weber is a scrappy player, and while he has gotten by well so far, he will need to add strength and improve his positioning.

6. (7) Aaron Palushaj, RW, 7.0B
Acquired via trade, March 2010

No other Bulldogs forward made a more sustained impact last season than Palushaj. With injuries to the Montreal forward corps, Palushaj’s playing time increased in his first full campaign with Hamilton. Palushaj finished the regular season with a total of 22 goals and 35 assists. He had 57 points in 68 games.

Palushaj is a smart, responsible player who possesses a complete game. He has the requisite skill and hockey IQ to produce a standout year in the AHL next season. That is, if he fails to crack the Canadiens lineup.

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

Already somewhat of a victim of his draft position and the expectations that come with it, Tinordi managed to finish his first OHL season on a higher note than he began. Tinordi is not a flashy player. Overpowering his opponents with his 6’7 200-plus pound frame suits him best. Tinordi played a stay-at-home style with the London Knights, and was a crucial penalty killer. He showed a propensity for rough play, leading the team with 140 penalty minutes during the season. He also had a goal and 13 assists. Tinordi’s play got stronger as the year went along. He will be back in London in 2011-12.

8. (9) Alexander Avtsin, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2009

In making the move to leave his home country and play in North America, Avtsin has quickly faced his fair share of tumult, and he has withstood it well. He debuted with the Bulldogs as the team’s youngest player, as a 19-year-old — a rare occurrence. He dealt with nagging injuries and limited ice time, as he was transitioned slowly into a relatively unfamiliar, new style of hockey. He appeared in 58 games, scoring five goals and 15 assists, far cries from what he is capable of. As Avtsin learns his new surroundings, those totals are sure to increase. Avtsin has elite skills at his disposal.

9. (NR) Alexei Yemelin, D, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004

Another Russian import, Yemelin’s arrival in North America has been long-anticipated. Overseas, Yemelin has become a mainstay for AK Bars Kazan, back-to-back winners of the Gagarin Cup as KHL champions. Yemelin’s experience abroad and style of play should position him as a viable NHL rearguard. A tough, gritty, stay-at-home type of defenseman, Yemelin’s offensive production also rose dramatically last season, with 11 goals and 15 assists. Nevertheless, he still compiled a team-high 117 penalty minutes, the fourth-highest total in the league. He agreed to a one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens in May.

10. (10) Brendon Nash, D, 7.0C
Signed as Free Agent, March 2010

Nash was signed to his first professional contract on the eve of his 23rd birthday after a full stint in the NCAA. And after a year, he has ensconced himself in the Canadiens organization. A two-way defenseman, Nash’s statistical contributions were great in Hamilton at the beginning of the year. His rate of production slowed considerably as the season progressed, but he was able to show flashes of his ability to excel with the man-advantage and seize offensive opportunity. As an undrafted free agent signing, Nash’s influence has been a pleasant surprise, finishing the season with five goals and 25 assists, and a team-best plus-22 rating.

11. (12) Andreas Engqvist, C, 6.5C
Signed as a Free Agent, July 2009

The rangy Swede suffered from no growing pains in his first professional season on North American ice. The 23-year-old Engqvist did not look like a rookie, perhaps as a result of his prior experience in the SEL. It took no time at all for Engqvist to make an impact in Hamilton, particularly by excelling as a go-to penalty killer and defensive forward. He added 10 goals and 15 assists, and skated in three games with Montreal, not registering any points. Engqvist’s versatility may mean additional appearances in the not-too-distant future.

12. (15) Ryan White, C, 6.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2006

White had a difficult start to his season in Hamilton, but returned to form, notching three goals and nine assists along with 77 penalty minutes in 33 games. He finished the season with Montreal, appearing in 27 games, adding two goals and three assists. White was outshined by Lars Eller in training camp roughly one year ago, falling agonizingly short of a berth with the Canadiens. Over the course of the season, however, he was given the chance to demonstrate he belonged, and is now that much closer to making the cut heading into this year’s camp.

13. (19) Brendan Gallagher, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, 2010

No Vancouver Giant stood taller last season than 5’8 Brendan Gallagher, who has enjoyed the view near the top of the WHL in scoring in consecutive seasons. The fifth-round pick was a leader for the Giants, and a crucial part of their offense. In 66 games, Gallagher amassed 44 goals and 47 assists, best on the team, and eighth-best in the WHL. He was also among the league leaders in plus/minus (with plus-30), and amassed 108 penalty minutes. Overall, Gallagher possesses an intriguing combination of pure talent, instinct for the game, and competitive fire.

14. (20) Steve Quailer, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2008

Quailer triumphed last season over an injury that sidelined him for an entire year. Despite his sophomore season with Northeastern University being put on hold, Quailer picked up where he left off upon his return. In a relatively low-key offense, Quailer scored three goals and 10 assists in 38 games. It is not Quailer’s statistics themselves that are impressive. Rather, it is Quailer’s improvements to his style of play; he added strength and grit to his game. Both attributes will serve his burgeoning power forward skillset well. The 22-year-old is heading into his junior season.

15. (14) Mac Bennett, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2009

The smooth-skating Bennett encountered plenty of bumps in the road from the USHL to NCAA as a freshman. All in all, he made respectable progress in his first year of collegiate hockey with the University of Michigan. In 32 games, the 20-year-old scored two goals and 10 assists. A great skater with good hands and awareness, Bennett needs work on his decision-making. At times, he is perhaps too eager to contribute to the offense, and has been caught out of position. There is no question however, that Bennett has the tools to be a reliable two-way defenseman in the future.

16. (NR) Mark Mitera, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Anaheim, July 2011

Mitera was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens in July from the Anaheim Ducks. A former first-round pick, Mitera is a not-at-all flashy, strong-skating defensive blueliner. Mitera plays a solid physical game, with an emphasis on responsible play in his own zone. He is also capable of chipping in on the offense on occasion. The 23-year-old played his first full AHL season in 2010-11 with the Syracuse Crunch. In 71 games, he scored six goals and 16 assists. He is set to debut with Hamilton for the 2011-12 season.

17. (NR) Michael Bournival, C, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Colorado, November 2010

A third-round draft choice of the Colorado Avalanche, Bournival makes his first appearance in the Canadiens’ top 20. Among all of the organization’s QMJHL prospects, Bournival perhaps had the most noteworthy season. In addition to being named to the Team QMJHL roster for the 2010 Subway Super Series, with 28 goals and 36 assists, Bournival out-produced other Canadiens prospects playing in the league. Bournival is a tireless worker and intensely competitive. He is not big, but he is strong, and could amass big numbers next season.

18. (17) Gabriel Dumont, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2009

Dumont’s explosive finale campaign in the QMJHL is beginning to seem like a distant memory, but the 20-year-old has been hanging tough as a pro. Though he is no longer routinely lighting the lamp, Dumont’s work habits have not suffered in the least. Dumont’s modest stature has not deterred him from battling on a nightly basis against increasingly rigorous competition. In his first full season as a professional, Dumont provided energy from the Bulldogs’ bottom-six. Dumont will most certainly fight for a greater role with the team next fall.

19. (NR) Joonas Nattinen, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2009

The 20-year-old bounced around from team to team in Finland the last two seasons, and had to recover from an injury to his Achilles. Nattinen eventually registered two assists in 21 games this season in the SM-Liiga with HPK Hameenlinna and the Espoo Blues. Nattinen could never get settled permanently in his home country, but the Canadiens organization extended an invitation that the Finnish forward accepted this spring. Nattinen signed a two-way contract with Montreal in May, and will thus have a chance to play hockey in North America in 2011-12. He will compete for a spot with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

20. (NR) Alain Berger, RW, 7.0D
Signed as a Free Agent, April 2011

A new addition to the Canadiens organization, Berger was signed to a three-year contract in April. The Swiss forward spent the last two seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Last season, he scored 29 goals and 23 assists. Berger plays hard, and has the raw size to become a force to be reckoned with. Skating is a definite concern, but willingness to utilize his 6’4 frame is not. Berger has an affinity for play around the opposing team’s goal crease, gets involved physically, and drops the gloves without hesitation.