Canadiens WJC prospects review

By Simon Richard

Of the 104 drafted players present at the 2005 World Junior Championships, the Montreal Canadiens could lay claim to four of them.

In terms of number, that placed the team in the middle of the pack of the National Hockey League teams. The four players were the Belarus Andrei Kotstitsyn (2003, 1st round), the Russian Alexei Yemelin ( 2004, 3rd round), the Swedish Christopher Heino-Lindberg (2003, 6th round) and the Slovak Jaroslav Halak (2003, 9th round).

All four players are Europeans. It is interesting to note that the Montreal Canadiens is the only NHL team who did not have a prospect on the Canadian junior team for the last three years and on the U.S. team for the last two years.

For the second year in a row, the Habs did not have a prospect invited to the Canadian Junior Team final camp selection while also not having a player on the American team. Only the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche share this history with Montreal.

Andrei Kostitsyn

The Belarus forward signed a three-year contract last summer with the Habs and flew to Hamilton where he is playing for the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.

“It was difficult for me to get adapted at the beginning of the season, but I feel much better now,” commented Kostitsyn when Hockey’s Future met him in his hotel in Grand Forks, N.D. at the beginning of the tournament.

Living alone, in a foreign country situated close to 10,000 kilometers away from his family and friends is not easy for a 19-year-old kid. The young Belarus player told to HF that he was really getting bored at first in Hamilton.

“My family tried coming in Hamilton but their visa request was declined,” shrugged a very disappointed young man.

The life is simple for him in Hamilton. “I have no distraction, all my time is spent on training, playing games and learning English.

“But off the ice, I feel better now and on the ice, the coach gave me more ice time lately in Hamilton and I hope that I will perform better after the WJC,” commented Kostitsyn.

“He is really coming to his own lately with Hamilton,” confirmed Montreal head scout Trevor Timmins in the Ralph Engelstad Arena during the WJC.

“The coach [Doug Jarvis] is stressing for Andrei to learn the defensive part of the game which he has in the first part of the season. You can see the difference here at the WJC, he is a lot better on the defensive side than he was last season,” observed Timmins.

Coming to the WJC, the Montreal 2003 tenth overall selection was undoubtedly the team’s top prospect.

Kostitsyn has now the distinction of having played five times at the World Juniors. He expressed to HF how much he was proud to represent again his country at the WJC.

According to Timmins, the Montreal Canadiens accepted to release Kostitsyn for the WJC for several factors, including the fact that Belarus asked permission for him to play for them.

“There was also the fact that Andrei had the chance to play with his brother [Siarhei] and with his own peers,” underlined Timmins.

“Before making our decision, we also considered the fact that Andrei could play with players of his own age group and maybe give him a chance to get some more confidence to his offensive game which, you know, is his game,” said Timmins.

Playing with a weak team, Kostitsyn didn’t accumulate a lot of points during the tournament. An observer told HF that he felt the Belarus player lacked intensity on some occasions.

Nevertheless, Kostitsyn played very well and was the best player on his team. He had his best moment while Belarus amazed the U.S. team winning 5-3. That night, he was the incontestable Belarus leader on the ice. With one goal and two assists, he was named the best player of the game for his team.

After that game, the Belarus coach Mikhail Zakharov had this amazing comment to say to HF after the press conference, “Andrei is a top class hockey player. If he could manage to be in a good shape, he could be a better hockey player, better than Alexander Ovechkin.”

When asked to elaborate on that, Zakharov said, “I assure you that two years ago, at the Under-18 World Championships in Yaroslav, Andrei was better than Ovechkin. He was the second best scorer of the tournament,” recalled the Belarus coach.

During this tournament, Kostitsyn suffered a shoulder injury after a questionable hit by a Slovak player while he was completing a break away. He missed the final game of Belarus and has not returned yet on the ice with the Bulldogs.

Alexei Yemelin

“He is a strong defenseman. He can play a physical game, he can shoot. He is a great skater as well but first of all, he is a very good person,” said Alexander Ovechkin, speaking of his teammate Alexei Yemelin to HF in Thief River Falls, Minn.

Yemelin has character too and hates losing as seen after the defeat of the Russian team against the U.S. in the tournament opening game. The young defenseman was really mad in the media zone, his answers consisting of two or three words.

Timmins commented on Yemelin, “I’m happy with him. It is a big challenge for a 18-year-old player to play here, especially for a defenseman.”

“He plays more a North American game, he is a physical defenseman, he is very good one-on-one defensively. And he showed here his nasty side that he has,” added Timmins.

The Habs chief scout was asked if the Montreal Canadiens would like to see him play in the CHL next year.

“Well, a CHL team would have to draft him in the Import Draft. I think the plan for us is to leave him in Russia, letting him develop for two, three or four years and mature as a man in the Superleague.”

Russian TV commentator Yuri Rosanov has done the play-by-play for NTV at the WJC for many years. He is also very familiar with the Superleague. He told to HF in Grand Forks that one thing that should be considered about Yemelin is the fact that is coach with Lada Togliatti in Russia is Petr Vorobiev, the former coach of the Russian Junior Team, and the coach in Winnipeg a few years ago.

“He is a defensive coach, the same type as [Minnesota Wild coach] Jacques Lemaire. Togliatti has many very low score results, so much indeed that many observers say that is anti-hockey,” stated Rozanov.

“Yemelin is playing for the best master of the defensive in Russia which is very good for him. Also, Vorobiev likes young players and does not fear to give them ice time.”

According to Rozanov, Yemelin has a chance of eventually making the Montreal Canadiens. “Everybody has chances,” he said with a slight smile.

Asked to compare Yemelin with Konstantin Korneev, another Habs defensive prospect, Rozanov said that first one is bigger and stronger while the latter has more talent.

Playing on the Russian third defensive third pair, Yemelin was among the best Russian defensemen at the WJC, maybe the second one right after Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Dmitry Vorobiev, which is very good considering that Yemelin is only 18 years old.

He played solidly and with intensity at the WJC, the comparison with NHLer Darius Kasparaitis is probably a little bit exaggerated, but Yemelin surely showed that he can play a physical game.

Christopher Heino-Lindberg

Selected at the 177th spot overall in 2003, Christopher Heino-Lindberg is playing for Hammarby IF in the Swedish second division league.

Before attending the WJC with Team Sweden, Heino-Lindberg had played all 33 Hammarby games, recording six shutouts and assuring the team a spot in the playoffs.

“I was very thrilled at being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens,” said Heino-Lindberg in fluent English to HF in Thief River Falls, Minn.

“[Patrick] Roy, [Jose] Theodore, Montreal has such a great goaltending tradition and so many good goalies are from Quebec,” observed the Swedish goalie with enthusiasm. “This is where the hockey is coming from,” he added.

Heino-Lindberg came to Montreal for the team’s 2004 summer camp. He loved the arena, the people and the town. He told to HF that he dreams of making the team some day but he does recognize it will be hard.

He describes himself as being pretty good with the stick. “I’m working very hard on it. I have good reflexes, I’m a good skater and I need to be aggressive and talk a lot to have success.”

The Swedish coach Torgny Bendelin told HF after the team’s second game at the WJC that Heino-Lindberg is playing very well around the net. “He is very quick and very strong mentally,” said Bendelin.

Heino-Lindberg’s quickness is also one of the qualities cited by Trevor Timmins. The latter also likes the reflexes of the Swedish goalie, his aggressive style and the way he reads the play.

“He is an extremely gifted athlete, he just need some coaching,” Timmins told HF.

“We have one of the best goaltending coaches in the league in Rollie Melanson, but Heino-Lindberg has not spent much time yet with Rollie. We are looking forward to him getting some good coaching from us and moving forward in the future.”

According to Timmins, the Swedish prospect tends to challenge shooters and is therefore caught out of position a lot of time. “He needs to play a more controlled game,” stated the Habs chief scout.

The best Swedish goaltender for his age group and the best goaltender at the last Under-20 Four Nations Tournament in Sweden is in the long-range plans for the Montreal Canadiens. “When we drafted him, we knew it would be a three to five years commitment for him to play in Sweden and develop his skills.

The 6’0, 185-pound goaltender began the tournament in the crease for Team Sweden and had a shutout against Germany. He began the game against Canada and was pulled out of the game for the third period. Nevertheless, he had played that well during his two periods that he was named the best played for Sweden despite having given up six goals and being pulled.

In the next game against Finland, he couldn’t stop the Finns’ third period rally and gave four goals. He did not start the next games against Slovakia and USA. He was placed between the pipes into the second period of the latter game, but suffered a shoulder injury after only three minutes of play. He consequently missed the final game against Finland.

Overall, it wasn’t a good tournament for Heino-Lindberg.

Nevertheless, one could see that he is a fierce competitor. After the difficult defeat against the Finns, he was clear on the mistakes he has made. After the loss against USA, he was angry and didn’t hesitate to clearly point out that his teammates hadn’t produced any effort at all.

Off the ice, he is interesting, kind and enthusiastic. While he was asked to describe himself in a few words, he answered “Carpe diem.” Not many kids his age would give that answer.

One thing is sure. If he ever makes the Montreal Canadiens team, he will bring freshness and the fans will love him in a way they reserve for very few.

Heino-Lindberg is a late round selection and it’s a legitimate hope that he could do like some other sixth rounders have done in the past. Hextall, Snow, Rhodes, Turek and Lalime had success in the NHL despite the fact they were drafted in the sixth round.

Jaroslav Halak

Halak was a no-name player until he was named the best 2003 Under-18 World Championships goaltender a few weeks before the NHL draft the same year. The Montreal Canadiens had really nothing to lose selecting him in the ninth round, 271st overall.

The next fall he left Slovakia this season to play for the QMJHL Lewinston MAINEiacs.

Halak was in Helsinki last year at the WJC. As the leading Slovak goaltender at the age of 18, he had a good tournament. At that time, he didn’t speak English at all but in Grand Forks it was clear that things has changed.

“I have adapted to the QMJHL, it was tough at the beginning but now it is OK,” said Halak in respectable English in Grand Forks.

The Slovak goaltender had difficulties getting adapted to the small rinks and the number of shots on goal in the CHL.

Timmins is very pleased with the progression of Halak so far. “He’s received a lot more coaching from Rollie Melanson than Heino-Lindberg has. Playing in the QMJHL this year and having been at our rookie camp helped him a lot.” Timmins noted that Halak is now playing a much more controlled game and now has much more quickness and reflexes.

“We are very happy for a ninth round pick. He is exceeding our expectations and he has a chance to be a pro,” concluded the Habs chief scout.

Halak had a pretty good tournament in Grand Forks. He started all the Slovak games, recording along the way two shutouts (against Finland and Germany). Only the Czech Marek Schwarz and the Canadian Jeff Glass had a better save percentage and GAA record than him at the WJC.

The Slovak team finished seventh at the 2005 tournament which does not reflect their play. In six games, Halak and his teammates only suffered two losses, including one to the strong Canadian team.

But Halak and his teammates lost any chance to make the medal round while they had to make anything but losing by a three goals difference or more against Sweden in the round robin. The Slovaks offensive was strong that game and Halak could not prevent Sweden from winning 3-0.

Halak has really improved from last year, but is very small, probably smaller than the 5’11 and 165 pounds at which he is officially listed. His size is the reason he didn’t get much attention at the 2003 NHL Draft. Time will tell if he can make it.

Simon Richard is the author of La Serie du siecle, Septembre 1972, a book about the Summit Series published in 2002.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.