By Marc-André Breault – Prior to training camp, we know that the Montreal Canadiens would have a young team. With Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson injured to start the season, there was even more room for youngsters in the line-up. Four young defenders patrolled the Montreal defense.
We strongly expected 20 year-old Kaiden Guhle, believing in his chances of making a place for himself. Jordan Harris, with his few games last season, also had his foot in the door even at his 22 years of age. As for Johnathan Kovacevic, our expectations were low, not really knowing him. The 25 year-old did have good offensive statistics in the AHL, but he had little NHL experience.
Last but not least, you have 21 year-old Arber Xhekaj, whose name is worth 27 points in Scrabble. The young defenseman who was never drafted, who worked at Costco, had a good training camp and earned his spot on the defensive squad of Martin St-Louis. A big man standing at 6-foot 4-inches and 238 lbs, with hands capable of holding 3 bottles of water in one hand, Xhekaj is currently 26th in the NHL with 77 hits in 25 games. So with an average of 3.08 hits per game, he hits also hits hard. So far, he has also impressed offensively, with four goals and four assists.
The vast majority of fans expected some growing pains and despite some hiccups from the youngsters, the defense has done a good job since the start of the season.
Kaiden Guhle has impressed so far. The youngster shows a veteran calm on the blue line. An excellent skater, Guhle is has good recovery and displays some underrated offensive flair. So far he has one goal and 10 assists. Jordan Harris is not the strongest physically, but he too seems to be calm. He also has good skating abilities and a he’s good in recovery. A total of one goal and seven assists for Harris. As for Kovacevic, he’s a decent sixth or seventh defenseman. Could one or more veterans leave by trade deadline?
On offense, we expected the brilliance of our own Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield duo. So far they are very impressing. At 23 years of age, Suzuki, the youngest captain in Habs’ history, seems to have done away with the supposed pressure of being captain. His 29 pts in 27 games are en route to a career best, on pace for a possible 88 points. He could be the first Canadiens’ player to have more than 80 pts in a season since a certain Alex Kovalev did it in 2007-08.
“Goal” Caufield, meanwhile, is also producing at a good pace. The 21 year-old now has 16 goals in 27 games, a pace of 48 goals on the season. With 25 points, he could finish with a very satisfying sophomore season of 76 points. I believe that many people are surprised by this successful start of our two young wolves.
After trying Kirby Dach at the center position, St-Louis experimented by inserting Dach on the wing, to the right of Caufield and Suzuki. Acquired at the last NHL Draft via trade, the 21 year-old has shown so far that it was a good choice. Tied for first with Nick Suzuki in assists with 15, Dach has a total of 19 points in 27 games. The three players are the team’s top -3 scorers so far this season.
At 26 years of age, Samuel Montembeault got off to a great start and statistically speaking, he is now the better goaltender of the team with a 2.97 goals-against-average and .908 save percentage. But, it seems to be more complicated in the last games.
With other young prospects on the verge of joining the team, we can say that the future is bright!
By Marc-André Breault – I was thinking about the future in Montreal and I wanted share my thoughts on several young players. We can read many articles about Kaiden Guhle, Cayden Primeau, Arber Xhekaj, Jayden Struble, Mattias Norlinder… Today, I want to focus on a few prospects with a few NHL games under their belt. I did the same exercise in French on Le Hockey Herald but this time, I’m including two of my colleagues from Cheering The Logo: JD Lagrange and Bob Trask.
Let’s start with the right winger, Jesse Ylönen. He was drafted in the 2nd round at the 35th rank in 2018. He will be 23 years old at the start of the season. He played only 15 games in the NHL and he had 5 points including 2 goals and 3 assists. With the Laval Rocket, he has played 81 games so far with a total of 53 points including 23 goals and 30 assists. He is a very fast winger with an excellent one-timer.
In my opinion, he was discreet in his games with the big club. He seemed intimidated and wasn’t playing the way we see him playing with Laval. But this young man could break through the lineup this season if he has a good camp. He has the speed to do it and if he can keep his shot accurate, he could even be a weapon on the power play. I see him as a 3rd line player capable of playing on a 2nd line from time to time. Let’s see what our collaborators think.
For JD, Ylönen proved that he can play in NHL but… “Ylönen has proven to me that he’s NHL-ready. Unfortunately for him, the wing position is the deepest position on the Canadiens this off-season.” In this situation, Ylönen will go in Laval. “Fast, good shot, good defensively, he needs to put on some serious weight on his frame. He must force Kent Hughes to make room for him by having a good training camp. But he will likely start in Laval.” Like me, he sees him on a third line. “I see him as a good 3rd line player in the future, who will kill penalties.”
Bob sees the same things for Ylönen. “I think he has proven that he can play in the NHL but his path is blocked by Brendan Gallagher. Good skill set for a 3rd line right wing with some PP time. He’s not a 4th line type of player.” The upcoming season could see him share time between the AHL and the NHL. “Because he is not waiver eligible, I see him bouncing between Montreal and Laval.” Like us, he sees Jesse on the 3rd line but with a different twist. “Eventually he will play in the NHL at the 3rd line level but maybe not in Montreal.”
The next prospect is one who amazed us in the last playoffs in Laval, Cayden Primeau. The young goaltender was chosen in the 7th round, just as a reminder. He was sometimes good and sometimes bad in his 18 games when he played with Montreal.
Unfortunately for him, he was not ready for the NHL, but the circumstances of last season led him to play a few games. He has demonstrated inconsistency since the COVID shutdowns. The youngster needs to play a lot of games to find his confidence and consistency and COVID has prevented him from playing a lot. Fortunately, he returned to Laval and regained confidence. He still finished his AHL season high at .900. He exploded in the playoffs, finishing with an average of 2.17 and .936% efficiency. A little harder to predict for a goaltender, but I see him playing a good season in Laval this year and he may be ready for the following season. Will he be a #1? We would all like that, but for now, there are still doubts.
For Bob – and many others people – Primeau had a bad season. “Cayden Primeau did not show well in the NHL last year but there were a lot of mitigating circumstances. I don’t think it was indicative of his play and his bounce back in the latter half of the season in Laval makes me optimistic.” He wants to see him in Laval too for this season. “In the short term I see him playing the bulk of his games in Laval this year with an occasional recall to Montreal.” 1B goalie maybe? “In the long term, I think he has what it takes to be a 1B goaltender and that is where I think his future lies in Montreal.”
JD has a different take about him. “Those who are judging Primeau by his stint in Montreal last year, using that as justification to write him off, are premature. Many good goalies don’t find their stride in the NHL until they turn 26-27.” The upcoming season can be interesting. “He needs to play to develop and as I recently wrote, he needs to either be a full-time starter in the AHL or a 1B with Allen in Montreal, depending on his training camp.” Can he be a starter? “He has made a career of proving people wrong and I have little doubt that he will be a starter in the NHL in the near future, likely in a 1A or 1B capacity.”
Justin Barron was drafted 20th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He was acquired in the Arturri Lehkonentrade, along with a 2nd round pick in 2024. He is a right-handed defender, which is more rare in the organization.
He has only played 7 games in the NHL so far, but I really liked his skating, his vision of the ice and his shooting. He’s an offensive defenseman who moves well on the ice. I even saw as a comparison, a Jeff Petry with faster decision making. He could possibly be a 4th defenseman and, at best, on the first pair with Kaiden Guhle in the future. An offensive-defensive pairing! For this season, what I would really like is for him to develop an affinity with Guhle in Laval and for them to come and finish the NHL season on the 3rd pair.
For Bob, Justin Barron is look like Petry and maybe better. “Justin Barron reminded me a lot of Jeff Petry in his brief stint with the Habs and on a positive note, seemed to make decisions quicker than Petry did.” For this season, he sees him in the line up now. “In the short term, I see the Canadiens easing him into the lineup this year by trying to get favourable matchups.” He sees a very good potential for Justin. “Long term I see him as a first pairing defenseman who will be either on the 1st or 2nd power play unit.”
For JD, the young defenseman is… still very young. “Sometimes, we forget that he’s only 20 years old. He has a big advantage, being right-handed as only Savard and Wideman shoot right on NHL contracts.” This season, he can play in NHL. “It’s his spot to lose in Montreal to start the season but he could see some time in Laval too. He’s so young.” A second pair or first? “He should become a very good second pairing defenseman on a good team, or first pairing if teamed up with an elite defense partner.”
A young Quebecer is among my selections and I‘m referring to Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, or RHP for short. A 7th round pick in 2019, who played four games with the Canadiens last season, scoring his first NHL goal.
A young player in the style of Brendan Gallagher with a lot of aggressiveness. They nicknamed him Lavallagher on the Rocket. He performed well in the AHL, with seasons of 20 points in 36 games, 56 points in 69 games and 10 points in 15 playoffs games. He seemed to play the same style of play as in the AHL during his stint in Montreal. He could break through the roster on a 4th line. In my opinion, he can make his place on the 4th or even 3rd line in the future.
JD says: “RHP is the type of player that will always have to prove himself. We compare him to Gallagher but I think that Gally has more pure skills. But the work ethics are similar.” Harvey-Pinard will be at Laval, according to JD. “The Habs are so deep at the wing that he will be in Laval. I’m hoping that he gets called up and seizes his opportunity when it comes.” He will be surely a good energy player. “He will be an energy guy at the NHL level.”
Like JD and many others, Bob sees a little bit of Gally in RHP. “Rafaël Harvey-Pinard showed a bit of that Brendan Gallagher drive in his play and was able to avoid going too far with it, something Gallagher has been guilty of at times.” He sees him in Laval too, and on the 4th line in the NHL for the future. “In the short term, I see him in Laval this year with a chance to eventually earn a 4th line role in the longer term.”
Jordan Harris has been talked about a lot in recent years. The young defender drafted in the 3rd round in 2018 chose to play his fourth and final year in the NCAA last season. Following these 4 years, the player who does not sign a contract with the team can choose to become a free agent. There had been all kinds of rumours about him wanting to do that. Fortunately for the organization, he chose to stay in Montreal. He came to Montreal at the end of last year, and played 10 games at the end of the season. He managed one goal in 10 games.
What I learned from his short stay is that the defenseman is ready for the NHL. He plays calmly when he has the puck. He’s a smooth skater who carries the puck and makes good passes. It can be a key element for puck possession. He hits solid and he’s reliable defensively. In my opinion, he could start the season with the Canadiens and stay with the team. He is a defender who can break into the top-4 in the future, in my opinion.
Here’s what Bob thinks about the young defenseman. “Jordan Harris showed that he is smart, efficient and talented in his brief tenure and didn’t back away from physical play. Not a big driver of offense nor will he be an elite power play quarterback.” For the next season, he can move up and down. “He could also shuttle between Montreal and Laval next year.” Bob sees good things for him in the future. “I see him eventually settling in on the second pairing.”
JD feels like Harris made a good impression last year. “What surprised me most about Harris at the end of last season is how cool he was for a rookie. He skates well, moves the puck well. Although not physical, he seems to be in good position with an active stick, a bit like Markov was. He doesn’t have Markov’s offense though.” Like Bob, he thinks that Jordan can be part of a rotation of defensemen between Montreal and Laval. “He, along with Guhle, Xhekaj and maybe even Barron will likely rotate between Laval and Montreal.” According to JD, he will become a top-4 defenseman. “His potential is a 2nd pairing defenseman at most, in my opinion.”
The one we talk a lot about since all his exploits in the NCAA, is young Cole Caufield. 15th overall pick in 2019, the youngster has been performing well since joining the team despite a difficult start to the season last season. The Hobey Baker Trophy winner joined the Laval Rocket for just 2 games (3 goals and 1 assist) before joining the Habs for the last 10 games of 2021. The young prospect did well, scoring 4 times and adding one assist. In the playoffs, which saw the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup finals, he was a key contributor. He displayed surprisingly good play-making abilities and managed 4 goals and 8 assists in 20 games. We expected a lot from the young man for the 2021-2022 season. He’s had a very slow start to the season and he’s even returned to Laval for a few games.
The young American has found chemistry with Nick Suzuki. The turning point was when Dominique Ducharme was replaced by Martin St-Louis. The magic of St-Louis transformed the sniper and he finished the season in force. Prior to St-Louis, he only had one goal and seven assists. He put up 22 goals and 13 assists under the new coach, finishing the season with 23 goals and 20 assists for a total of 43 points. Obviously, he will be with the Canadiens from the start of the season and we hope that he will continue on this momentum. He can be the new 30-goals scorer on the team. He will probably hit the 40-goal mark eventually. I see him developing as a 40 goals, 30 assists player, so good for 70 points and more.
Now, let see what JD thinks of him: “The sky is the limit for this kid. You can teach defense, positioning, and even a few tricks of the trade in the NHL, but you cannot teach skills and goals’ scoring ability. He has that and few can find the net like he does. He’s an expert at finding the soft spots in the defense to get open, and has a quick and accurate release. He will be a scorer in the NHL for many years to come. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him for the upcoming season, so 25-30 goals would be an attainable objective for him.” But for the future? “I wouldn’t be shocked if he tops between 40-45 goals a year.“
As for Bob, he loves the pure skills: “Cole Caufield’s skills were on display in the last half of last year and he has the potential to do even more. In the upcoming season opposing teams will be paying a lot more attention to him so he may have to make some adjustments. Having said that, I think there will be a better supporting cast around him this season.” And long term? “In the long term, I believe he will blossom into that consistent high danger scoring threat that every Cup contender needs and he will have a long and prolific career in Montreal.”
So these are our thoughts about those young players. Do you share similar views for them as we do?