By Bob Trask – When an NHL team is in a rebuilding mode there will be a lot of players who will get an opportunity to prove themselves. That is the situation the Montreal Canadiens find themselves in and the upcoming season could see players shuffled back and forth between the NHL team and their AHL affiliate in Laval.
With a new long term contract in hand, Cayden Primeau can go into the season without worrying about his financial future or his next contract. Primeau, like many others in the organization, had a Jekyll and Hyde year. Fortunately for him, he saved the best for last with a strong playoff performance. If Primeau can continue to play well, he will be a strong candidate to be called up to the Habs when the opportunity presents itself. The fact that he is not waiver eligible works in his favour.
Montreal has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to defensive prospects in Laval – even if Jordan Harris and Justin Barron make the NHL roster. Unfortunately almost none of the others are right shots but players like Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Mattias Norlinder, Gianni Fairbrother and Otto Leskinen all have legitimate shots at seeing some NHL action next season. Leskinen is the wild card because he is older and waiver eligible. That could mean he might start the season in Montreal or be included in a trade rather than risk losing him for nothing.
One who could surprise is 27 year old Madison Bowey, who excelled as a junior but never really found his footing as a pro. His advantage is that he is a right shot defenseman.
The defense prospects in Laval range from those who could develop into first pairing d-men all the way down to third pairing d-men or power play specialists.
The prime prospect at center in Laval is Jan Mysak who has been lauded for his work ethic, his leadership, his willingness to learn and his willingness to adapt his game in order to improve his chances at making the NHL. With a logjam at center in Montreal, there will probably be little opportunity for Mysak in the NHL this year but if he plays well in the NHL, the Habs braintrust may reward him with a cup of coffee with the NHL team.
Nate Schnarr provides Laval with depth at center but it seems unlikely that he will make the NHL as a regular. As with Mysak, the Canadiens could reward him with a brief opportunity at the NHL level, particularly if unexpected injuries hit. Mitchell Stephens falls into the same category as Schnarr.
There are no prospects at center in Laval who project to be top six NHL players.
After Juraj Slafkovsky, who many expect to begin the season in Montreal, Emil Heineman may be the best prospect at left wing who is currently playing pro hockey. But he may head back to Europe for another year if he doesn’t make the Canadiens. That leaves Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Joel Teasdale and Lucas Condotta as the top left wing prospects. Teasdale has already suffered two knee injuries and wasn’t a great skater to begin with but he plays the game hard. Unfortunately, he may peak as career AHL player – which is no small feat in itself. Condotta is an older prospect who saw limited offensive success in the NCAA and his future may be similar to that of Teasdale.
That leaves Harvey-Pinard who saw some NHL action last year and will probably see some more this year. He is in a battle with Michael Pezzetta for a 4th line/extra forward role on the Canadiens. And speaking of Pezzetta, off-season acquisitions by the Canadiens might mean he is destined for Laval, too.
As with the center ice prospects, there are no prospects in Laval who project to be top six NHL players – other than Slafkovsky of course.
Depending upon where Filip Mesar and Jesse Ylönen play this season, the right wing prospects in Laval may have the most potential of any of the forward positions. The caveat is that Ylönen could actually make the Canadiens and Mesar is still junior eligible. The question of where this duo will play will be answered in training camp. Because Ylönen is not yet waiver eligible, there is a good chance he begins the season in Laval with more than one opportunity during the season to showcase his talents in the NHL. Mesar is talented but young and not familiar with the North American and his opportunity may have to wait until next season.
Cam Hillis can play both right wing and center but hasn’t shown enough at the pro level to warrant a look with the Canadiens yet. He split his time between the Trois-Rivières Lions and the Laval Rocket last year and his upside for this year may be a full year in Laval where he may be asked to focus on playing the wing.
Both Ylönen and Mesar have the skill set to play in the top nine in the NHL and maybe even the top six. It will all depend on their development and this year will tell the tale for Ylönen.
The influx of young talent into Laval this year means the Canadiens won’t be forced into trades to address short term needs in the event of injury, illness or absences related to other factors. Because the team is still focused on the long term, they have the luxury of evaluating young players who are called up for short stints without having to worry whether it will jeopardize their playoff chances.
If the team did happen to get off to a strong start and looked more competitive than expected, it would be interesting to see how committed Kent Hughes remains to the long term. Would he adjust his strategy or would he continue with his methodical approach by building depth and giving youth an opportunity.
It all adds up to an interesting year for the Canadiens organization. The metro between Centre Bell and Place Bell could be busy.