PROSPECT REPORT: After disappointing season – can the Canadiens reload quickly?CATCHER IN THE RYE? Ryan Poehling could be the center that the Canadiens sorely lack. Photo: Bildbyrån/Joel Marklund
If you were to sum up the 2017-18 season for the Montreal Canadiens you could probably do it in a thousand words. Or, you could do it with just one: disappointment.
On the one hand – it’s not like there weren’t circumstances to explain the 28th place finish in the overall league standings. The injuries that kept Shea Weber to just 26 games, Max Pacioretty to 64 games and Phillip Danault to 52 all played a part in putting the Canadiens at a disadvantage throughout the season.
Add a subpar season from franchise goaltender Carey Price and its really no wonder things didn’t turn out the way Habs’ fans were hoping. On the other hand – was the Montreal roster really that strong to start the season? Even if Weber, Pacioretty and Danault had played the full 82 games, would the team have been a contender? Count this writer among those who doubt they would have. Help is on the way though, both through an existing prospect pipeline and with the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Let’s run through the Canadiens top prospects ahead of the draft.
5. Cayden Primeau, G, Northeastern Univ. (NCAA)
Undoubtedly one of the more intriguing goalie prospects out there – of any NHL organization – Primeau wasn’t expected to be this good, this early. The third youngest player in NCAA Tier I hockey authored a 93.1 save percentage, 1.92 GAA and a record of 19-8-5 (four shutouts) in his freshman year. Having already become the starter for Northeastern University at 18, the Canadiens will likely be very patient with Primeau – son of NHL legend Keith Primeau – in the next few years but you might be looking at Carey Price’s long-term replacement right here.
4. Jake Evans, C/RW, Univ. of Notre Dame (NCAA)
Evans is a bit of a dark horse among Canadiens’ prospects. The 21-year-old played a full four seasons for University of Notre Dame, improving each season by a little bit until he scored 46 points (13+33) in 40 games in his senior year. Strong two-way forward with leadership abilities, as evidenced by the fact he was named captain of the “Fighting Irish” ahead of the 2017-18 season.
3. Noah Juulsen, D, Laval Rocket (AHL)
Not an offensive dynamo like fellow young defenseman Victor Mete (who I left off this list due to the fact he was with the Canadiens for the entirety of the 2017-18 season), Juulsen instead relies on his puck smarts, ability to read the play and size to defend against opposing forwards. Could develop into a top-4 defender, albeit a defensive-minded one.
2. Nikita Scherbak, LW/RW, Laval Rocket (AHL)
Scherbak is ready for the NHL. The Moscow-born winger put up 30 points (7+23) in 26 games with Laval Rocket and six points (4+2) in 26 games for the Canadiens in his first true “cup of coffee” at the NHL level. Great combination of size, power and playmaking skill.
1. Ryan Poehling, C, St. Cloud State Univ. (NCAA)
A college player with 31 points (14+17) in 36 games might not always jump out at the screen when perusing a prospect chart, but Poehlings game is about more than just points. Likened to Jordan Staal at the time of his draft (25th overall in 2017), Poehling bypassed his final year of high school to join St. Cloud State University as a 17-year-old. A tremendously strong two-way center with size, maturity and skill – look for Poehling to join the Canadiens’ center corps sooner rather than later.
Noah Juulsen. Photo: Uffe Bodin
Center is the biggest position of weakness for the Canadiens while defense and goaltending looks somewhat solid. At defense, the emergence of Victor Mete, Juulsen and even someone like Rinat Valiyev could provide a welcome boost of youthful energy to the veteran-laden core of Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Karl Alzner. At the goalie position, the net still belongs to Carey Price but having players like Charlie Lindgren, Zachary Fucale, Michael McNiven and now Cayden Primeau signals Montreal has done a good job of replenishing its goaltending ranks.
At forward, some assembly is required. Having Jonathan Drouin play center and Alex Galchenyuk forward might not be ideal, but its what happened this season due to the center position being in a state of flux. Galchenyuk, Drouin, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are all solid point producers in the 45-65 point range but they could use a strong #1 center and another game-breaking winger to take some pressure off. That center might turn out to be Poehling, it might not – but the game-breaking winger should definitely be either Andrei Svechnikov or Filip Zadina. Should the Habs draft Zadina, they’ll be getting a player that is excited to be there. How so? Well, Zadina was recently quoted by TVASports as saying he’d “love to play with the Canadiens” and that “Montreal is the greatest city for hockey”. Add that to the fact that he’s regularly in touch with former (and future?) Hab Tomas Plekanec and you’ve got the makings of a prospect who’d likely become a fan favorite in no time.
The future might not look as bright for the Habs as it does for the Buffalo Sabres or the Carolina Hurricanes – at least not in terms of a quick turnaround – but there is potential. Much depends on how Marc Bergevin and his staff decide to handle the draft and what kind of money they are willing to throw at free agents this upcoming summer. In terms of prospects, it is likely the Canadiens roster will see quite a few youngsters on it in 2018-19 because after 71 points in 82 games this year, how much worse can it really get?
EP PROSPECT REPORT
* Buffalo Sabres: Need to win the draft lottery
* Arizona Coyotes: Better than they seem
* Ottawa Senators: Strong at center, in need of game-changer
* Carolina Hurricanes: Svechnikov or Zadina – tough choice awaits