December 31-in-31: Montreal Canadiens

Pablo Ruiz

2020-12-16

The Canadiens were busy this offseason after making some noise in the playoffs, despite being the 24th seed. They beat the Penguins and gave the Flyers all they could handle and did it on the backs of their young centers in Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, as well as their veterans in Carey Price and Shea Weber

This was a signal to Marc Bergevin that they are closer to competing than people may have thought. Despite a weak regular season, they had strong underlying numbers and controlled possession throughout the year. A lack of true talent is what cost the team a lot of wins and that is why they went out and added some NHL players in free agency and through trade.

The addition of Jake Allen will reduce Price’s workload and allow him to play rested. While they also no longer have to fear putting their backup goalie in net for a game, as they have one of the best in the league. The additions of Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli upfront will create three scoring lines that can control play. Anderson will add a strong physical presence that the Canadiens have lacked in their lineup for years. On the backend, they added Joel Edmundson who is a big physical defender that will make the Canadiens tougher to play against.

There is a lot to be excited for if you are a Habs fan, but none more exciting than their prospect pool. They boast one of the best crops of prospects in the league with a lot of these players on track to develop into NHL players. 

Graduating

These are the players who are no longer going to be considered prospects after earning a spot on the team last season and playing well enough to get more NHL playing time in this upcoming season. 

Nick Suzuki

Not only did Suzuki graduate from the OHL directly to the NHL, but he did it with an immediate impact. By the time the playoffs were over, most considered the rookie to be one of the Canadiens’ very best players. He got time on both the power play and penalty kill throughout the season and finished fifth in team scoring this year. 

The things that made him successful at the junior level transferred over to the NHL. Defensively, he has a very active stick whether it’s blocking passes or lifting an opponent’s stick to steal the puck. While in the offensive zone, his creativity and shiftiness allow him to create open space and a passing lane. Despite being on the smaller side, Suzuki is good at retrieving pucks in corners and isn’t afraid to drive the net.

Jake Evans

Evans only play 13 regular-season games by the end of the regular season as he spent most of the year in the AHL, but, the 13 games he did play, left enough of an impression to play six more in the bubble. Most people have him penciled in as the Canadiens’ fourth-line center. He is everything you want in a fourth-line center, which is that he works hard and likes to play a gritty game on the forecheck.  

Risers

These are some of the prospects who have had their stock rise the most since the last offseason with their improved play.

Alex Romanov

After such a successful draft+1 year, it seemed like Romanov was going to have a hard time topping it in his draft+2, but he did. He won the Best Defenceman at the World Juniors and improved on his rookie season in the KHL. In his draft+3, Romanov is a lock to make the NHL roster this season, as he would not be coming over from the KHL to play in the AHL. A 20-year-old with two years of professional experience at the KHL level means he is likely to be ready for the NHL.

His pro experience is not the only reason he will be NHL ready this year. It is also his style of play that will allow him to come in and immediately excel. Romanov’s strength comes from his skating and ability to use his physicality. He is excellent at defending off the rush because he can close out the opposing attackers and easily rub them out. Expect him to play big minutes in his rookie season.

Mattias Norlinder

Norlinder saw his stock rise more than any other prospect this past year. His rookie season has begun in the SHL and he is showcasing all the reasons why he could one day be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. His smooth skating and slick puck handling ability make him an ideal power-play quarterback. He has already spent some time this quarterbacking Forlunda’s powerplay.

There are a few kinks in his game that still need to be ironed about before he is ready to make the step to the NHL level. Particularly in the defensive zone, where he still has trouble breaking up cycles and winning board battles against bigger players. Something he will definitely have to learn if he wants to play in the NHL which is a much bigger and heavier game than the SHL. 

Cole Caufield

There was a lot of hype surrounding Caufield heading into his freshman season at Wisconsin, with people expecting a ton of goals and points. Although Caufield didn’t put up numbers that blew people away, he was the second freshman to lead the big-10 in scoring, with the only other one being college hockey legend Kyle Connor. 

He has started the 2020-2021 season hot with 12 points in 10 games and continues to round out his defensive game. Canadiens manager Marc Bergevin said he was going to have to work on his defensive game before the Habs can give him a shot at the pro level. When he does that, he will quickly become one of the most deadly finishers in the league, as he has high-end puck skills and a shot that can beat a goalie from anywhere in the offensive zone.

Jayden Struble 

Struble is an interesting prospect, for the reason that some people are very high on him and see him as a future top-four defenceman, while others have been more skeptical about his overall game. The more people watch and the more Struble plays, the more people jump on board with appreciating his game. 

He skates very well for his size and plays with confidence. He started slow last year for Northeastern but finished strong and it has carried over into the first couple of games this season. He is going to need a few more years in college to fine-tune his game, but with his natural athletic abilities, he still has big upside.

On the Cusp

These are the players that are on the cusp of making the NHL but are not quite there yet.

Cale Fleury

Fleury began the season in Montreal and was playing well in a third pairing limited role. He is defensively sound and uses his physicality well. As the season went on, it seemed like Fleury had lost some of his confidence, which leads to him getting sent down to the AHL at the halfway mark of the year. He was working hard to rediscover his game in the AHL before the season was cut short. The Canadiens added a lot of depth this offseason and that will hurt Fleury’s chances of making the NHL out of training camp, but he will be one of the first call-ups if injuries occur. 

Cayden Primeau

Primeau was always going to spend the 2020-2021 season as the starter in the AHL, but when Montreal acquired Jake Allen and then extended him for two years, it raised some eyebrows. Primeau’s first season in the AHL was a success, as he was solid in net, which is all you can ask for from a 20-year-old goalie in his first professional season. He even got into two NHL games and showed that he might be ready sooner rather than later.

This year will be an important one for the young goaltender, as if he can have a good season then he will put pressure on GM Marc Bergevin to do something with Allen and make room for Primeau. There is no rush or pressure on Primeau to get to the NHL but if he is ready then there is no point in leaving him in the AHL.

Fallers

Players who disappointed last year and saw their stock drop.

Joel Teasdale

Unfortunately for Teasdale, he missed the entire season last year with tears in his ACL and MCL. To no fault of his own, that causes his stock to drop, as he missed his first professional season and a year of development. However, Teasdale is known as a hard worker and was already skating when the season was cut short last season, therefore he should be ready to go when training camps open this year.

Ryan Poehling

After scoring a hat-trick in his first career pro game, the expectations for Poehling’s rookie pro season were raised, and maybe it was a bit unfair. This past year, he split his time between the AHL and the NHL.  He struggled to produce at both levels and was not strong enough defensively to make up for the lack of production.

He is likely going to start the season in the AHL but will be one of the first call-ups if injuries occur, especially if he is playing well. What is key for Poehling to succeed is to first rediscover his confidence after a difficult first pro season, and secondly to work on the details of his game to become a player his coach can trust. The production will come if he starts by doing the right things in his own end.

Noah Juulsen

To no one’s surprise, Juulsen only played in 13 games this season because of injuries. This has been a common occurrence over the past few years with Juulsen, as he can not seem to stay healthy.

The sad part of it all is that he is a very effective defender when he is playing. He is a big body that can clear the front of the net or use his size to break up a cycle. He does not have much offensive upside but if he can stay healthy he will be able to make it as a bottom pairing physical defenceman. 

Prospect Depth Chart

Note: Prospects ranked using a combination of upside and arrival.

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Jan Mysak Ryan Poehling Cole Caufield
Luke Tuch Joni Ikonen Jesse Ylönen
Joel Teasdale Cam Hillis Alexander Godin
Lukas Vejdemo Jacob Olofsson
Rafael Harvey-Pinard Blake Biondi
Arsen Khisamutdinov Jack Smith
Rhett Pitlick
Michael Pezzetta
Left Defence Right Defence
Alexander Romanov Cale Fleury
Mattias Norlinder Josh Brook
Jordan Harris Noah Juulsen
Kaiden Grule
Jayden Struble
Otto Leskinen
Jacob LeGuerrier
Goalie
Cayden Primeau
Jakub Dobes
Michael Mcniven

Top 20 Prospects

Note: Prospects ranked using a combination of upside and arrival.

  1. Cole Caufield
  2. Alex Romanov
  3. Mattias Norlinder
  4. Cayden Primeau 
  5. Jordan Harris 
  6. Kaiden Guhle
  7. Jan Mysak
  8. Ryan Poehling
  9. Jayden Struble
  10. Jesse Ylönen
  11. Josh Brook
  12. Joni Ikonen
  13. Luke Tuch
  14. Cam Hillis
  15. Sean Farell
  16. Noah Juulsen
  17. Rafael Harvery-Pinard
  18. Arsen Khisamutdinov
  19. Jacob LeGuerrier
  20. Alex Gordin

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Feel free to follow me on Twitter @shotinthecrest to be updated on Montreal Canadiens’ prospects throughout the season.