Things can change rapidly in a year. Last year, Benoit Pouliot was considered by a panel of bloggers on this website as the 4th best Habs player/prospect under the age of 25, while David Desharnais was ranked all the way down at 19th. One year later, Pouliot was deemed expendable while Desharnais had established himself amongst the team's bottom six forwards.
Players under the age of 25 can be very unpredictable. While all the tools of Pouliot project him as a solid NHL player, if not a top 6 forward, his failure or inability to address his flaws make him a frustrating case study. David Desharnais, meanwhile, was able to overcome the obvious weaknesses (lack of size, and not an elite skater to make up for that deficiency) through his high hockey intelligence. When given the opportunity, Desharnais responded by thriving in a limited role for the Canadiens, providing offence against other team's 3rd and 4th lines to help make up for the lack of production from the Scott Gomez line.
David Desharnais will turn 25 on September 14, 2011. For the purposes of this exercise, we went with the NHL Entry Draft standard that all players born before September 15 of the current year are not included, so Desharnais is the youngest Canadiens player who is not eligible for this list. His days as a prospect are behind him, signing a two year, one way contract with the Canadiens in June. We may not know exactly how good Desharnais will be as he hits his prime, but he's done himself and the organization proud for taking the initiative of signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2008. Just because a player hits 25 doesn't mean the development stops, but it is a fair cutoff for when a player has to quit relying on his potential and actually start showing some results.
This next feature will look at the Canadiens players whose young, wild and free days are behind them: it's time to grow up, men. You're 25... start acting like it.
David Desharnais, C, 25 years old
Desharnais' journey to the NHL is an uncommon one, but yet is still a familiar story for those that follow the sport at the NHL level. Undersized is an understatement with Desharnais: he's listed at 5'7", 177 lbs, and I'm assuming those measurements were taken with David wearing skates that were specially designed to fit platform shoes into the boot. Making it in major junior as a 5'5"-5'7" player is tough enough, and even at that level your skill level has to be exceptional to have a four year career. Desharnais accumulated 417 points in 310 career QMJHL games over 4 seasons, and even after that did not get a NHL contract. After finishing his 2006-07 season with a 7 game tryout with Bridgeport of the AHL, he joined the Canadiens organization as a tryout, eventually earning a two-way AHL-ECHL contract with Hamilton and Cincinnati. His year in the ECHL was unbelievable: earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honours, and helping Cincinnati to a Kelly Cup Championship. His point totals were astronomical: 38 goals, 101 assists in 90 regular season and playoff games. The Canadiens took notice and signed him to a two year NHL-AHL contract as he moved up the professional ladder to Hamilton of the AHL.
After a solid rookie season in Hamilton (62 points in 83 total games), Desharnais broke out under Guy Boucher's tutelage in 2009-10. His totals in 2009-10 were 101 points in 79 regular season and playoff games, good for a NHL Equivalency of 46 points. He got his first NHL callup that year, 6 games with Montreal where he earned his first NHL assist. Heading into training camp in 2010, he was a consideration for a depth role with the team, but Dustin Boyd and Lars Eller got the first shot. With continued elite production in the AHL, even after the callup of Max Pacioretty in November, Desharnais was called up for good on December 31, and played the rest of the year in Montreal, notching 23 points in 48 total regular season and playoff games, including his first eight NHL goals. Heading into the 2011-12 NHL season, he will battle Eller for the 3rd line center spot, and with Eller recovering from off-season shoulder surgery he might have the upper hand in that battle.
Alexei Yemelin, D, 25 years old
Usually a player with zero NHL games experience at age 25 has to be viewed as an organizational disappointment, but that's not the case with Yemelin. Sure, the team was mad when he spurned a NHL offer at the last minute two seasons ago to sign on with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, but it turned out to be a good move for him professionally. Known in Russia for his physical, often dirty play, Yemelin rounded himself out quite well in his last two KHL seasons, becoming a go to offensive force starting in the 2010 playoffs, where he had 13 points in 20 games. The breakout earned him a spot back on Russia's national team for the World Championships, and his stellar 2010-11 campaign reaffirmed his position as one of the best blueliners in the country.
Yemelin was drafted way back in 2004 in the 3rd round, 84th overall. He's an incredibly efficient skater, is solidly built at 6'1" and 223 lbs. and loves to use every bit of strength he has to out-muscle opponents and make huge hits. His offensive game is developing quite well, showing good passing skills and a strong point shot. However, he's not at all a rushing defenseman, keeping the play simple on breakouts and deferring to more skilled players in that regard. He's not completely polished defensively, and will probably need some adjustment time on the 3rd pairing in 2011-12 before challenging for a spot in Montreal's top four. His addition to the team this season is particularly significant with Roman Hamrlik leaving for the Washington Capitals.
Last year, we had him rated as the 23rd on the list, mainly because many of the voters didn't feel he was a factor in the team's plans anymore. I'm quite happy that he's proven us completely wrong.
Raphael Diaz, D, 25 years old
Unlike Yemelin, Diaz was a complete non-factor in his draft years. While he was playing in Switzerland's top league as a teenager and playing on the national U20 team, his skill set was still pretty raw and had not shown much signs of upside at the time. So Diaz is a bit of a weird inclusion here: he wasn't Habs property a year ago, nor was he property of any NHL team until after his 25th birthday. He made some noise by making the Swiss World Championship team back in 2008 in a limited role, but it wasn't until two years ago that he became on of the NLA's top defenders. Over the past two seasons, he has accumulated 19 goals and 82 points in 117 regular season and playoff games, using his booming slapshot to become an intimidating power play presence. He made the Swiss Olympic team in 2010 (along with the younger Yannick Weber), but was held without a point. This past year, he scored 3 times at the World Championships in six games.
Diaz's upside in the NHL is a bit unknown. NHL Equivalency metrics had him at 9 goals and 20 assists this past season, but he also played on the most offensively minded team in the league, led by former Habs center Glen Metropolit. He's a bit undersized at 5'11", 194 lbs., and he isn't the most reliable player defensively. However, the Canadiens will be looking to him to fill a role similar to what Alexandre Picard filled this past year, and it is hoped that when he is more comfortable with the North American game he can round himself into a #5 or #6 blueliner.
Karri Ramo, G, 25 years old
Ramo was acquired by the Habs after we had already voted on last year's Top 25 Under 25, and so we didn't include him in our list. After playing in Tampa Bay's system from 2006-09, where he saw action in 48 NHL games due to various goaltender injuries, Ramo left to join Avangard Omsk of the KHL, where he has become one of the league's premiere goaltenders. However, it is really hard to tell at what level Ramo has really achieved in this time frame. Finland constantly passes him over for international play, opting for veteran goalies in Europe ahead of him, and he is playing for one of the elite teams in Omsk. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, he will likely never see any action with the team, as he has signed a two year extension with Omsk. He will not quite be a UFA in the NHL at that time (his birthday is July 1, meaning he'll be considered a RFA at that time for one more year), but it doesn't seem to be a high priority for the organization to get a backup goaltender into the fold who would not have seen NHL action in four years at that point in time.
Frederic St. Denis, D, 25 years old
St. Denis has been a non-factor in the Canadiens plans in recent years, but he's actually developed into one of Hamilton's most reliable defenders. He too has followed an interesting career path: he had four full seasons in the QMJHL, which earned him a full scholarship to a Canadian university as a result. He spent 2007-08 at the University of Quebec (Trois-Rivieres), which actually got him noticed by the Canadiens organization and he turned professional the next season as a result. After playing a solid defensive role for the Cincinnati Cyclones in their 2009 Kelly Cup victory, St. Denis joined the Bulldogs in 2009-10 and has been a rock for a team more known for their offensive blueliners. He is a bit small, but his improvements could land him an injury callup to the NHL at some point. He'll return to Hamilton for 2011-12.
Kyle Klubertanz, D, 25 years old
The Canadiens signed Klubertanz last summer after two solid seasons in Europe. He enjoyed a good season with Hamilton, tallying 42 points in 96 regular season and playoff games, but ultimately was a non-factor on the NHL team's depth chart and has since returned to Djurgarden of Sweden's Elitserien for the 2011-12 season. Montreal maintains his NHL rights since they extended a qualifying offer for him, but it seems unlikely he will factor in Montreal's plans in the coming years.