When the Rookie Tournament kicks off today, the Montreal Canadiens will be pitting their brightest prospects against those of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ottawa Senators. There is no real tournament winner per se, nor any official ranking. The teams each play three games, one against each team, with the goal of allowing management to see their prospects in action and further evaluate their competition. The tournament therefore is mutually beneficial for all teams involved and a first sign for fans that the season is rapidly approaching.
The Canadiens have 27 players taking part in the tournament, and chief among them will be the recent first-round pick Mikhail Sergachev and potential NHL rookie Artturi Lehkonen.
Fans who have followed Lehkonen’s career in Sweden with Frölunda know that the left-winger is supremely talented and was an integral part in his team’s championship success last season. The question remains whether he can transition his game to the NHL. The Rookie Tournament will be his first time playing a game in North America, and certainly Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien will be looking extremely closely at him, as will the media and the fans.
Lehkonen has an SHL clause in his contract with the Habs, so if he doesn’t make the team out of camp he is allowed to head back to Europe rather than be assigned to the AHL. Looking at the questionable depth on left wing for the Canadiens, Lehkonen definitely has a legitimate chance to start the season in the NHL, and the Rookie Tournament will be a first indicator of whether he can meet that goal.
The short-term expectations on Sergachev are not necessarily as high as for Lehkonen, because the Canadiens are fairly set on defensive depth and there is really no need to rush him into the NHL and burn a season of his entry-level contract. But should Sergachev dominate during the tournament, then he should find himself competing in pre-season games for the Habs.
If he does well in that situation, he might end up forcing management’s hand to give him a nine-game tryout at the start of the regular season. It’s unusual for a junior-aged defenceman to break into the NHL, but based on what he displayed at Development Camp this summer, Sergachev is anything but a usual defenceman.
Meanwhile two prospects who won’t be drawing quite as much attention will be Nikita Scherbak and Noah Juulsen. Both will be looking to have bounce-back seasons, starting at the prospect showcase.
Scherbak was a raw 19-year-old rookie last season with tremendous offensive potential, but with shortcomings in his defensive game. The St. John’s IceCaps head coach, Sylvain Lefebvre, played him a lot on the shutdown line centered by Gabriel Dumont to help him develop that defensive game, but before there could be much progress, Scherbak was felled by an injury that kept him out for over a quarter of the season.
Upon his return he was placed in the unfamiliar position of centre, seemingly to force him to become a more complete two-way forward. Results began to be evident towards the end of the season when he went a mere -2 over the last 11 games; a drastic improvement over his season trends.
This season he will be expected to bring a lot more offence to the team, with a call-up to the Canadiens still seeming a long way away.
Juulsen also had a difficult year, with his season offensive numbers seeing a drastic decline from his pre-draft numbers. His lack of production was explored back in April, as it is definitely too early to start worrying about his game, although a strong Tournament would definitely help dissuade any fears.
He should be expected to play a strong game in his own end, and help the team get up the ice with his transition skills. He should be one of the most-used defenders by the Canadiens, and will likely go up against the best forwards the other teams can throw at him. He may be paired alongside Sergachev in those tough minutes, with those blue-liners ranked as the top two in the prospect pool in this summer’s Top 25 Under 25.