The NHL Expansion Draft has crept upon us like the Night King in the North of Westeros. Whether the Montreal Canadiens like it or not, change is coming to their roster. However it’s not all bad news. There are certain players that can be replaced easily in the lineup, while others could force Marc Bergevin to rethink his free agency plans. It’s worth noting that this is the most educated guess we have at the potentially exposed players in the expansion draft, so take all predictions with a grain of salt.
Tomas Plekanec: Centre
2017 Stats: 78 GP, 10 G, 18 A
The long-standing veteran of the Canadiens could be seeing his time draw to a close in the only NHL organization he’s ever known. He has one year remaining on a deal that will pay him $6 million next season. Bergevin was right to reward his top centre with a new deal after his previous season, where he topped 50 points, while playing tough minutes every night. Unfortunately, the Plekaenc of previous years was nowhere to be found, with his defensive play regressing a bit, and his offence non-existent for long periods. He’s an ideal expansion candidate to help ease to workload on young players of the Vegas Golden Knights, while (potentially) chipping in a decent amount of offence if needed.
Who can replace him: If this past season is any indication, Phillip Danault will be stepping into the skates once filled by the Czech forward. Danault took a major step forward this season and showed the management and coaches just what he’s capable of. Failing that one of Michael McCarron or Charles Hudon could be groomed to step in and start taking minutes as a third-line centre for Claude Julien, though neither of those would be an immediate fix.
Charles Hudon: Centre/Wing
2017 Stats (AHL): 56 GP, 27 G, 22 A
Arguably Montreal’s most NHL-ready prospect, Hudon is likely to be of interest to a Vegas team that needs talented forwards who can join the team immediately. The Alma, Quebec native has lit up the scoresheet in the AHL since turning pro three years ago, with seasons of 57, 53, and 49 points respectively. He’s done all he can at the AHL level, including multiple individual awards, an All-Star Game MVP, and being one of the top goal-scorers for the past two years. In limited NHL minutes he’s looked right at home, with four points in six games.
Who can replace him: It’s hard to replace a talent like Hudon. He’s a fifth-round pick who turned into an elite AHL talent, which is a lot like putting on old pants and finding 20 bucks in your pocket. If he is selected by Vegas, his scoring prowess in the AHL would need immediate replacing. That task falls primarily on the shoulders of Nikita Scherbak, who is still adjusting to the professional game.
It’s not likely that it would be a crippling blow to the Canadiens this year, but in the future when the core begins to age, having lost a young scoring forward would be a backbreaker, unless the development system gets a boost.
Jacob de la Rose: Centre/Wing
2017 Stats (AHL): 62 GP, 14 G, 17 A
The defensively inclined forward from Sweden finally put together his game in North America, after struggling with an arrested development in previous seasons. The constant yo-yoing between the AHL and NHL never allowed him to flesh out the offensive side of his game, and in the NHL his deployment was so harsh he couldn’t keep afloat.
With a full AHL season under his belt, we saw de la Rose blossom into a gifted defensive forward, who could be counted on to carry his fair share offensively as well. He probably won’t be a top-six star, but as a bottom-six defensive stalwart he can be relied on without worry. Vegas may have some stars, but young role players like de la Rose will possibly catch the eye of George McPhee.
Who can replace him: Quite frankly this might be one of the easier players to replace, despite the fact losing a young asset for nothing always hurts. De la Rose’s has potential, but unlike someone like Artturi Lehkonen, his offensive game will hold him back a bit. Torrey Mitchell has the fourth-line centre role locked down, and based on NHL time this past season McCarron may be Julien’s first choice as a call-up if he doesn’t make the team outright.
Jordie Benn: Defence
2017 Stats (DAL/MTL): 71 GP, 4 G, 13 A
Jordie Benn was a revelation in Montreal; a steady presence on the blue line who helped Nathan Beaulieu play his best hockey of the season. Not overly flashy, but defensively solid, he became a quick favourite of the coaching staff and fans in his short time in Montreal. Benn made the smart, simple plays that help teams win, and with his stay at home nature, he allowed his defensive partners more freedom to carry the puck out of the zone. Add in his standout time on the penalty kill for the Habs, and you have a highly appealing target for a new NHL team.
Who can replace him: Right away the immediate answer to replacing Jordie Benn is shuffling the lineup and likely reuniting Jeff Petry with Alexei Emelin, and making the third pair a mix of Nathan Beaulieu, Jakub Jerabek, Zach Redmond and possibly Mikhail Sergachev. In the AHL both Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque are options, but it’s highly unwise to throw either of the young defenders to the wolves so soon.
Nathan Beaulieu: Defence
2017 Stats: 74 GP, 4 G, 24 A
The subject of much debate in Montreal is that of 24-year-old Nathan Beaulieu, a 2011 first-round draft pick. His offensive game has never been in question, as he’s a dynamic skater with great passing ability and good shot. Under Michel Therrien, Beaulieu had to battle for every minute of ice time, despite being a superior option to many of the other options available; like Douglas Murray.
The issue is not on his offensive game, but more his occasional defensive miscues, and how he responds to them. Beaulieu likes to be aggressive in his play, trying to create plays with his skating, but there are times it backfires and he’s trapped out of position. At other times he flings a bad pass up the boards or makes the wrong read. These aren’t crippling flaws, and under Julien it’s possible Beaulieu sees his game take the next step. That is assuming McPhee doesn’t snag Beaulieu in the draft, adding an immediate offensive force to his defensive core.
Who replaces him: There’s really only one option here, and it’s 2016 first-round pick Mikhail Sergachev. Without Beaulieu the Habs lose a left-side puck-mover with the 38-year-old Markov and recently acquired Jerabek as the candidates to transition the puck up the ice. If Beaulieu ends up Vegas bound, they’ll need someone who can play second-wave power play minutes and take regular minutes on a bottom-two pairing. Sergachev is extremely talented, however he has some NHL adjusting to do still, so it wouldn’t be an immediate replacement.
Alexei Emelin: Defence
2017 Stats: 76 GP, 2 G, 8 A
The main target of Habs fans ire is also someone that could be of interest to the Golden Knights. Emelin has one year left on a deal that pays him $4.1 million a year on the cap (a bit more in actual salary), and since signing said deal it’s hard to say he’s lived up to that hefty payday.
In his defence, Emelin was never advertised as an offensive force, but a solid defensive player who hits like a freight train. The physicality is there, unfortunately the solid defensive play is inconsistent. When he’s at his best Emelin does well closing gaps on defenders and making a good first pass out of the zone; simple and basic plays. The issue is that these games are like throwing a dart while blindfolded, and the misses are games where Emelin directly causes multiple goals against. Even on the hits, he’s still a drag possession-wise on his partner.
If Vegas is looking for that physical defender, Emelin is their guy, but it’s unlikely they’d take on that cap hit for a defender who is comparable to a spin at a roulette wheel.
Who can replace him: Just about any of the current options could step into his role and perform admirably. In small samples Brandon Davidson and Jeff Petry were a solid possesion pairing, while Nathan Beaulieu played his best hockey alongside Jordie Benn. Emelin heading to Vegas also opens more opportunities for Sergachev to play and develop alongside the veterans.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the expansion draft, and for good reason. No one wants to see their team lose a useful player for nothing. The Canadiens have a mix of players that could hurt them immediately upon being drafted, or could have a delayed impact down the road a few years. Regardless of who is picked, Marc Bergevin still has the unenviable task of trying to fill out this roster and plug the holes that sprung leaks en route to a first-round playoff loss.