The Montreal Canadiens training camp has barely begun and already there is the usual anticipation as to which rookie could crack the opening night roster.
There are some strong prospects who are being given a golden opportunity to start training camp but at the same time the Canadiens depth has not been this strong in quite some time, especially up front.
The last year that the Canadiens started a season without a rookie on the roster was in 2008-2009. Back then a 19-year-old Max Pacioretty and 20-year-old Yannick Weber were the standouts at camp but both were ultimately sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs to begin the year.
Since then at least one rookie has been able to earn a roster spot each season, with Artturi Lehkonen and Mikhail Sergachev both making the cut to start 2016-2017.
This year Charles Hudon, Noah Juulsen, and Charlie Lindgren have the best chance to be this year’s breakthrough rookie while junior eligible Victor Mete wants to make it tough on management to send him back to the Ontario Hockey League.
Up front, Hudon is certainly the closest prospect to being NHL ready. Through three seasons in the AHL, Hudon has often been his team’s best player and one of its leading scorer. In just six NHL games, he has impressed by making the most of his limited opportunities by recording four points while averaging just 11:19 minutes a game. In order to make the jump full-time to the NHL Hudon will need to consistently play a 200-foot game.
When Alexander Radulov decided to sign with the Dallas Stars, Bergevin mentioned Hudon in a group of players as someone who can pick up the slack on offence. It appears as though he has the inside track on a spot in the top-nine as he has started camp skating on a line with veterans Tomas Plekanec and Lehkonen. While this combination was unexpected, they could very well form an ideal third line, capable of pitching in offensively while playing a strong two-way game.
Ultimately it is up to Hudon to prove that he has what it takes. Should he not make the Canadiens, he would need to clear waivers in order to get sent to the Laval Rocket. The second year of his new contract is one-way and that could deter other teams from claiming him, at least for now.
Juulsen, the Canadiens first-round pick in 2015, is expected to become a stalwart on the Canadiens backend for years to come. Management obviously thinks quite highly of him as they gave the first-year pro the captaincy for the rookie tournament. Juulsen’s game should translate well at the professional level as he is rarely caught out of position and impresses with his steady and physical play. His first passes are crisp and he is certainly capable of contributing a little offence.
However, there is no need to rush Juulsen into the NHL. The right side of the Canadiens’ defence is likely set with Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn patrolling the blue line.
Benn could shift back to his natural left side to allow Juulsen to play on the right but that would mean that at least one of Jakub Jerabek, Joe Morrow, Brandon Davidson and Mark Streit would not have demonstrated enough to earn a spot out of training camp.
On that note, Jerabek is already 26-years-old so even though it would be his first NHL season, he would not be officially considered a rookie by the National Hockey League.
For Juulsen’s development, it would be best to let him start the season in Laval. He would be able to play in the top-four immediately and get used to the quicker pace of play at the professional level. The team would be best served to let him play 20+ minutes a night in the AHL.
Another long-shot to make the Canadiens out of the starting gate is Charlie Lindgren. Al Montoya is penciled in to start the season once again as Carey Price’s backup but there might be some competition as Lindgren will attempt to pry his job away. Montoya played well enough behind Price last season with a record of 8-6-4. However, his stats were average at best with a 2.67 GAA and .912 SV%. (Those numbers, of course, are inflated by one night everyone would want to forget.)
The door might open just enough for Lindgren to make the backup goaltender position an unanticipated difficult decision for Bergevin and Claude Julien. It would not be unprecedented for a Habs incumbent backup to lose their job in the pre-season. Dustin Tokarski did to Peter Budaj a few years ago, and then Mike Condon did to Tokarski after that.
Lindgren has played just three games in the NHL but won them all. In his first year in the AHL, he led the St. John’s Ice Caps to the postseason for the first time in five years under Sylvain Lefebvre. It would not be shocking to see him come into camp and steal the backup position. However, Bergevin might be hesitant to have a rookie behind Price should an injury occur. While Lindgren would benefit from getting the most starts in the AHL, there is something to be said for studying behind Price and under the daily tutelage of Stephane Waite.
The surprise from day one of training camp had to be Mete getting paired with Shea Weber for the team’s first practice. Mete is the best puck-moving defence prospect in the Canadiens system and was one of the standouts from the recent rookie tournament. His development into a top defence prospect may have had Bergevin feel a little easier about trading Sergachev.
In all likelihood, Mete will eventually be sent back to the London Knights and get valuable experience suiting up for Team Canada at the World Juniors. However, him being paired with Weber is significant. The Canadiens are not going to waste Weber’s time if they don’t think that this will be a valuable experiment.
Mete being given the first opportunity to play alongside Weber could mean that the Canadiens believe he has a legitimate chance of making the roster, but it definitely shows what the team thinks he could become.