If there’s one thing that can almost certainly guarantee future success in the NHL, it’s drafting and developing prospects properly. That can not only rebuild a team, but create sustained success down the road.
For the Montreal Canadiens, they are entering a phase where they need their young assets from previous drafts to begin making an impact. Those young talents can replace older players who may be shipped out for more future assets in hopes of getting that sustainable cycle going.
While both Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are likely a year or two away from trying to crack the NHL lineup, a trio of players drafted under Marc Bergevin’s tenure are in prime position to do just that. Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak, and Noah Juulsen are three recent first-round picks who, due to roster construction and injuries, have an open chance to stake their claim on an NHL spot.
Having been in the organization for some time, how have these players developed, and what are their realistic chances of being impact players for the Habs this season?
Drafted: 25th overall in 2013
Total pro experience: 144 AHL GP / 69 NHL GP
Perhaps the most divisive prospect in the Canadiens’ system, McCarron was always a contentious addition from the day he was selected in 2013. Standing 6’6”, he is an absolute behemoth on the ice, and his slow start in the OHL did little to quiet the fans’ criticisms of the pick. After a rebound performance with London the next year, then a move to Oshawa where he helped the team win a Memorial Cup, it looked like McCarron was rounding into form. A solid rookie year in the AHL (38 points in 58 games), plus a 20-game stint in the NHL, fueled hope that maybe the hulking centre could become a major asset going forward.
Then the following two seasons were marked by inconsistent — and at times inexcusable — play at the AHL level. His point production plummeted, his penalty minutes skyrocketed, and, worst of all, he just looked like a non-factor on the ice. The same went for his time as an NHL call-up, as he couldn’t keep pace with the play, and more often than not opted to fight instead of doing anything else with his hands.
Presently without a contract, McCarron is one of the players looking to carve out an NHL spot for himself. Working against him is that his role may currently be better occupied by Jacob de la Rose or the newly signed Matthew Peca. Unless he rekindles his dormant offensive game while being a good defensive presence, it’s hard to see how McCarron makes the NHL lineup for the majority of this season without a serious rash of injuries.
Drafted: 26th overall in 2014
Total pro experience: 140 AHL GP / 29 NHL GP
Arguably the most skilled out of Montreal’s prospects right now, Scherbak has been thrilling fans with his talent since his time in the WHL. Having an outstanding season in Everett after being drafted, Scherbak moved to the AHL to begin his pro career with the St. John’s IceCaps. While he showed glimpses of elite skill, he also battled through a number of injuries, coaching incompetency, and general growing pains in his rookie year.
His second season came with a major uptick in points and overall play. He formed a fantastic partnership with McCarron and Charles Hudon to create outstanding chances while on the ice. Even with some old issues creeping in, Scherbak proved he was in the conversation to be considered the Habs’ top prospect.
This past season he showed it more than ever for the Laval Rocket, turning in 30 points in just 26 games, while also dressing for just as many contests for the Canadiens.
For Scherbak, the door could be opened wide for him to start the 2018-19 season, giving him the opportunity to slide into an offensive role and build on a promising showing. He has the skills to become a danger to NHL defences and goalies. If he can find the consistency his game needs, then Scherbak will be a great return on the investment of a late first-round draft choice.
Drafted: 26th overall in 2015
Total pro experience: 31 AHL GP / 23 NHL GP
Juulsen is the player with the least professional experience, but also the one with the best chance of making a noticeable impact for the Canadiens this season. As a right-handed defenceman, he is primed to step into a big role with Shea Weber missing time until at least December.
This isn’t a major stretch for Juulsen either. He held down a similar role behind Jeff Petry last year, and rarely looked out of place doing it. It’s a learning-on-the-fly experience, and Juulsen is performing admirably, even if he didn’t — and may never — produce a ton in terms of points. He’s been responsible with his assignments, being properly aggressive on puck-carriers and working to adjust to the speed of the game.
Out of the three first-round picks likely to suit up in Montreal this year, Juulsen is, hands down, the most assured of the three. This isn’t a knock on the other two, just that the combination of Juulsen’s previous play coupled with a team need leaves him with a spot that is there for the taking.
With the Canadiens in their current situation, they’ll need these young assets to step into bigger roles this year. They don’t have to be superstars, but they do need to show a progression in their play so if there is an injury they can provide a capable replacement option.
Scherbak has progressed in leaps and bounds each year as a pro, and this year should not be any different. While Juulsen has already likely secured himself a spot, he can continue to adjust to the NHL level. His development into a top-four defender would be crucial in taking some pressure off Jeff Petry, who is preparing for the season knowing he will be carrying the load on defence until Weber returns.
There is talent waiting to slide into the lineup, but it’s up to the players now to make the most of this chance in the upcoming season.