Developing prospects into NHL-caliber players is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. It can take countless hours, days, years of work to make it happen. It’s a major area that the Montreal Canadiens have struggled with in recent seasons, with a limited number of their AHL prospects sticking in the NHL for more than one season.
Their best AHL prospect in the Bergevin tenure has been Brendan Gallagher, though he played less than a full season for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the first season of the GM’s tenure, and therefore his story didn’t do much to change the impression of the organizational development.
After almost a point-per-game pace in his three AHL seasons, collecting plenty of accolades along the way, Charles Hudon is likely going to alter that perception.
Hudon clearly showed that he was able to take over games at the AHL level, dating all the way back to his rookie year. So why were the Canadiens hesitant to give him a proper shot at the NHL?
There are some solid reasons that could have played a factor in the decision, and it would be a lot easier to accept if it weren’t for the fact that Hudon very well could have helped some recent Habs teams.
Giving players of that quality time to hone their all-around game isn’t a bad idea. In fact, it’s a great plan to make sure the player is NHL-ready when that day comes. However, it’s only a great plan if your NHL team is already stacked and isn’t in need of another offensive player.
In the three years of Hudon’s AHL career, the Canadiens finished 20th (2014-15), 16th (2015-16), and 15th (2016-17) in the NHL in goals. Only in 2017-18 did Hudon become a regular NHL forward, and a major part of that was due to him no longer being eligible to be sent down without waivers. If we look at Hudon’s numbers in some of these other seasons, how was he not given more than a three-game stint in any NHL season?
During his rookie year, he had 57 points (19G, 38A) in 75 games for a playoff-less Bulldogs team, but it was his rookie year and the Canadiens were flying high, so it made sense. The next year, Carey Price got hurt, and Montreal flopped its way to the ninth overall pick in the draft. Meanwhile, Hudon compiled 53 points (28G, 25A) in 67 games with the St. John’s IceCaps, all the while battling a few small injuries. The Canadiens iced players like Devante Smith-Pelly and Mike Brown in their top six after the trade deadline, while St. John’s was clearly well out of the playoff race. Not giving Hudon a longer NHL look was a bit of a head-scratcher.
The last year of Hudon’s entry-level deal is where things get complicated, because it’s the only year that a Sylvain Lefebvre-led team made the Calder Cup Playoffs. Hudon was the heart and soul of that offence, with 49 points (27G, 22A) in 56 games. He, alongside Chris Terry, was a nightmare to contain for opposing teams and helped drive that IceCaps squad to its playoff berth.
In the NHL that year, Claude Julien took over for the fired Michel Therrien, and the Habs cruised into the playoffs, yet failed to add any scoring firepower at the deadline. Instead, they added Dwight King, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen — a trio who accounted for all of two regular-season points after being acquired. For context, Hudon had played three NHL games earlier in the year and matched their production by himself.
Unsurprisingly, Montreal’s offence stalled out and couldn’t find their next gear in the post-season, and all three of their deadline acquisitions failed to do much of anything. After two games of the Habs’ forward group struggling to produce anything, calling up their ace-in-the-hole prospect should have been the move to be made. Instead, Montreal limped out of the playoffs in six games.
Outside of his rookie season, there’s a solid argument to be made that Hudon should have been an NHL player. He dominated the scoresheet each year in the AHL, and in many of those years he could have served a better purpose in the NHL. Even if it was in bottom-six minutes, he was a better option than Brown, Brian Flynn, or any of the other interchangeable fourth-liners that were acquired in that timeframe.
The additional time spent in the minors may have helped him become the strong two-way player that he is today. It’s probably the most patient the Canadiens have been with an offensive prospect under Bergevin. Yet, at the same time, keeping him tucked away in the AHL might have also unnecessarily limited the impact of the bottom half of the NHL lineup, and also left Hudon to wait until age 23 to make his adjustments to the top level.
There’s no guarantee that Hudon would have pushed the Habs over the hill in the playoffs, but when a young prospect produces like he did at the AHL level, chances are his addition would have been mutually beneficial for player and team alike.