Since the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993, they haven’t come particularly close to reaching that level again. The decades since had the team desperately trying to hold onto glory with some big-name additions, but gradually the overall quality of the organization faded.
Recently however, things have begun to turn a corner. The playoff appearances haven’t been there — the Habs have only won a single playoff round since getting to the conference final in 2014 — but the promise of better things to come is apparent to anyone who’s followed the team for the past couple of years.
Much of that is due to the young players who are coming up through the ranks and having an impact. After a long, dark period for prospect development, the team is beginning to amass some NHL-calibre talent.
On Wednesday, we saw 2018 second-round selection Alexander Romanov make his NHL debut after a couple of seasons in the KHL and some all-star performances at the World Juniors. He was joined by Jake Evans in the lineup, with the rookie centreman playing his 14th regular-season game.
It was the fifth consecutive year with at least two rookies in the Canadiens’ opening-night lineup.
We’d been hearing about Artturi Lehkonen’s exploits overseas in Patrik Bexell’s weekly European Prospect Reports, informing us not to worry about some long scoring droughts because the winger was having impacts in other ways. When the 2016 SHL Playoffs rolled around, Lehkonen was unleashed, going on to break Daniel Alfredsson’s post-season points record in Frölunda, getting praise from former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, and heading to training camp that fall with a great shot at a roster spot.
He played 73 NHL games in his first year in North America, contributing 28 points. The 18 goals in his rookie year remain his career high three years later.
He may not have turned into the scoring option those early impressions hinted at, but he started out as a regular addition to the lineup, and he remains a mainstay in the lineup, now part of arguably the league’s best fourth line, with the ability to move up as needed.
Carr had impressed with nine points in 23 games the previous season, and earned a spot with a good showing at training camp in 2016. He was betrayed by 4.6% shooting percentage in 33 games that season, but rebounded with six goals and 10 assists the next year.
Sergachev’s debut with the team that had drafted him ninth overall a few months earlier was short one. He played four games for the Canadiens before returning to the Junior ranks with the Windsor Spitfires.
It turned out those were the only games he’d play for the Canadiens, as he was traded one-for-one for Jonathan Drouin. Both players have taken key roles on their new teams, with Sergachev playing Wednesday’s opener on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s second defence pair, and Jonathan Drouin setting into a top-six role in Montreal.
Lindgren had signed as a free agent and burned the first year of his entry-level contract with one start in 2015-16. His addition proved handy when Carey Price wasn’t able to go for the opening week of the following season, serving as Al Montoya’s backup in the opening game.
After some short call-ups in the previous two seasons (rewards for lighting up the American Hockey League) Hudon finally got his shot to prove himself in the NHL in 2017. His response was 10 goals and 20 assists in 72 games, with a shooting percentage under 6% promising even more offence for the sniper in the future.
Unfortunately, that promise was left unfulfilled. In 47 games over the next two seasons, he scored just four more times. The Canadiens extended him a qualifying offer in the off-season, so his rights are still retained by Montreal, but, for all intents and purposes, his tenure in the organization is at an end.
Mete’s play in the 2017 OHL Playoffs may have helped Marc Bergevin make the decision to trade Sergachev that summer. The team was in need of defencemen, but Mete was proving to be a greater prospect than your typical 100th overall selection.
He began his rookie season on the top pairing beside Shea Weber, and stayed there for much of the year before heading to the 2018 World Juniors. He was hampered by an injury sustained at the tournament in the second half of the year, and had his season cut short in early March.
He was a regular member of the formation in his sophomore year, though played just 51 games a year ago when his most productive year to date, in which he scored his first four NHL goals, was brought to a painful halt by a broken foot.
Mete is on Montreal’s NHL roster now, and should get a shot to get back in the lineup when some of the back-to-backs begin to pop up on the schedule. There are some good players coming up through the ranks, so it will be a battle for him to retain his spot in the organization, but he’s proven to be a quality NHL blue-liner.
When Kotkaniemi was first drafted, the general assumption was that he needed some time — perhaps several years — to develop at home in Finland to become an NHL centreman. With rapid progression throughout training camp, we began to wonder if perhaps he’d get a few NHL games before heading overseas. Several games into the year, it was clear he was going to be around for the entire year.
It certainly helped that the centre depth was lacking, making it tough to part with a player showing the aptitude to play the position. He played his middle-six role very well, with 34 points in 79 games played.
He was yet another victim of the infamous sophomore slump last year, with his conditioning taking a step back from where it had been to start his NHL career. After scoring a mere eight points in 36 games, he was sent to the AHL to salvage what little remained of his confidence. In the minors, he showed off some of the offensive skill that had been lacking in the NHL, and was contributing at will when a spleen injury ended his regular season.
When the Habs reconvened for a 24-team post-season in late July, he was recovered and rejuvenated, and went on to be one of the bet players on the roster during the brief playoff run. He’s picked up right where he left off this year, showing more strength and balance on a third line that is the envy of the majority of teams in the NHL.
Juulsen had developed a robust defensive game while playing with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL. That play translated directly to the AHL level, where he was immediately one of the best defenders for the expansion Laval Rocket. The Canadiens called him up on February 22, 2018, and he played out his first professional season in the NHL.
Since that was only 23 games, he still qualified as a rookie when he was named to the opening-night roster on October 3. His career was moving along nicely when it was put in jeopardy by a puck to the face, a resulting concussion, and subsequent side effects that wouldn’t go away. He tried to play again in the minors last year, but was forced to stop after 12 games.
In what must have been a massive relief, he got back into a game on March 11, and felt no ill effects, giving him hope of a return to the game. After a 10-month layoff, he went to Canadiens camp and looked poised in the team’s only exhibition game. As the club tried to get him to the AHL by placing him on waivers, however, he was scooped up by the Florida Panthers.
It was bad news for the Canadiens, who were hoping to keep a replacement option in the organization while he got some game action under his belt. For Juulsen, it means he could get a chance to play in the NHL right away. If the Panthers decide to go in a different direction, Montreal may be able to pick him back up should he go on waivers once more within the next four weeks.
Juulsen’s absence last year meant that a spot opened up on the right side of the defence, and Cale Fleury slid into it after good debut in the AHL the previous season. It probably wasn’t the rookie campaign he wanted, with just one point — a goal — in 41 games played, but it was an opportunity to adjust to the top league he may not have received at just 21 years of age otherwise.
Fleury is on the taxi squad this year, and, unlike Juulsen, doesn’t require waivers. For now the three spots on the right side are filled, but he should soon be back in the AHL auditioning for another shot with the parent club.
Like Kotkaniemi the previous season, some had questions about Suzuki’s NHL readiness when training camp began. Those questions were answered with some astounding plays in the tune-up games, and it was impossible to send him down to the AHL after such a performance.
Suzuki improved in just about every game he played last year, finishing with 41 points — the most by a Canadiens rookie since the 2004-05 lockout. He tapered off as fatigue affected him late in the year, but came back to lead the Habs in scoring in the post-season.
He’s become the go-to offensive pivot on the team in his second year, scoring the team’s first goal of 2020-21. His sophomore season is shaping up to be even better than the last, with everyone around the league taking notice of his skills.
Evans played 13 games a year ago, with three points, and played six games for the team in the playoffs. Those performances convinced Bergevin to stick with him for this year’s team, granting him a starting spot next to Lehkonen and Paul Byron on the fourth line.
It wasn’t an obvious decision to give him that role. Several forwards in the organization needed to be exposed to waivers to make this particular alignment work. But head coach Claude Julien says he expects some surprises from the 2014 seventh-round pick.
It was a bit of a rough start getting his first game on the road versus the Toronto Maple Leafs and dealing with some tough matchups as a result, but he has good wingers to help him out once everyone gets in game shape.
Slotting in on the third pair, Romanov played well above his station in his NHL debut. He was ultimately trusted with over 20 minutes of playing time, including in both special-teams situations. His first point was no fluke; a zipped pass to Tomas Tatar to set up a breakaway goal.
Romanov was used sparingly in his time in the KHL, but the lack of minutes doesn’t seem to have had any ill effects on his play. Versus his peers at the World Junior Championship, he proved to be among the best young defencemen in the world, and his debut performance left the same impression. He was poised with his play while also not afraid to take some risks, and that’s going to have him rising up the ranks in short order.
From the last five years, six of these rookies currently find themselves in roster spots on the Canadiens, with Sergachev and Juulsen doing the same on other clubs, while Fleury and Lindgren are sitting on the taxi squad. It’s been a good half decade of developmental wins for the organization, and the quality of additions has only been increasing.
There are still plenty of prospects in the system to keep this streak going a year from now. Cole Caufield and Kaiden Guhle may be the best bets for next year, but many positions have quality prospects who will be knocking on the door in the near future. The health of the organization has grown strong in recent years, and the young players already on the team or soon to be will play critical roles in getting the Canadiens back to contention.