The 2020-21 hockey season is unlike any other. The taxi squad means that some immediate replacements for the NHL roster are not even playing in the American Hockey League. However, for the Montreal Canadiens, that isn’t necessarily the case.
The taxi squad, other than Michael Frolik, Charlie Lindgren, and others on off days, has been a place for healthy scratches or injured players with the Laval Rocket.
That means that should the Canadiens — who have been relatively healthy this season — need some reinforcements, they will be coming from the Rocket. Through eight games, and a 5-2-1 start, we have an idea of who may be the options who are ready for the jump to the NHL.
Note that any players left out aren’t playing badly, necessarily. They are just not as good as the players mentioned.
Defence: Otto Leskinen
I have been a fan of Leskinen since he first arrived as an invite to the team’s development camp in 2018. He became a free agent at the end of that season, and the team signed him shortly after. Even I was surprised that he rose up the depth chart to the point where he got five NHL games.
Those five games were unremarkable at best, as Claude Julien struggled to find six defencemen he trusted on a daily basis with all the injuries. However, to start this season, there is no doubt that he looks like a different player.
Leskinen’s skating has always been a strength but the difference this year is his confidence. He is able to skate with the puck, jump up in the play, and defensively he’s very solid as well.
I don’t like +/- very much as it doesn’t tell you much, but he is first in the AHL at +10, and the closest Rocket player to him is only +6. With limited advanced statistics in the AHL, we use what we have. Of the 15 goals the Rocket have allowed at even strength, only two came when Leskinen has been on the ice. He’s also doing this while playing both sides of the ice.
He’s also tied for the team scoring lead among defenders, tied with Gustav Olofsson with one goal and four assists. I’m not sure where he would fit in as an NHL defenceman in terms of upside. He may be able to be a top-four guy, but I would want to see him against NHL competition before determining that. I think he could fill in on a bottom pairing right now without issue.
Next in line: Cale Fleury, Olofsson — There is no shortage of defencemen with NHL experience on the Rocket, and these players are all options to get the call as well.
Long shot: Corey Schueneman is not eligible to be called up as he doesn’t have an NHL contract, but there’s a ton to like about his game. He’s a great skater, and has a ton of confidence with the puck. The team could choose to sign him if they have a need.
Centre: Lukas Vejdemo
Like Leskinen, I have been a fan of Lukas Vejdemo since before he started playing for the Rocket. I have called him the AHL version of Artturi Lehkonen. He’s responsible defensively, is always dangerous when killing penalties, and has a surprising amount of offence that finds its way to break out at times.
This season, he is a much improved skater. He’s able to be everywhere on the ice, and he’s scoring despite not playing with top talent. There have been times where Vejdemo has been on the team’s best line at times. Often that has happened while playing with Alexandre Alain, Joe Cox, and Nikita Jevpalovs. This year, the added depth means that his wingers have improved. He has been with Laurent Dauphin for the last few games, and the duo is pretty dynamic.
Vejdemo has three goals and three assists in only seven games this season, and was our AHL player of the month of February as a result. I see him as similar to Jake Evans at the NHL level. He doesn’t have the offence that Evans does, and isn’t asked to play the same role in the AHL, but he has enough that he won’t look out of place.
I can see him as a potential fourth line centre, but he can also play the wing, and he’s an elite penalty killer. He’s the kind of guy that coaches fall in love with because they can be trusted and not look out of place in any role.
Next in line: Jordan Weal — His contract may hold him back, but he’s also been great at the AHL level. He’s good enough to play in the NHL, and as an injury replacement you can do a lot worse.
Honourable mentions: Ryan Poehling, Joseph Blandisi
Wing: Jesse Ylönen
Before the season started, I predicted that Ylönen would play in the NHL this season. When I said that, I expected that he would come to NHL camp and be ahead of the pack because of his game action.
That didn’t happen. He stayed in Finland a bit longer, and missed NHL camp. After an extended quarantine and AHL camp, he came out of the blocks and exceeded even my expectations. The thing that sticks out with Ylönen is his playmaking ability. He has a great ability to slow the play down, and find the right pass in the offensive zone. The way he slows the game down is still while moving forward, so it’s not like he needs the extra time to make plays. That is good because at the NHL level, the time you have in the AHL just isn’t there.
There have been a few times this year when he could keep the puck or make a pass that doesn’t improve the team’s chances to score. However, he has shown an ability to make plays that aren’t immediately visible. He also has an underrated shot. In eight games this season, he has two goals and four assists, tied with Vejdemo and Weal for the team scoring lead.
Josh Anderson is not expected out long term, but if he does not return quickly, Ylönen would provide more speed and potentially more offence than Corey Perry or Frolik, especially in a fourth line role with Evans and Paul Byron.
I don’t think he has the offensive upside to be considered a top line player at his peak. I can see his potential as a middle six player. He’s more offensive than Artturi Lehkonen, but not as solid defensively. He’s not a liability without the puck, but Lehkonen is elite in that position.
Next in line: Laurent Dauphin, Alex Belzile — The Rocket are a team that is deep at centre, and that means centres are playing on the wing, like Dauphin. He was on the cusp of the NHL last year. Belzile missed the start of the season with an injury, but didn’t miss a beat upon his return. He’s still high on the depth chart.
Long shots: Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Yannick Veilleux — These two players are two of the best Rocket so far this season. Like Schueneman, they both have AHL deals and aren’t immediately eligible to be called up. Harvey-Pinard has three goals and two assists, while Veilleux two goals and two assists. Veilleux also missed the team’s last game with an injury.