Earlier this week, news from Sweden confirmed that 2015 third-round pick Lukas Vejdemo would be coming across the Atlantic to ply his trade in Montreal. Unlike what many originally expected, if he doesn’t crack the NHL lineup, he will stay and suit up for the AHL’s Laval Rocket in the 2018-19 season.
For the Rocket, this another significant addition to their lineup as they look to make an impact after finishing last in the AHL last year. He’ll be joining a team that has been replenished with both veteran and young talent in the months since their season ended.
Adding AHL stalwarts like Kenny Agostino, Alexandre Grenier, and Michael Chaput is a great start to help insulate the youth coming into the lineup this year. Players like Jake Evans and Will Bitten are going to be counted on as valuable contributors in their rookie years, and having established AHL players can help ease their transition to the pro ranks.
Now this group is adding in Lukas Vejdemo, who, at just 22 years old, brings a wealth of experience from his time in the SHL with Djurgården. Vejdemo has spent the last three seasons playing in Sweden after spending the earlier parts of his career with Djurgården’s under-18 and -20 clubs, and that makes him an interesting piece to add to the Laval roster.
He’s still developing as a prospect, but just finished his best professional season in Sweden with 10 goals and 12 assists in 47 SHL games while playing primarily as a defensive option against the best players opposing teams had to offer. It would be fair to assume that Joël Bouchard will deploy him in a similar manner this upcoming season.
So, what sort of lineup impact does this have on the other centres in the Canadiens system, in particular the prospects on the verge of becoming full-time NHL players? The first and most obvious thought might be that it forces someone like Hayden Verbeek or Alexandre Alain to the wing in Laval. While it’s less likely for Alain due to Bouchard’s knowledge of his play, Verbeek’s relentless speed might make him a great asset down the wings, allowing him to help carry pucks through the neutral and offensive zones with ease.
It’s unlikely that Chaput, who is an entrenched AHL centre, will be moved out of his spot, and Evans thrived as a pivot for Notre Dame in the NCAA and will likely be given every chance to prove himself in that role as well. Where things might get complicated is with Byron Froese, who is likely bound for the AHL barring anything crazy happening in the Canadiens’ pre-season.
Froese, who was voted captain of the Rocket last year, never really got a chance to lead the team as he was called up the same weekend he was given the C. He had 11 points in 13 games, and has proven to be a quality AHL producer down the middle.
While he is a great asset to have, his inclusion in the lineup can be slightly complicated by the AHL’s veteran rule, which is as follows:
Of the 18 skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least 13 must be qualified as “development players.” Of those 13, 12 must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season.
Given the logjam at the NHL level at centre, and with the Canadiens wanting to begin developing their young prospects, there is always the chance Froese is moved for whatever sort of return the team can get. That being said, with some smart lineup management, the Rocket can easily keep Froese in their lineup and shuffle out other pieces over the course of the season, as other teams have done.
The bigger issue might be what this means for Michael McCarron, who, in previous seasons, occupied a role similar to what Vejdemo should play. McCarron is currently negotiating a new deal after hitting restricted free agency this off-season, but after two disappointing campaigns at the NHL and AHL level, his time as a go-to centre may be coming to a close. Despite playing in a more offensive league, McCarron barely managed to outproduce Vejdemo last year, even while playing more games.
If the Canadiens want to find a new spot for McCarron in their system, they desperately need some help on the right wing at the minor-league level. McCarron has prior experience from his OHL days as a winger, and Vejdemo has similar experience as well, so a battle between these two prospects for a centre position will be worth following closely as the pre-season and AHL schedule begin.
The Canadiens have a great situation on their hands going into this season, albeit a difficult one to navigate. They have a multitude of centres ranging from AHL vets to professional rookies. The internal competition between these players for the four or five spots available should ensure that the lineup is composed of the most deserving players, and not just the only ones available to play in that role. It’s a welcome change for a franchise that is working its way out of years of mismanagement at the minor-league level.