While the Montreal Canadiens have added plenty of new faces this off-season that should contribute to the starting lineup immediately, an NHL season is a long and arduous one. Injuries, wear and tear, and general nonsense always strike even the most well-oiled teams. When that inevitably strikes, they’ll be looking to the Laval Rocket’s roster for help.
The Rocket have been overhauled in their own right, with an entirely new coaching staff on the bench after Joël Bouchard and Daniel Jacob left for the Anaheim Ducks organization, while Alex Burrows signed an extension to serve as a Montreal assistant. The reins are now in the grasp of Jean-Francois Houle, Martin Laperriere, and Kelly Buchberger.
So, who from the Rocket should Canadiens fans expect to see in the NHL at some point this year? This is how the roster breaks down from those right on the cusp of making the team to those who are more depth options.
The sure bets
Xavier Ouellet: It’s not an exciting option, but Laval’s captain is almost assuredly going to see some NHL time this year when injuries occur. The coaching staff knows exactly what he is, and there are far worse options to have filling in for spot duty on the third pairing.
Ryan Poehling: I had to debate whether to even include Poehling here since I assume he’s got the inside track to a bottom-six centre role in Montreal barring a trade for a true centre to replace Phillip Danault. After a disappointing rookie season, Poehling put it all together in Laval last year on a line with Joël Teasdale and Joseph Blandisi before the injury bug brought his season to an end.
With 25 points in 28 games, including 11 goals, it was clear that a fully healthy Poehling was a totally different player. As things currently stand, he’ll be competing with Jake Evans for the third-line centre spot. With his progression he might very well surprise some fans in training camp.
Lukas Vejdemo: A lot like Ouellet, Vejdemo isn’t the most exciting of call-ups, but he’s a safe hand for what will likely amount to fourth-line minutes. He has good defensive chops and great speed that could make him an asset on a Canadiens team that loves that kind of thing. It might just be a game or two, but seeing the Swede in a Montreal sweater this season wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Cayden Primeau: If Carey Price isn’t totally ready to start the season the back-up spot to Jake Allen is Primeau’s to lose right now. Michael McNiven will push him hard for that spot, but it would be shocking to not see Primeau start behind Allen. That is unless his pre-season is as rough as some of his stars in 2020-21, but he will be using this off-season to prepare himself for this role.
Good chance, but not guaranteed
Jesse Ylönen: There are going to be several big-name prospects who fit into this category, and the first is Finnish winger Jesse Ylönen. The shifty sniper showed a ton of promise in his first season in North America with Laval last year, collecting 17 points in 29 games and earning an NHL call-up to finish the season. He has offensive talent to spare, and if there are injuries to the Canadiens’ top six, he could very easily find himself earning a short stint in an offensive role.
Joël Teasdale: The rookie winger missed what was supposed to be his first season with a serious knee injury, but it didn’t slow him down at all. Teasdale formed an immediate partnership with Poehling and Blandisi, creating one of the best lines in the AHL in both points and play. However, both he and Blandisi suffered serious knee injuries in the closing weeks of the season, and that setback makes him far from a sure bet to find himself in the NHL as he recovers. If he is fully back to form, then his modern power-forward style should entice the Habs in no time at all.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard: Playing his rookie season on an AHL deal after being drafted by the Canadiens was quite the experience for the diminutive Harvey-Pinard. However, anyone who saw him play came away with the same thought: his style of game is reminiscent of Brendan Gallagher’s. The rookie winger never saw a net he didn’t want to crash, or a challenge he didn’t want to accept on the ice. His tenacious style of play should fit in on any line in Montreal, assuming a spot on the wing becomes available to him.
Josh Brook: In his second year Brook was all over the lineup, as a defender and as a forward. His progress was undeniable, but still remains a work in progress as he begins to hit his stride in development. There’s a decent chance he could find himself on NHL spot duty if he has a strong showing in the pre-season.
Jean-Sebastian Dea: Signed to be a veteran AHL leader, Dea won’t likely see NHL time this year, and shouldn’t be given the first chance over other prospects. However, he has previous NHL experience so there’s always a chance he’s called up to be a body and then sent back down as needed.
Laurent Dauphin/Alex Belzile: Minus the NHL experience, Dauphin and Belzile are in a similar position to Dea.
Michael McNiven: Goalies are voodoo, and injuries are unpredictable, so seeing McNiven get an NHL call-up, even to serve as a backup for a game or two, is within the realm of possibility this year. Playing in an actual game will likely remain out of his grasp.
Long shots, or: The Habs are in catastrophic freefall
Michael Pezzetta: I’ll be honest, Pezzetta getting a second NHL deal was surprising to me as I thought the team would bring him back on an AHL deal and not qualify him to make that happen. Pezzetta tries hard, brings a ton of physicality, but lacks the finesse needed for a modern NHL fourth line.
Brandon Baddock: Tougher than a $2 steak but not much else, Baddock is filling the guardian role just fine in the AHL and would be well out of his depth on a roster that relies on speed and possession to make its attack click.
Corey Schueneman: This player is one that might actually rise right out of this section in short order during the pre-season. Schueneman was arguably the biggest surprise on the Rocket last year and one of their best defenders despite his lower point totals. Highly mobile with good offensive instincts, his skating ability might earn him a look if he impresses enough defensively.
Louie Belpedio: A Wild fan said to me, “If Belpedio is in your NHL lineup, your season is a flaming wreck and I’m sorry,” so that should tell you all you need to know. Belpedio has decent AHL point totals but also a ton of penalty minutes, so he doesn’t mind the physical side of things either.
Gianni Fairbrother: I don’t think the Habs have interest in rushing a young prospect right to the NHL level. Fairbrother has the makings of someone who could be an everyday NHL player in the future, he just needs some time to grow and adjust to the professional game first.
Arsen Khisamutdinov/Cam Hillis: These two are very much too green, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them spend some time in the ECHL this upcoming year to ease their transition to the professional ranks.
Jan Myšák: We’re not quite sure what league the young Czech will be playing in, so it would be shocking to discover it’s the NHL.
There’s a lot to sift through at the AHL level right now, and there’s likely still more pieces to be added as the off-season drags through the doldrums of August. For the Canadiens, there’s a lot to think about and to analyze as preparations are made behind the scenes to set up the evaluation camps. There’s also spots up for grabs which should bring out the best in the prospects vying for NHL minutes this season.