The NHL draft is not the only opportunity that the Montreal Canadiens have to add prospects out of junior hockey to their development pipeline. Ryan Johnston, Markus Eisenschmid, and Michael McNiven are all examples of undrafted players who were dubbed either “too small,” “too slow,” or some other dismissive qualifier.
They were each passed over in the NHL draft, but were then extended a tryout opportunity by the Canadiens at the team’s development camp, based on the evaluation of the amateur scouting team, led by Trevor Timmins.
McNiven appeared at development camp in 2015, and is currently among the top goaltenders in the OHL and should be making his pro debut next season. Johnston is occupying one of the 23 spots on the Canadiens’ NHL roster.
The biggest success story to follow this path to the Canadiens is undoubtedly David Desharnais, who attended rookie camp in 2007 and turned it into a long and successful NHL career.
The Canadiens have continuously followed the tryout path, trying to dig out the diamonds in the rough, and did so this past season as well. Sixteen players were extended an invitation to the development camp in July and out of those, six then attended the rookie camp in September, and although they didn’t earn contracts, one would assume that the organization is watching them closely.
Fiore is probably the most notable of this group, playing his over-age junior season for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The forward currently leads the League in goal-scoring with 36 markers in 41 games, and is currently ninth in league points with a total of 60, which includes a five-goal, six-point game in December.
The 20 year-old Laval-native probably has a good shot at signing with the Canadiens, as he is proving to have intriguing offensive talent at the Junior level, has showed progress every season, and would be a great marquee player for the newly formed Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League.
One of the more polarizing tryouts was Palmu, a 5’7” Finnish-born forward who is an offensive standout for the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. He is in the midst of his third consecutive 20-plus-goal season, and has already reached a career high in points halfway through the season. With 26 goals and 54 points in 38 games, he ranks 12th in scoring in the league.
Remarkably fast, he’s constantly out to prove himself due to the perception that height is one of the most important characteristics for a hockey player. He took part in the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship with Team Finland, however found himself benched as the team spiralled toward disaster, and had no points in six games played.
A fast skater, a skilled stick-handler, and a strong passer, Palmu has the toolbox to disprove the perception of a small professional hockey player, however it will remain an uphill struggle at any level.
Asselin is an interesting case, as he was the only rookie camp invitee who did not attend the development camp. He was in fact a last-minute replacement for Martin Réway, who was unable to attend due to a medical condition that will keep him off the ice for the entire season.
Asselin is not an over-ager in junior hockey like the rest, but rather a 24-year-old who completed his junior career and, rather than pursue his professional dream, went on to play at the Canadian university level for Université de Québec à Trois-Rivières.
He was the highest scorer in the CIS in 2015-16, with 27 goals and 47 points in 28 games, and won the 2016 Canadian Inter-University Player of the Year.
This season he has so far earned 21 points in 15 games. Unfortunately, his season was slow to get started as he was slashed in the ankle in a pre-season game, which forced him to miss the first month. He will represent Canada at the 2017 Winter Universiade: a global competition that brings together the best university players from around the world to a single event. By March, he will have finished his university studies, and will be looking to sign a professional contract, although at his age anything past an AHL deal would be an over-achievement.
Eansor is another forward finding some success in his over-age season in the junior ranks, leading the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League in points, with 37 in 38 games. The Thunderbirds captain was part of the 2016 gold-medal winning USA team at the World Junior Hockey Championship, giving him the leadership experience that Marc Bergevin covets the most in players in his organization.
Considered a “prototypical power forward” in his style of play, McCool has struggled this season, seeing a dramatic decrease in production with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. He’s put up only 11 points in 42 games despite the team’s strong standing. The team is headed to the Memorial Cup this season, so he will have an opportunity to leave his mark there. Where McCool might find success at the professional level is using his 6’3” frame to cause disruptions in front of the net.
Zipp is the only defenceman out of this group. The Calgary Hitmen captain is a very tough stay-at-home defenceman (i.e. limited offensive potential). He’s known more for his fists than his hands, racking up close to 100 penalty minutes in the previous two seasons, and likely on his way to hit that total once again.
In 45 games thus far he has scored four goals and added 15 assists. He has a -21 plus-minus rating. The Canadiens need to strengthen their defensive depth for next season, and adding the gritty defenceman might suit the organization’s style at the AHL level, although they should probably aim for a better puck-moving option during the off-season.
There is obviously no rule, written or unspoken, that tryouts are tied to a particular organization. All of these players could potentially reappear in the Habs organization towards the end of the season, for example as players who sign an amateur tryout (ATO) with the St. John’s IceCaps. They are, of course, also able to sign with any other organization as well, as was the case with 2015 Habs tryout Dryden Hunt, who signed with the Florida Panthers. There is also Reid Duke, probably the most impressive tryout at the Habs development camp this past summer, who ended up at the New York Rangers‘ rookie camp in the fall.
Inversely, the Canadiens are also known for signing tryouts from other organizations, notably Charlie Lindgren who received a tryout with the Minnesota Wild in 2015 and is currently the starter for Montreal’s AHL affiliate.
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