The pre-season rookie showcase is a great way for fans and coaches alike to see what the franchise prospect pool can do in competitive game situations. It is also an incredibly narrow sample to judge a prospect on, but in the same vein a strong showing can help propel them into a spot they might not have been considered for previously. The Montreal Canadiens prospects are no different in that respect, and had a chance to show their stuff against the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs prospects.
Fans had players that they wanted to focus on, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Canadiens’ front office was using this to see what sort of quality they have joining their pro ranks this year. So who on the prospect roster impressed, and who would probably like a do-over for the weekend?
Lukas Vejdemo: The third-round pick from the 2015 draft has seemingly been the overlooked European prospect in the Canadiens organization since he was picked. Artturi Lehkonen developed into a budding star in Sweden, Joni Ikonen had tantalizing skill with the puck on his stick, and after this past draft Jesperi Kotkaniemi had the spotlight firmly on him across the pond.
In two games on the weekend, the 22-year-old centre was one of the bright spots in a pair of rough outings on the ice. Against Ottawa he did well against a heavy offensive onslaught, and with smart positioning and an active stick, he was a stable presence in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
Against Toronto he played a much more prominent role, being deployed far more often by Joël Bouchard, and his strong play in all three zones was a big reason why. He made smart passes in good areas, and was a heavy forechecking presence all game. If Vejdemo continues to play at the level he showed this weekend, there shouldn’t be much surprise if we see him up in the NHL to begin the year.
Will Bitten: Speaking of third-round picks, the speedy forward was one of the few players to be noticeable on all of his shifts. He has energy for days, capable of making defenders look silly as he goes flying past them. While not the biggest player, Bitten has that same spunk as Brendan Gallagher, never backing down from a scrum or another player at any time.
His speed is what created the first Canadiens goal of the weekend, when he took an Alexander Katerinakis pass in the neutral zone and blew by every Toronto player on the ice. While Cole Fonstad got credit for the goal on the play, Bitten’s speed is what created it in the first place.
With his speed and willingness to do whatever it takes on the ice to make things happen, he was a clear standout this weekend, and will likely continue that in the AHL this upcoming year.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: It was a roller-coaster weekend for the third overall pick, and it was a great learning experience for him. In Kotkaniemi’s favour, he drew penalties at a high rate, due in part to his feet always moving, and placing defenders into poor spots, thus forcing them into stick infractions.
After becoming a bit more comfortable on the ice, his playmaking and vision shone bright for the Habs. A beautiful saucer pass set up the Canadiens’ second goal against Toronto, and with him fully engaged, the offence found a new gear and was instantly more dangerous.
Josh Brook: After the unfortunate injury in camp last year that forced him to miss a significant portion of his WHL season, Brook was looking to show the Habs staff and fans what he’s capable of on the ice. While not as physical as Cale Fleury, Brook was noticeable on the ice for all the right reasons all weekend. He timed his pinches well, wasn’t afraid to carry the puck on his own, and more than that he showed great all-around mobility in the offensive zone.
Brook is poised to have a big year in the WHL for Moose Jaw, and if this showcase has been any indication, he’ll smash whatever expectations he has in front of him.
Could use some work
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: Not everything was perfect for the Finnish forward, and no one truly expected it to be. Against Ottawa, Brady Tkachuk seemed to personally pick on Kotkaniemi, leading to a pair of goals by the American forward. It was a learning experience for the young forward, as he’s still adjusting to the centre position, and going to Finland then back to Montreal with shuffling linemates is not an easy thing for anyone.
The bright spots are still there, it’s just also worth remembering that he’s an 18-year-old still adjusting to a new position, so there are going to be hiccups along the way. Coaches still love what he brings to the game, and now it’s time to work on the little things to bring him to that next level after camp.
Antoine Waked: The former QMJHL standout is now entering his second year as a professional, and as it stands he has a ways to go in his sophomore season. His rookie year wasn’t great, but it could be excused given the disaster that was the Laval Rocket last year. In the game against Toronto this weekend, he seemed to be a relative non-factor even while playing with Kotkaniemi on the top line.
For someone with pro experience, one would expect him to be a little bit more of a factor on the ice, especially on offence which is supposed to be where he thrives.
Allan McShane/Cam Hillis: Both players are getting their first taste of competitive hockey in a Canadiens uniform. While they weren’t outright bad by any means, many were hoping to see some flashes of what made them sought-after commodities heading into the the NHL draft this past year.
This is not meant to say any of these players are bad, in fact far from it. It’s just that a bit more might be expected from some of these players. Not having a perfect showing in a rookie showcase is far from the end of the world, and if a player did struggle you can likely bet that they’ll use that as motivation heading into their regular season play, wherever that may be.
There’s a lot of hockey to play this year, and this small showcase won’t dictate their entire season. They can use it to build upon, or to identify things to work on.
Regardless, there are plenty of interesting stories to follow in the Canadiens’ prospect pool in the coming months.