As the Montreal Canadiens steam ahead towards their qualifying-round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, plenty of lineup questions remain. While the attention is chiefly focused on the absence of Max Domi there are plenty of other lineup choices that lay ahead for the Canadiens. Namely, who is going to round out the defence with Alexander Romanov not being allowed to play, and Brett Kulak and Xavier Ouelle currently not practicing.
The left side hinges primarily on Kulak returning to practice as he provides a proven option to slot in alongside any of the options on the right side. It is the right side that presents the most intriguing battle, despite there being just one open spot as it stands right now. Obviously Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are locked into their roles and are more than likely going to play the bulk of every single game, but in the third spot behind them is a wide-open opportunity for several young players.
Josh Brook, Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury represent the next step forward for the Canadiens’ prospect pool, and the future potential pillars for the defensive core. Now, with a return to play taking place, the three of them are set to battle it out for a chance to prove their value not only in the qualifying round, but for next season as well. They each bring a different style to the ice, each with its own benefits and drawbacks, so now it becomes a showdown to see which player can impress the coaches enough to earn their shot. Let’s take a look at the three prospects vying for playing time.
The “oldest” of the group at 23 years old, Juulsen stands to be the most likely contender for the starting spot in the defensive top six thanks to his professional experience. A steady defensive option that quickly earned Claude Julien’s trust, Juulsen seems primed to prove, once again, why he was a first-round pick. The biggest issue holding Juulsen up recently has not been his play, but the lack of playing more than anything else. Juulsen suffered a prolonged setback after getting hit in the face with a puck two years ago, missing some time due to concussion symptoms, then suffering through a scary period where his vision was affected due to nerve damage thanks to the puck to the face. It was up in the air as to whether or not he would return and when he attempted to make a full comeback at the start of the AHL season, he was shut down for nearly four months to fully recover.
Juulsen plays the best overall defensive game of the three, frequently making the safe, but most logical, play in a situation. He reads the play well and doesn’t often find himself caught out of position, all things the Canadiens’ coaches are looking for in their younger players. Along the blue line, Juulsen’s physicality has been a known entity since his rookie year, with the defender having no issue stepping up the physical play to deliver devastating body checks all over the ice. Going from potentially having his career over to stepping into the NHL playoffs would be quite the comeback for the young defender.
The surprise of the pre-season training camp, Fleury is one of the other young prospects competing to make his way back into the lineup. His rise to the NHL was quick compared to many others who worked their way through the AHL system in the past. He impressed in his pre-season showing, showcasing smooth skating and puck moving along with a big shot that made him a versatile offensive asset. Defensively, his skating allowed him to remain mobile in his own end, and despite his build, Fleury was more than capable of dolling out crushing hits along the boards.
However, through bad luck and the Canadiens having a rough season overall, Fleury managed just one goal before being sent down to the AHL where he tallied five points in 14 games before the season was paused. While just 21 years old, the combination of puck-moving talent and physicality should be highly appealing to Julien in the the qualifying rounds.
Perhaps the longest shot of the three is the one with the highest potential if everything goes to plan with his development. Brook went through a difficult rookie season, but as it went on he looked more and more like the star he was in the WHL. Brook, when at his best, is a dynamic puck mover with the talent to carry the puck through all three zones. However, out of all three prospects Brook is also the longest shot due primarily to the fact he is the youngest and has had the most struggles this year.
His inclusion in the training camp is a good sign though. He ended his AHL season strongly, showing more confidence at both ends of the ice, even if the points weren’t always piling up. If the Habs want to take a risk and lean on a more offensively inclined defenceman, Brook could be their man, but based on experience alone it’s not very likely. With his growth this season Brook has the chance to impress in the training camp and exhibition games, possibly earning himself a role in the top six. For Brook, this restart gives him a chance to continue growing as a prospect and serve as a potential audition for next season.
There’s plenty of choices to be made going into the qualifying rounds, and if the Canadiens are truly serious about making a deep run into the playoffs they have a mountain of hard choices to make. On the third pairing, they have plenty of options, and for the first time in awhile it’s primarily prospects who are competing for one of those spots. Regardless of their choice, there’s multiple positives to them — and some drawbacks — but it gives the coaching staff a variety of options depending on what style of play they’re looking for.