Doing our annual ranking of the Montreal Canadiens’ top 25 players under the age of 25 in the summer months, we typically hit a lull in the NHL transaction period. The draft is in the rearview mirror, most of the top free agents are (usually) off the market, and everyone counts down the days to the next bit of hockey action.
From one year to the next, a lot can change in an organization. The draft itself shakes things up with a handful — or two — of players who need to be slotted into long-term projections for the future. Trades are made that see top young talents leave or join, sometimes dramatically changing the timeline of contention for the organization.
The nature of this project also sees some players still in the organization graduate from the list, entering the primes. Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher are two such players from the past, while last year we saw Phillip Danault move on from the project, then post the best season of his career.
This year, we didn’t have much pomp and circumstance surrounding the two graduates, but we do see the removal of players who had been ranked highly in recent years. Between the two of them, Charles Hudon and Charlie Lindgren had eight top-10 finishes, with both of them hitting that height the past two years.
Hudon was one of the hopes for the future within the prospect pool in the early 10s. Good for somewhere between 25 to 30 goals at both the QMJHL and AHL levels, it seemed to take entirely too long for him to finally get his shot in the top league.
That chance came in 2017-18, and Hudon responded with a very respectable 10 goals and 20 assists in his rookie season. It was enough to hold his ranking at fifth in 2018 despite the addition of 11 new draftees.
The acquisition of Max Domi in the off-season allowed Jonathan Drouin to move back to left wing, and Tomas Tatar did a rather surprising job of taking the place of Max Pacioretty on the top line. Joel Armia’s addition, one that required no roster player leaving as compensation, filled the NHL winger depth to the brim. With Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw, and Artturi Lehkonen all above him, Hudon was relegated to competing for a fourth-line role.
That place was clearly not suited to his strengths, as he struggled to hold more than a tenuous grip on a lineup position. The result was just 32 games played, and a paltry five points.
His contract ended at the end of the season, temporarily seeing him become a restricted free agent before he signed a one-year deal for just over the NHL minimum salary. He will have a difficult time outcompeting any of the players mentioned above, meaning the team may be forced to expose him to waivers in an attempt to send him to the AHL. The graduation from this project may herald the end of his time in the organization, but he has impressed in training camp before, and now has reason to play the best hockey of his career.
Lindgren is in a similar position. Like Hudon, he was a promising member of the AHL team, pulling the St. John’s IceCaps into a playoff berth back in 2017, with a .914 save percentage in the regular season and a .922 mark in the playoffs.
The NHL starts early in his professional career were also encouraging. He won his first five games with the Canadiens, but then earned a standings point in just four of his final 12 starts in 2017-18. His work in the AHL wasn’t up to the performance we had seen in his first full year in the organization, with two campaigns under an .890 save percentage.
A player once thought to be the next backup in Montreal, or at least a trade chip valuable enough to bring in a high pick, Lindgren was sharing duty with the younger Michael McNiven in Laval last year, and saw the head-turning Cayden Primeau become a pro after his NCAA season was complete. The NHL spot that he had been vying for was filled by free-agent signee Keith Kinkaid on July 1.
It appears that there is nowhere in the organization for Lindgren to get his minutes in 2019-20. It’s possible that he will be traded before the season begins, but likely for a much less valuable return than originally projected a few years ago.
Two players entered the system since the voting was completed for 2018 who turned 25 in the interim. Riley Barber was signed on the first day of free agency this off-season after playing his entire professional career in the Washington Capitals organization. He has just three NHL games on his resume, but has been a solid contributor at the AHL level. That’s probably where the brass sees his value, and will hope his limited play at the top level will allow him to get through waivers ahead of the new season.
The other addition has already had a significant NHL impact. After signing a three-year contract extension as a pending unrestricted free agent, Brett Kulak will be a contributor for the Canadiens for a few more years at least.
In one of the best trades Marc Bergevin made last season, he flipped Rinat Valiev and Matt Taormina to the Calgary Flames to acquire Kulak. Having already cleared waivers, there was no risk for Bergevin in that regard.
Waivers shouldn’t be a concern for Kulak over the length of his extension. He quickly showed how well he can play in the NHL, and was comfortably performing in a top-four role by the end of the season. For the price of two defencemen who were likely slated to play the full season in the AHL, the Canadiens gave their left-side depth a massive boost.
The Canadiens’ own efforts to assign players to the AHL by first exposing them to waivers didn’t pan out as intended last year. The attempt to get some more substantial playing time in Laval with rookie head coach Joël Bouchard for Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose resulted in both longtime members of the organization being claimed.
|Nikita Scherbak||8||7||6||4||6||-||-||Claimed by LAK|
|Jacob de la Rose||11||10||15||6||7||17||-||Claimed by DET|
|Will Bitten||14||15||14||-||-||-||-||Traded to MIN|
|Kerby Rychel||18||-||-||-||-||-||-||Traded to CGY|
|Rinat Valiev||24||-||-||-||-||-||-||Traded to CGY|
|Brett Lernout||25||18||22||26||30||-||-||Signed by VGK|
|Michal Moravčík||31||-||-||-||-||-||-||Contract terminated|
|Jeremiah Addison||33||19||30||34||-||-||-||Contract terminated|
Scherbak debuted at #6 in 2014 despite being a late-first-round selection. His skill level kept him in a top-10 slot for his five-year stay in the rankings despite never being able to turn it into eye-popping results at the pro level.
Playing in the AHL as a 19-year-old in 2015-16, Scherbak managed seven goals and 16 assists. His second year as a professional in St. John’s went much better, with a total of 41 points, and a first NHL goal scored in a three-game stint with the big club. It seemed like he was on his way to becoming a key offensive piece in the organization.
Two years ago, he got to dress for 26 games in Montreal. He showed flashes of the incredible puck-handling that got him drafted, but such displays were rare. Back in the AHL, he was a point-per-game player, leaving hope that his game could still come around.
After starting his AHL career earlier than most, Scherbak was already eligible for waivers at the start of the 2018-19 season, and that presented a quandary for Marc Bergevin. Scherbak wasn’t good enough to crack the lineup, but other teams were well aware of the potential we all saw, making the waivers option a risky one. The situation left Scherbak stuck in the press box for the opening two months of the season, his only action being a five-game conditioning stint so he could stretch his legs a bit. In the end, the GM chose the waivers option, and the Los Angeles Kings — the first team in the order — snatched him up.
He played eight games for the Kings before being placed on waivers. Despite being able to claim him and assign him drectly to Laval, Bergevin declined that option and lost all claim to his 2014 first-rounder.
Scherbak joined the AHL’s Ontario Reign, scoring four goals in 23 games. He recently signed with Avangard Omsk in the KHL.
De la Rose’s fate was decided more quickly. He was placed on waivers on October 16 a few games into the 2018-19 season, and joined the Detroit Red Wings the next day. He spent the entire season in the NHL, recording nine points in 60 games.
He debuted at 17th in 2013 after being a second-round selection. His defensive game looked like his ticket to the NHL, and it impressed Michel Therrien enough for him to make that first NHL appearance just one year later.
That quick promotion may have had a negative impact on his development. While the offensive game never really materialized, his defensive prowess hasn’t been as advertised, either. He’s never broken even in shot-attempt differential, only coming close when given an offensive deployment in 2017-18 (posting a career-high 12 points with it).
Like Scherbak, the promise of his ability was always greater than his actual performance. As nice as it would have been to see what they could have done with a new coaching staff in Laval, their departures likely won’t have a significant effect on the NHL team.
Other departures came in the form of trades.
Valiev was half of the package sent to Calgary for Kulak.
Will Bitten headed to the Minnesota Wild for Gustav Olofsson. The sparkplug forward played with Iowa in the AHL, putting up 29 points, 13 of them goals; a good start to his pro career.
Kerby Rychel was traded before training camp started as the team swapped one underperforming 2013 first-round selection for another. Hunter Shinkaruk joined the team after our 2018 voting period, and left before the 2019 version after being left unqualified by the team.
Also left to explore other options were 2014 draft selections Daniel Audette and Brett Lernout, both of whom had multiple appearances in the Top 25 (the latter causing a stir when he wasn’t included in his early years). Audette had slipped off the list in 2018, while Lernout held the final place.
Michal Moravčík and Jeremiah Addison had their contracts terminated so they could take different paths in their careers.
Jarret Tyszka and Scott Walford, two of the four WHL defencemen selected in 2017, went unsigned. Neither had ever cracked the top 30.
Some departures can also bring exciting new arrivals, and that was the case last September. After several months of rumours and speculation, Max Pacioretty was traded just before the pre-season began. Heading the other way was a player who immediately became one of the top prospects in the organization.
|Nick Suzuki||1999-08-10||19.9||C||Trade with VGK|
|Joël Teasdale||1999-03-11||20.4||LW||Signed as UFA|
|Gustav Olofsson||1994-12-01||24.6||LD||Trade with MIN|
|Otto Leskinen||1997-02-06||22.5||LD||Signed as UFA|
|Cole Caufield||2001-01-02||18.5||RW||2019 #15 pick|
|Jayden Struble||2001-09-08||17.9||LD||2019 #46 pick|
|Mattias Norlinder||2000-04-12||19.3||LD||2019 #64 pick|
|Gianni Fairbrother||2000-09-30||18.8||LD||2019 #77 pick|
|Jacob LeGuerrier||2000-11-22||18.7||LD||2019 #126 pick|
|Rhett Pitlick||2001-02-07||18.5||LW||2019 #131 pick|
|Frederik Nissen Dichow||2001-03-01||18.4||G||2019 #138 pick|
|Arsen Khisamutdinov||1998-02-26||21.4||LW||2019 #170 pick|
|Rafaël Harvey-Pinard||1999-01-06||20.5||LW||2019 #201 pick|
|Kieran Ruscheinski||2001-03-05||18.4||LD||2019 #206 pick|
Nick Suzuki was one of the three first-round picks of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first year of existence. While some were worried about what the return would be for Pacioretty, the addition of Suzuki made it much easier to get behind the long-term strategy of the organization, especially just months after Jesperi Kotkaniemi had joined the team.
We saw some special play from the OHL forward over the past year, often making a highlight-reel worthy play each night — not necessarily for his pure offensive talent (of which he has plenty), but the quick intelligence he shows to create scoring chances.
Now he takes his talents to the professional level. That will likely mean lacing up with the Laval Rocket, but making the NHL roster this fall is not out of the question.
Several days after Suzuki’s acquisition, Montreal signed undrafted QMJHL forward Joël Teasdale. He had an exceptional year as well, posting 80 points in his fourth Junior season, and capping it all off with a Memorial Cup and MVP honours.
Gustav Oloffson played just two games in Laval before requiring shoulder surgery, heading back to Sweden to recuperate. He had played 41 games in the NHL the previous season, so there’s still much we haven’t seen from the oldest player in this year’s project.
Otto Leskinen also has pro experience, and that was obvious at development camp a few weeks ago. The free-agent signee was one of the standout players in the scrimmages, and he can’t be ruled out of a roster spot in Montreal, either.
The majority of the new additions (10 in all) came from the 2019 NHL Draft. Cole Caufield slipping to 15th was one of the biggest stories of the draft, and he becomes one of the top players to watch not just for Canadiens fans, but anyone else eager to see how the incredible offensive game of a 5’7” player will carry over to new levels of competition. Joining him were several left-handed defencemen who show plenty of promise, a goaltender, two over-age forwards, and what looks to be a fifth-round steal in Rhett Pitlick.
The net result of 13 players departing, 14 arriving, and Shinkaruk doing both over the past calendar year is an increase of one in the organization’s under-25 count.
Last year, three of the 2018 selections cracked the Top 25, with several more just on the outside looking in. In all, 19 of the top 25 players in the organization were the Canadiens’ own selections. Eight members were first-round picks: five of Montreal’s, and three who were chosen by other teams.
Three of the first-rounders ranked a year ago will not be eligible next season. Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Michael McCarron will all turn 25 before September 16, 2020 and leave the rankings. Last year’s top three — Drouin, Domi, and Lehkonen — will have their 2019 ranking be their last in this series. It will be akin to the turnover from 2013 when P.K. Subban, Pacioretty, and Lars Eller aged out of contention.
Despite the loss of three top-nine forwards next summer, the 2018 and 2019 draft classes will be moving closer to NHL readiness and rising through the ranks. Right now, they’re projected to be joined by 12 new additions from the 2020 draft. There are plenty of players developing in the system to help replace those who have left or will soon depart, and that’s great news for the long-term health of the franchise.