With the season just around the corner, it is time to take a deep look into the Montreal Canadiens as a whole. This is part of a series of articles where we rank each player within the organization based on position. This list does not just include players on the Montreal or Laval Rocket roster. Featured players will also include prospects that were either drafted, or acquired through trade.
In this article, we will look at each centre within the Canadiens’ organization. All the way from the draft floor to the top-line in Montreal.
23. Michael Pezzetta
While he has never been the most talented player in Canadiens’ system, Pezzetta brings a lot more to the table than meets the eye. He scored 52 points in his final season in the OHL, and was a spirited player in his time with the Sudbury Wolves and Sarnia Sting. Pezzetta amassed 321 penalty minutes. While his numbers were not the greatest in his rookie season with the Rocket, he brings energy to the AHL club’s lineup.
22. Arsen Khisamutdinov
The oldest player taken in the 2019 draft, Khisamutdinov certainly has the talent to earn the right to be drafted. Standing at 6-foot-3, he brings plenty of size down the middle. Being 21, he is physically more mature than a lot of players drafted this past summer.
In the last two seasons with the Reaktor Nizhnekamsk of the MHL, the top junior league in Russia, Khisamutdinov has totaled 116 points in 100 games. His play impressed their KHL affiliate, the Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, earning him a nine-game stint last season where the Russian scored two goals and three assists.
21. Brett Stapley
Stapley’s game features sleek skating and finding openings in the defence. He is efficient at scoring, as seen in his days with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League. The Campbell River, BC native scored 109 points in his final two seasons with the Vipers which gave the Canadiens a reason to draft Stapley in the seventh round in the 2018 draft. Stapley is continuing to develop his game at the collegiate level, entering his sophomore season at the University of Denver.
20. Jacob Olofsson
Excellent vision and shot are the strengths of Olofsson. Currently with the
Skellefteå AIK of the Swedish Elite League, Olofsson caught the eye of the Canadiens’ scouting staff with 21 points in the 2017-18 season with
Timrå IK, and was selected in the second round in that following summer’s draft. He has a wrist shot that he can place wherever he wants, and is able to make plays to teammates who are in high-danger scoring areas.
19. Samuel Houde
Coming out of the QMJHL with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Houde has speed and agility to make it at the next level. He is also capable of creating opportunities at top speed. The Blainville, QC native scored a career-high 43 points last season in Chicoutimi, which was tied for fourth on the Saguenéens roster.
Houde was taken in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, and could have an honest shot at cracking the Laval Rocket. While his defencive play needs some improvement, his hands and scoring touch make up for it.
18. Allan McShane
Coming out of Collingwood, ON, McShane has slowly developed into a solid two-way centre in his first three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. The Oshawa General just came off a season that saw him score a career-high 69 points, including 34 goals.
Another pick from the 2018 draft, McShane also achieved a career-best plus/minus of plus-22. Despite only being 5-foot-11, he is willing to get into the dirty areas, and his hands help him make moves in tight to create scoring chances.
17. Hayden Verbeek
The nephew of longtime-NHLer Pat Verbeek, the former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound centre still has yet to be in top form at the professional level. After a solid 2017-18 season that saw Verbeek score 30 goals and 32 assists with the Greyhounds, Verbeek was signed as a free agent by the Canadiens, and was promptly sent down to Laval. After Montreal management believed he needed more time to develop, he was re-assigned to the ECHL for a couple of weeks with the Maine Mariners, before re-joining Laval in November.
Verbeek’s biggest attribute is his speed. It gives him the ability to bring the puck into the offensive zone and set up scoring chances. However, he needs to work on becoming a complete 200-foot player. He only scored seven points in his 48 games in his rookie season, but is looking to step up his game in his sophomore campaign. While there is definitely raw talent with Verbeek, there is a lot to improve on for the Winchester, ON-native.
16. Joni Ikonen
A smooth skater with a scoring touch, Ikonen has the tools to move up the ranks. He was taken in the second round of the 2017 draft by the Canadiens, and is certainly held in high regards. A very crafty asset on the power play who usually plays on the left point.
While his shot is not overpowering, it is quick and accurate. He has very good hands, and his passing is superb. After two seasons with the Junior Frölunda HC, Ikonen joined KalPa of Liiga (Finland). Despite suffering a knee injury in May of 2018 that kept him out for over six months, Ikonen made an impact in his return late last season, scoring 10 points in 13 games.
15. Cameron Hillis
Hillis was selected 66th overall in the 2018 draft after an impressive rookie season where he scored 59 points with the Guelph Storm. He finished second to the eventual rookie of the year, Andrei Svechnikov, in rookie scoring. He is a true playmaker, as Hillis has a tendency to have a “pass-first” mindset. His passing ability makes it difficult for opposing defencemen to read, and makes it easy for his teammates to put the puck in the net.
Hillis was hit with the injury bug hard last season. He suffered an MCL injury in mid-December that kept him out until February. Shortly after returning, Hillis’ season ended after suffering a separated shoulder. Despite missing considerable time, he was still able to put up 22 points in 33 games, Hills is looking to return this season healthy, as he leads the Storm as the team’s new captain.
14. Alexandre Alain
Another player signed out of junior as a free agent, Alain certainly impressed many in his first year with the Rocket. Montreal signed the Quebec City-native after a career-year in his final season with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL. Alain finished third in points with 87, with a balanced stat-line of 44 goals and 43 assists.
He has a quick release, and a hard one-timer when he is able to get it off. Alain is excellent at finding open space in the offensive zone, and is efficient at burying scoring chances. Like most players coming right of junior hockey, Alain needs a little work on his defencive game, but there is a lot to look forward to in his second season in Laval.
13. Lukas Vejdemo
One of the other bright spots on the Laval Rocket last season was Vejdemo. Vejdemo gained attraction from scouts with his play with Djurgårdens IF’s Under-20 team in the SuperElit League in Sweden. After being drafted by the Canadiens in 2015, Vejdemo played the next three seasons with Djurgårdens IF’s SHL team before making the trip to North America.
In his first year with the Rocket, Vejdemo scored 29 points, which was fifth-best in Laval. Vejdemo has jump on his skates, and has size and reach to protect the puck, with exceptional hands to make plays. He has great awareness of where his mates are to find scoring opportunities.
12. Alex Belzile
A veteran who has put on some hard miles in the minor leagues, Belzile, in the past couple years, has finally been able to place himself as a full-time AHL centre. According to CapFriendly, Belzile signed his first-ever NHL contract back in May, when he signed a two-way deal with the Canadiens after leading the Rocket in points in 2018-19 with 54 points.
Belzile had to work his way from third lines in the ECHL to a top line on an AHL club, and you can see his work ethic in his playing style. He is a physical presence, who will never back away from a tilt if the opportunity presents itself. Despite the fact Belzile is a tough customer, he has soft hands when he possesses the puck. He can really get rid of the puck in a hurry, and his quick hands help create scoring chances.
11. Phil Varone
A free agent signing by the Canadiens back on July 3, Varone brings a healthy mixture of AHL and NHL experience to the organization. Last season with the Philadelphia Flyers, played a career-high 47 games after an impressive season with their AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley the year prior.
With a solid scoring touch, and ability to find the open man, Varone will be an offensive catalyst for the Rocket next season. He will a guiding force for a lot of the young talent in Laval, but if a spot opens up in Montreal, do not be surprised if Varone’s name is called.
10. Jake Evans
One player that Canadiens’ fans need to keep their eye on over in Laval is Jake Evans. The former University of Notre Dame standout made quite the impression in his rookie season with the Rocket, scoring 45 points in 67 games. The former seventh-round pick from 2014 finished second in team scoring last season, and really showed his developed skills after playing four years in the NCAA.
Evans’ abilities and hockey IQ are what make him a probable NHLer. Quick hands and an accurate shot is what helped the Toronto-native to 13 goals last season. His awareness and vision with the puck helped set up 32 of Laval’s 195 goals. With a lot of current NHL-caliber centres up in Montreal right now, it may be a year or two before we see Evans wear the Habs’ logo, but when he gets the call, he has the ability to make an immediate impact with the big club.
9. Michael McCarron
No question there were a lot of expectations for McCarron when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2013 draft. He showed great ability with the U.S. National Development program and in the OHL with the London Knights and Oshawa Generals, helping the Generals to a Memorial Cup championship in 2015.
He has shown flashes of talent in the professional ranks, including a 38-point season with the St. John’s IceCaps in the 2015-16 season. Even though he has earned a few stints in Montreal, McCarron has struggled to prove himself as an everyday NHL player. Injuries plagued the Grosse Pointe, MI-native last season, leaving McCarron to only play 32 games with the Rocket. However, time seems to be running out on McCarron making the full-time jump to the Canadiens.
8. Matthew Peca
Peca was a healthy scratch for much of last season, but has a lot of upside to his game. His speed, for one, is noticeable. He can make quick turns to shy away from defenders a create time and space with the puck. He has yet to show that he can produce on the NHL level as he had in AHL level, but there is still time for that part of his game to develop.
That said, Peca will most likely be tasked with playing fourth-line minutes when called upon next season. He will have to adjust his game into a bit of a grinder. Not necessarily big hits, but tough play in the corners, and more of a shut-down role that will wear the opponent down.
7. Nate Thompson
At almost 700 games played in the NHL, Thompson is the undisputed most-experienced centre in the Canadiens organization. He joined the Canadiens last season after being traded from the Los Angeles Kings back in February. Thompson has never been a touted offensive threat, with his 10 goals in the 2010-11 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning still sitting as a career-best. However, that is not where his strengths lie.
The former Seattle Thunderbird is at his best in his own end, on the penalty kill, and on the face-off dot. Since the 2012-13 lockout, Thompson has never finished with a plus/minus below minus-two. He has averaged an above 50% face-off percentage in each of his 11 seasons in the NHL, with almost 56% of zone starts coming in the defencive zone.
6. Ryan Poehling
There is really no better way to start your NHL career than how Ryan Poheling did on the final night of the regular season. A hat-trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the winner in the shootout. Did I forget to mention that it was Bob Cole’s last game? However, that was just a glimpse of what Poehling could be in this league. He totaled 75 points in 107 games in three years at St. Cloud State. At this past World Junior Championships, alongside Jack Hughes and Co., helped Team USA make it to Gold Medal Game with eight points in the seven games.
Despite showing his goal-scoring abilities, Poehling’s puck-moving ability is outstanding. He knows tricks to deceive opponents, and has shown that he can make difficult passes look easy. At his age, he is very responsible in his own end. With an active stick he is great at creating turnovers, and break the puck out the other way. He can play on the power play, penalty kill, wherever he is needed, Poehling can play the part.
5. Nick Suzuki
When Max Pacioretty was traded in the fall of 2018, Habs fans were excited to see who they were receiving in return for their former captain. When they saw Nick Suzuki’s name coming the other way, expectations went through the roof, and deservedly so. Suzuki has been one of the top players in the OHL for the better part of three seasons. With the Owen Sound Attack and Guelph Storm, Suzuki scored 328 points in 251 games. In the Memorial Cup, he scored seven points in four games to help the Storm to the semi-final.
Suzuki was the complete player in junior. Great hands, great shot, was difficult to work off the puck, could play solid defence in his own end, he has all the tools to become an exceptional player in the NHL. That is why the Vegas Golden Knights selected him with their second draft pick ever in 2017, and why Marc Bergevin and the rest of his staff are excited to see what he’ll bring to the fold. Expect Suzuki to get an honest shot to make the team out of training camp.
4. Jordan Weal
One of the trades Montreal made at last season’s deadline involved receiving Jordan Weal from the Arizona Coyotes. Weal had been traded the month prior by the Flyers to the Coyotes, but Weal found his touch in Montreal. In his final 16 games with the Canadiens, Weal posted 10 points, which, in total, tied his mark from 2017-18 with 21 points.
While he stands at 5-foot-10, Weal is not afraid of getting dirty in the corners. He knows how to work players off the puck that are larger than he is, and his strength on his stick helps to win those battles for the puck. Montreal was impressed with his play, and in return signed the North Vancouver-native to a two-year deal. Expect Weal to be an important piece of the Habs’ bottom-six this upcoming season.
3. Phillip Danault
An exceptionally gifted scorer who has slowly developed into a two-way player. Danault’s breakout year came in 2016-17, where he scored 40 points. The following winter, his season was shortened after he took a Zdeno Chara shot to the head. However, Bergevin saw what the Canadiens had in Danault, and rewarded him with a three-year contract worth $9.25 million. Danault returned the favour with a career year last season when he put up 52 points.
He has a knack for the net, and agility to make his way to the net. He plays tough on top of the crease, and is able to handle the puck in tight areas. In the face-off circle, he is solid as well. He has averaged over 50% on the dot over his three-and-a-half seasons, and won 55.54% of his face-offs last season. For a team that seems to be on the rise, players such as Danault will be important to the Canadiens’ success.
2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Many wondered if Kotkaniemi was going to be able to compete coming right out of junior in Finland after the Canadiens selected him with the third-overall pick in the 2018 draft. However, Kotkaniemi proved many wrong with a great rookie season. The Pori, Finland native scored 34 points, finishing ninth in rookie scoring, and eighth on the Canadiens roster.
He has all the tools of a natural scorer. His shot has such a quick release, with a wicked one-timer that goaltenders struggle to react to. Excellent hands to make moves around defenders and open to open space. Coach Claude Julien is going to place a lot of faith in this young man to be real producer for the Canadiens in year two.
1. Max Domi
A mixture of skillful player and heart-and-soul character. Max Domi is on a fast track to being one of the leaders on the Montreal roster. Things did not start out great for the former London Knight, as Domi struggled to find consistency with the Arizona Coyotes. After back-to-back seasons where Domi only scored nine goals apiece, he was traded to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk, and Domi blossomed in his first season in a Canadiens sweater.
After a career-best 72 points last season, Domi has taken the hearts of fans and media alike in Montreal. He has taken the role in stride, and wants to be a leader on the team, both on and off the ice. His work on the dot does need work, but his offensive ability and defencive awareness are one some of the best among the Canadiens’ forwards. Domi is ready to take the next big step to becoming THE guy in Montreal.
I’m a broadcast journalist from West Michigan, with an incredible passion for the game of hockey. After playing in goal for 16 years, I realized that my time on the ice was up, and chose a slightly different path working in the media. It is just as demanding, just a little less physical.