With the way the Montreal Canadiens performed last season, very few roster spots should be safe. The team will have the expected returnees but there are also spots ripe for the picking. From former first rounders to under the radar players, five Habs are ready for a breakout season to establish themselves as legitimate NHLers or build upon past success.
5. Max Domi
In some ways, Domi’s breakout happened during his rookie year in 2015-16, with 18 goals and 52 points in 81 games. In comparison, his last two seasons were a letdown. Playing on bad Coyotes teams didn’t do him any favours but consistent offensive production has eluded Domi. He had just nine goals this past season, four of which were empty-netters.
With the Habs, Domi gets a fresh start moving from the desert to hockey-mad Montreal, and he has experience playing in pressure-packed situations. The initial reaction to his arrival, in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, wasn’t good despite that the overlying numbers of both players are pretty similar. Domi has a lot of talent but finding a way to produce consistently will make the trade look a lot better.
4. Matthew Peca
Giving a 25-year-old who has only played 20 NHL games a two-year contract ($1.3 million per year) seems bizarre. On one hand, Peca had five points in 10 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last year and has been a solid producer in the AHL. On the other side, he has very little NHL experience and isn’t a young prospect with a ton of room for development.
General manager Marc Bergevin seems convinced that Peca is an NHL player but there is such a small sample size to go off of. He had a tough time cracking a deep Lightning squad and there is a better opportunity in Montreal to earn a spot. Perhaps the Habs see a Paul Byron-type in Peca; a speedy player who is capable of 15-20 goals a season. With a bigger role, Byron flourished and the Habs are likely hoping for the same thing from Peca.
3. Charles Hudon
After three full AHL seasons, Hudon finally graduated to the NHL last year, putting up 30 points in 72 games. It was a good start but watching Hudon play, it’s mind-boggling that his point totals weren’t a lot higher. His effort was pretty good all season long and he consistently played an up-tempo game.
Hudon was one of few players on the Habs who created quality chances frequently but was snake-bitten much of the season. He would create excellent plays but couldn’t finish. If he starts converting on his chances, a 15-20 goal season isn’t out of the question. Notably, 23 of his 30 points were primary points. Hudon is on the right track but he could use some luck when it comes to his shooting percentage.
2. Artturi Lehkonen
Much like Hudon, Lehkonen was horribly snake-bitten this past season. After a promising NHL rookie season with 18 goals and 28 points, Lehkonen had a difficult time getting on track in 2017-18 and the sophomore slump took over. Injuries kept him out of the lineup for stretches and playing with other Habs that also struggled didn’t do him any favours.
He spent a lot of time playing with Tomas Plekanec and while they had the makings of a solid shutdown line, the offence wasn’t there. Lehkonen is a player who can play in any situation, whether it’s on an offensive line or on a shutdown line. His unique skill set is loved by coaches, as he plays a responsible game and his effort is rarely an issue. A return to health and a better shooting percentage could make a 20-goal season a reality for Lehkonen.
1. Nikita Scherbak
On draft day in 2014, Scherbak was considered a project. He had a lot of raw skill and decent size but needed more consistency and to get stronger. Scherbak had six points in 26 games this past season but he showed his high-end skill set and the Habs will be a better team if he realizes his potential. For Scherbak, consistent effort will be the difference.
Scherbak’s offensive skill is above average and he improved in every year he spent in the AHL. If he can bring a consistent effort level, he will play decent minutes. The Habs aren’t stacked at right wing (Scherbak’s position) and with Byron and Andrew Shaw likely on the injured reserve to start the season, there’s an opportunity for Scherbak to earn a permanent NHL job in training camp.
Scherbak’s skills are better suited to playing in offensive situations with good players, not on the fourth line with players who can’t score. The Habs have been very patient with him and his development but it’s time he rewards them by putting together a good rookie season.
More to Give
All five players on this list have shown enough to suggest a breakout season is possible. Montreal’s player development hasn’t been strong in recent years but in these cases, their consistency will elevate them from an average to good NHL player. Whether it’s producing more often or putting in more effort, these five have more to give. They will have the opportunity this season to prove that they deserve to be a part of the Habs going forward as the organization rebuilds for the future.