With the NHL and NHLPA agreeing to move forward on a 24-team playoff format, there is excitement for hockey once again. The Montreal Canadiens will be the 24th-seeded team and participate in the play-in round to see if they can be part of the 16-team playoffs. What will this mean for the Habs roster?
This could highly benefit some of the young Habs players in the AHL with the Laval Rocket, by getting them much needed practice time and possibly some high-intensity hockey if they get a chance to play. Here is a look at who can benefit from the proposed playoff format.
The Black Aces
The Black Aces is the name for the group of players that are added to a playoff hockey team to increase the roster. They do not practice with the team or participate in warm-ups or even travel with the team for road games. They do practice, however, in a separate session usually designed for extra skaters. The most important thing is they must be game-time ready at any moment in case they are put into the main lineup due to injuries. The Canadiens can have all 50 of their signed players available, but this normally does not happen; most NHL teams add four to five players to make up the Black Aces.
With the AHL completely ending their season, the prospects in Laval could face the possibility of not playing again (or even practicing again) until the fall, or later. As a member of the Black Aces, they would get the opportunity to at least get some meaningful practices to help further their development and be better prepared for next season, whenever that will happen. They could also get the opportunity to play in a meaningful game if injuries were to occur to allow room on the main roster. Here is a look at a few players that would benefit from the extra practice time or playoff experience.
Ryan Poehling could possibly be on the main roster for the Habs as the fourth-line center. With Nate Thompson being traded at the deadline, the bottom line center position is wide open. Jake Evans became the regular fourth-line center after the deadline but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is a shoo-in for the spot.
After flying through the gates and scoring a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final game of last season, Poehling stumbled this season after suffering a concussion in the preseason and he started in Laval. He had a few call ups where he had limited ice time and was virtually unnoticed, scoring only one goal and two points in 27 games.
Some of his struggles could have been due to learning a new position. With the Habs deep at center, Poehling played wing for all but seven games. His time in Laval hasn’t been anything to write home about either, scoring only 13 points in 37 games. A lot of his issues there are due to being oft recalled by the Canadiens and some of the mental issues that go along with being demoted.
“I was definitely frustrated at the start. You feel like you do all the right things, but the result just doesn’t go your way, that’s life in general. You moan about it or deal with the hand you’re dealt. That’s my outlook.”Poehling on being sent to Laval (from ‘Ryan Poehling aims to make his stay with Laval Rocket a brief one,’ Montreal Gazette, 10/03/2019)
Poehling probably has the most to gain with being part of the play-in roster not just for the practice, but also for the confidence. Whether he’s on the main roster or part of the Black Aces, working on the finer points of his game could go along way to improving his next season.
Cayden Primeau, like Poehling, is another young prospect who could be on the main roster for the play-in. It will more than likely be Charlie Lindgren, however, the season Primeau just had could push him into the backup role for an all-important play-in series. Primeau backstopped his way to the starter position in Laval, winning 17 of his 33 games, posting a .908 save percentage (SV%), and a 2.45 goals-against average (GAA), with four shutouts. He was so good, in fact, that he was promoted to the Canadiens and played two games, winning one before being sent back to Laval where he ended up being named to the AHL All-Rookie team.
Primeau would surely benefit form extra practice time with the Black Aces to improve his game and further his development. Goalies usually take longer to become NHL ready, but with the Habs’ lack of a solid backup for star Carey Price, he could be thrust into that role quicker then he should be. At 20 years old, Primeau has all the tools to be a solid NHL goalie. More practice and the atmosphere of playoff hockey will only push him further.
A very promising pick in the 2016 draft, Noah Juulsen has been hampered with a number of injuries. After he fractured his foot in September of 2017 in his first career preseason game, he missed six weeks but still ended up playing 23 games with the Habs, scoring three points. In 2018-19 he made the team out of the preseason, but was hit in the face by a puck and suffered facial fractures.
He went on to suffer from dizziness and vision problems and ended up only playing 24 games for the entire season between Montreal and Laval. He started the season with Laval in 2019-20 but after playing only 12 games, he once again suffered from vision issues and was shut down.
Juulsen returned just a few games before COVID-19 ended the AHL season and played solid in a win over the Bellville Senators. With all the time missed in the past two seasons, any time on the ice would be a huge factor in improving his game. He already has all the makings of an NHL defender, possibly even a member of the top-four. With the season resuming Juulsen could certainly use the extra time practicing and getting in game shape, or he could even play in the play-ins on the third pair, if the Habs deem him to be ready.
Either way, this is the perfect opportunity for Juulsen to get more ice time and work out any issues that might still be lingering from his facial fracture and have him more prepared to possibly start next season with the Canadiens.
Cale Fleury making the Canadiens roster out of preseason was a huge surprise. His defensive ability and vision and hard hits made him a fan-favorite. He played 41 games for the Habs and even scored his first goal before young veteran Victor Mete.
Later in the season, however, he would find himself more and more in the press box – as a rookie, he was making mistakes that were causing goals and the coach lost trust in his young player. Fleury was sent down to Laval to work on those mistakes and improve his game, which he did, working closely with Joel Bouchard on the little things in his game that he was missing.
“He taught me that you’ve got to put in the work, about off-ice habits, your routine at the rink, everything like that. He was just on top of me, and I think it really helped me a lot.”Cale Fleury on lessons learned under Joel Bouchard
Fleury like the players already mentioned has good potential to make the main roster for the play-in. Even if he doesn’t the extra time in practice would do nothing but help him stay in game shape and prepare for next season.
Other Prospects and Players
There are few other prospects that can benefit greatly from the extra time on the ice like forwards Lukas Vejdemo, Laurent Dauphin, and Alex Belzile. They would be very low on the depth chart to get any actual game time, but the atmosphere and the high-intensity practices will give them an upper-hand going into next season. As for the defense, Otto Leskinen, Josh Brook, and Gustav Olofsson can all work to improve their game and take one step closer to regular time in the NHL.
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When and if the play-ins start, the Habs will have most of their injured players back – Mete is pretty much good to go and Tomas Tatar should be fine even after his late-season injury, however, Jesperi Kotkaniemi will probably not be ready to return from his late-season spleen surgery. The 23-man roster will be full and the veterans on Laval would probably get first pick if there are any injuries.
Guys like Charles Hudon, Xavier Ouellet, Karl Alzner, and even Jake Evans, who isn’t considered a veteran but finished the season with the Canadiens, will be higher on the depth chart. With the restrictions surrounding these playoffs even if the young guys don’t play, they will be submerged in the atmosphere and energy of playoff hockey. This alone will be a benefit that can go along way in improving the career and play of a young prospect.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.