The Montreal Canadiens have improved and deepened their prospect pool over the last four seasons. You can say what you want about former general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin and drafting – you have to admit he stocked the cupboards for the new management team of GM Kent Hughes and vice president of hockey operations (VPHO) Jeff Gorton. In those cupboards, however, there is no bona fide superstar or elite player, but there is a group of highly skilled top-line forwards or top-pairing defencemen for the future team. A few also need to step up their game soon, or they could be left behind and not make the NHL at all.
Here is a look at three players who could have make-or-break seasons this year. Having one doesn’t necessarily mean they have to make the NHL, it just means they need to progress in their development, which points them towards a potential NHL career.
1. Mattias Norlinder
The Canadiens drafted Mattias Norlinder in the third round of the 2019 Entry Draft, and he is a speedy, brilliant skater with elite puck-moving and passing skills. At the time of the draft, the team needed high skilled left-handed puck-movers, and he fit the bill perfectly. In his draft year, while playing in the Swedish MODO Hockey system, he had 21 points in 30 games for the J20 team in the J20 Super Elite league and was named playoff MVP. He also played 14 games for MODO in the HockeyAllsvenskan – the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) equivalent to the American Hockey League (AHL) – and scored six points. He was highly touted to be the puck-mover Montreal had been looking for since they traded PK Subban.
Norlinder played his draft season with MODO in the HockeyAllsvenskan league, scoring a modest 18 points in 34 games as a rookie and was voted best junior at the end of the season. In 2020-21, he graduated to the SHL playing for Forlunda Hockey Club (HC), putting up 10 points in 34 games and another five in seven playoff games. As a result, all signs pointed to Norlinder progressing nicely and possibly being ready for North America. Last season, he started his season in North America, playing only six games for the Canadiens and six games for the Laval Rocket of the AHL, scoring only three points in total.
Due to lack of playing time and being so far from his family, it was decided that Norlinder would return to Forlunda and continue his development in Sweden when new management took over. After missing half the season, his return to Sweden didn’t go well as he lost his spot on the top pairing and only scored two assists in 21 games. Injuries also took their toll last season when he got to Sweden, contributing to his development regression. His most significant issue in North America was his defensive play, as he couldn’t catch up to the speed and size of his opponents and wasn’t trusted by his coaches. His lack of playing time was the most significant factor in his regression last season. If he can’t get his game strong enough in Laval, he may have a hard time making it in the NHL.
2. Joel Teasdale
Joel Teasdale is an undrafted player the Canadiens signed in September of 2018. After he was signed, he split the season with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Junior Hockey League (QJHL) scoring 80 points in 66 games. With the Huskies, he won the QMJHL Championship scoring 34 points in 20 games; the Huskies also won the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Memorial Cup Championship and he was named MVP of the tournament scoring five points in five games. Teasdale looked like he would be a steal for the Habs and was ready to play for the Rocket and continue his development in 2019-20.
Teasdale missed the 2019-20 season due to a severe knee injury he suffered while training in the offseason. He came back to play for Laval in 2021, but once again blew his knee out after playing only 26 games, scoring 18 points. He didn’t return to the Rocket until January of last season, scoring 28 points in 44 games. Teasdale’s issue isn’t development-wise, as he increased his point total and continued to play the rugged hard-hitting style he was signed for. His issue is staying healthy and playing an entire season – knee injuries in hockey can cut a career very short, and when you get two of them in back-to-back seasons, it can be devastating.
If Teasdale has recovered enough from his injuries, he could be the surprise the Canadiens were hoping he would be in 2018. If he doesn’t, and he can’t push his game to the next level, he will fall farther down the depth charts of the already overcrowded winger position. It will be a tough hill to climb for an undrafted player, but if history has shown us anything, Teasdale does not give up easily.
3. Gianni Fairbrother
Gianni Fairbrother was drafted in the third round of the 2019 Draft; he is a powerful skater with good mobility. He played six seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Everett Silvertips scoring 83 points in 160 games over five seasons. He isn’t known for his offensive talents but is a strong defender who plays with an edge, which the Canadiens lack. He ended his 2020-21 season with the Rocket and had a lone assist in his three games. Going into last season, there was a chance he would get some good minutes with Laval and take the next step.
In the offseason, the Canadiens signed defencemen Louis Belpedio and Corey Schuneman and had Norlinder coming over from Europe. Sami Niku and Kyle Clague were signed during the season and all but Belpedio were lefthanded shots like Fairbrother. This disadvantage Fairbrother had was due to his lack of experience and the fact that Norlinder was higher on the depth chart. Then injuries started to pile up, and he ended the season playing 25 games in the regular season and only three in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Fairbrother will have to step up his game if he wants to try and leapfrog some players on the depth chart in 2022-23. With Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj and possibly Jordan Harris playing for Laval next season, the left side will once again be a logjam. He could end up being the odd man out and a lack of games means a lack of development, which could mean more regression.
Cayden Primeau is another player that many would think of when it comes to moving forward developmentally. Primeau, however, has had success at the AHL level, especially in last year’s playoffs. At 23, he is not ready to jump to the NHL just yet. He will need at least an entire AHL season as the number one goalie to fully assess where he is at in his development before stating that this season is make-or-break.
For the other players, it’s as simple as using their skillset to its highest potential and keep moving forward, or maybe a change of scenery is what is best for them; only time will tell. The good part is, that it still shows how deeply talented the prospect pool is for the Canadiens going forward.
Trege Wilson has been a freelance content writer for the past four years and with the THW for the past year. He is the co-host of the popular Montreal Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered on IHeartRadio.com.Trege is very passionate about all things Canadiens and loves to provide his readers with great quality news, rumours and opinions on the Montreal Canadiens. Trege has also been featured on JblamSports and JDFSports Podcasts; for interviews and guest appearances, you can contact him at any of his social media accounts listed under his photo in such articles as this one.