After a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Montreal Canadiens find themselves in a fairly surprising position. Back in the hotly contested Atlantic Division, the Canadiens will be in a dogfight to just make the playoffs.
As a result, while it’s possible that they do, the Canadiens aren’t exactly in a position to contend, especially with the somewhat unexpected turnover throughout the lineup, with regard to Shea Weber for example. The upside is it potentially opens up opportunities for young guns to show the Habs what they’ve got, though.
Looking at signed prospects who have yet to graduate to the Canadiens on a regular basis, here are the five who are likeliest to see NHL action this coming 2021-22 season:
5. Mattias Norlinder (Defenseman)
Fresh off signing a new contract, 21-year-old defenseman Mattias Norlinder fills a need as a mobile, offensive-minded defenseman. The only issue is he doesn’t necessarily have a roster spot to fill.
General manager Marc Bergevin obviously signed David Savard to replace Weber to a certain extent (at least on the right side beside Ben Chiarot). That really just leaves Jeff Petry as the only puck-moving defenseman in the projected top four. Chris Wideman, an additional right-handed acquisition, complicates matters further though, even if Norlinder is left-handed.
If Wideman plays regularly, he’ll conceivably be paired with Alexander Romanov on the opposite side. If Wideman isn’t up to snuff, head coach Dominique Ducharme has the option to, and will most probably, shift Romanov to the opposite side, in which case Brett Kulak will probably draw in as a veteran presence on the left.
Simply put, Ducharme won’t go for two inexperienced defensemen on a single pairing, especially taking into account how hard it was for Romanov to draw in down the stretch. Norlinder also has to adjust to the North American game, which is one more hurdle for him to climb.
Ultimately, although Norlinder will be making his Canadiens debut at training camp, a permanent move over from Sweden is also far from certain at this juncture. In fact, if he doesn’t make the team, the plan is for him to go back. So, for now, Xavier Ouellet is the likelest reserve option on defense… and he doesn’t really qualify as a prospect at this stage of his career (hence his exclusion from this list).
4. Lukas Vejdemo (Center)
Technically speaking, Lukas Vejdemo is directly below Cedric Paquette at center on the Canadiens’ depth chart. So, if Vejdemo shows enough at camp, it might make sense for the Canadiens to keep him up as an extra forward.
However, Vejdemo arguably just hasn’t yet after three seasons in the American Hockey League. Case in point, the modest 13-point campaign he just put together (27 games) being his best yet in terms of production per game.
To be fair, Vejdemo did get in seven Canadiens games in 2019-20, scoring once, against the Nashville Predators in his last appearance. So, he does have some experience. Never having played more than 10:05 (low of 6:04), and averaging the lowest amount of ice time of anyone who dressed for the Habs that season, the now 25-year-old would probably fill a similar role, especially considering he’s no longer waiver-exempt.
In effect, the only realistic way Vejdemo gets NHL ice time is if the Habs determine it’s not worth exposing him as a cut to start the season. If they do though, it will mean they’re comfortable with potentially losing him (or him honing his skills for another season in the minors at least).
3. Jesse Ylonen (Right Winger)
In contrast to Vejdemo, winger Jesse Ylonen is still exempt from waivers, which both helps and hurts him. Obviously, the Canadiens don’t have to worry about losing him to another team, but others may be ahead of him in line for a chance up front.
Developmentally speaking though, he’s arguably ahead of Vejdemo at least. With nine goals and 17 points in 29 AHL games, Ylonen earned a single appearance with the Canadiens last season. He was held scoreless, but, given 11:23 in ice time, including 1:18 on the power play and one shot on goal, the 2018 second-round pick is clearly held in relatively high esteem by the Habs.
2. Cayden Primeau (Goalie)
The Canadiens’ goaltending position is intriguing even if Carey Price and Jake Allen are solidified as the top goalies. With Price injured, a temporary spot could open up out of training camp as a backup.
Even if Price gets healthy in time and one doesn’t, the Canadiens have shown hey aren’t shy about giving Cayden Primeau ice time. After all, Primeau started four games last season when Price suffered a concussion late.
Admittedly, Primeau didn’t fare well, with a 1-2-1 record, 4.16 goals-against average and .849 save percentage. However, considering the whole team struggled most of last season after the 5-0-2 start, that’s nitpicking. It’s kind of like singling out the getaway driver after a heist gone bad, when all he was told was there was a small withdrawal to make at the bank.
In spite of it all, Primeau remains the Canadiens’ top prospect in net. He’s simply outperformed the just-re-signed Michael McNiven, who must go through waivers. In the event Price isn’t healthy to start the season, even if they risk losing McNiven for nothing by cutting him and sending him down, they would also inevitably risk losing him eventually once their No. 1 returns to action. With Primeau, they would at least be giving Allen a backup with NHL experience. Look for Primeau to gain some more, however few games, in 2021-22.
1. Ryan Poehling (Center)
Unlike that of his parent club, Ryan Poehling’s 2020-21 season ended prematurely due to injury. He was rehabbing his wrist as the entire city enjoyed the Habs’ postseason success. Perhaps ironically he’s not only the likeliest prospect to reach the NHL in 2021-22, but also be one of the Habs’ overall bright spots in the process, as he led the Laval Rocket in scoring before getting hurt (11 goals, 25 points in 28 games).
While, technically, as alluded to above, Vejdemo is above Poehling down the middle on the depth chart, that’s only because Poehling is still waiver-exempt. And that’s key, because, with Phillip Danault signing elsewhere, a spot could be open on the roster. Sure, Paquette plays center, but he’s also a winger. More to the point, he’s purely a bottom-six forward.
If Poehling proves himself as NHL-ready, the 22-year-old 2017 first-round pick would logically have priority on a spot down the middle. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same spot down the middle as Paquette, though. The complexion of this Canadiens team changes radically in such an instance, because Poehling could potentially play his way into a middle-six role (with someone like Jake Evans dropping down). Instead of a clear-cut fourth line centered by Paquette, all of a sudden you have bottom unit centered by Evans, who played alongside Danault and Brendan Gallagher during the playoffs (when healthy).
Whether or not that deployment was completely justified is irrelevant. Evans nevertheless played solid hockey in that role. It simply goes to show that, if Poehling is worthy of more ice time, the Canadiens will be in a position to roll four solid lines, much like they did during the playoffs en route to the Final. No one should realistically expect the Habs to go that far again, but expecting Poehling to develop into an impact player isn’t nearly as far-fetched, considering his draft pedigree, his first career game in which he scored a hat trick (and in the shootout) and how far he’s come since then. Maybe it’s not as soon this coming season, but, if it is, watch out… specifically for Poehling.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.