As Development Camp opens for the Montreal Canadiens, the eyes of the media and fans turn back to the ice to watch the decision-making process of building an NHL roster take place. In Montreal, despite a large turnover with several key players leaving due to trade, free agency or injury, there will not be very much opportunity for youth to take NHL roster spots.
Development Camp will give us some great indicators of whether or not any of the invites, drafted players or players on try-outs, can perform well enough to demonstrate they have what it takes to either play in the Canadiens’ professional system or earn a contract.
Looking at the Canadiens’ roster, there aren’t many openings. To be honest, there’s likely only two that are truly up for competition that a young player can step up and take. The first is for a bottom-six center, the other, a bottom-pairing defender.
There are as many as three players in competition for the bottom-six center roles. Returnee Jake Evans, rookie Ryan Poehling and newcomer Cedric Paquette. With Jesperi Kotkaniemi taking flight for North Carolina, there are essentially two center positions in open competition. With the bias of any NHL coach to be towards their veterans, as they are more predictable and consistent in their play, it is likely that one spot will go to Paquette with his seven years of NHL experience and Stanley Cup ring.
This leaves one spot in open competition for Evans and Poehling. Evans will have the advantage of having played under head coach Dominique Ducharme last season, and demonstrated a solid defensive acumen with some offence. This means Poehling — who is waiver exempt, meaning he can be sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) without the risk of losing him on waivers — will have to impress in camp.
There is a chance Poehling does impress, and if that’s the case, he could end up relegating Paquette to a role as an extra skater. However, what all this demonstrates is that it is highly unlikely any rookie newcomer could take one of these roster positions.
Blue Line Opening
On the blue line, there is an open competition for a spot on the team’s third pairing. If Joel Edmundson is paired with Jeff Petry, and Alexander Romanov is given a chance to expand his role while sheltered with newcomer David Savard, that leaves one position open to the right of Ben Chiarot.
Currently, Brett Kulak and Chris Wideman are the front runners to round out the Canadiens’ defence corps. Both have NHL experience and bring some desperately needed mobility and puck-moving skills. However, one defenceman in camp has an opportunity to compete with them, Mattias Norlinder. The Swedish puck-moving defenceman is now signed to his entry-level contract and will have an opportunity to break onto the roster.
With the Canadiens seemingly pushing to become a more offensive team this season with the additions of Mike Hoffman and Christian Dvorak, two top-six players capable of 25 or more goals per season, added to a group that could see as many as seven 20-goal scorers, the opportunity for a puck-moving defenceman who can add to the transition game and power play is there. However, the bias towards veterans will be hard to overcome, and Norlinder is likely to just fall short. But another season to mature his game in the Swedish Hockey League may be better for his development in the long run.
The lack of openings on the NHL roster means players will be using the camp to demonstrate that they are still capable of competing against NHL talent. This would make them candidates to be called up in case of injuries.
A pre-camp frontrunner for this role is Jesse Ylonen. The young Finnish winger played last season with the Laval Rocket scoring nine goals and 17 points in 29 games played while in a second- and third-line role. He demonstrated great speed, poise with the puck and good defensive abilities.
With the Canadiens being deep along both wings, the expectations as he enters his second professional season in North America is to take a step in his progression and be able to step into the NHL when needed. This can be seen as a quality step forward in development for the Habs’ 2018 second-round selection.
Another player that could earn call-up duties is Rapheal Harvey-Pinard, also known as Lavallagher for the way he plays the game, and all out every shift just like Brendan Gallagher does in Montreal. Harvey-Pinard is one of only two Rocket players who dressed for every game last season — in those 36 games he scored nine goals and 20 points, finishing fourth on the team in points in his rookie professional season. It is this level of consistency and heart that will earn him an opportunity this year. That being said, he will not be able to crack the NHL roster, being only a call up.
With Kotkaniemi being poached by the Carolina Hurricanes in an offer sheet, the consensus is the Canadiens made the right choice in that moment, but it has raised concerns with the development of their prospects. The arguments being made have been that they rush players into the NHL only to place them in minor roles.
This is where the bias of NHL coaches towards playing veterans will become beneficial. Veterans are safe as they are consistent in what they can provide a coach. Youth may have higher skill sets, but can be volatile. In the past, the youth such as Kotkaniemi, and even Victor Mete, were able to push their way onto the roster immediately as the team was depleted and lacked enough veteran skill.
This season, the Canadiens have a mix of veterans, young returnees, and prospects with multiple seasons of professional experience competing for the NHL jobs. The organization finally has a hierarchy in their development system, making it much harder for raw rookies to step into the NHL. This will be a benefit to the Canadiens developmental system over time, forcing them to allow their younger players such as 2020 first-round pick Kaiden Gule, to remain in lower leagues and develop physically, mentally as well as skill wise, before they step into the NHL.
While it could be argued that not having spots available for youth to step into the NHL right away can be a bad thing for the fans, as they don’t get to watch their top draft picks right away, there is something to be said about patience. The patience and opportunity to properly develop youth hasn’t been applied to Montreal in some time, but this season, it will be a major tool implemented in their approach to the season. This season’s addition of veterans using free agency and trade has not only helped to mitigate the loss of key players, but has also forced the hand for management to rely on them and not the youth coming up in the system. For these reasons, there will be very little opportunity for a surprise rookie to break into the Canadiens’ lineup on opening day.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.