Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin had a very busy offseason taking the next step in his rebuild, retool, or re-whatever you want to call it. He added significant pieces to take the next step forward from being an NHL playoff bubble team that hopes for every bounce to go their way into one that is truly capable of making the playoffs.
With the Canadiens finally looking as though the future at center has been solved, the needs of the team should likely be in other areas, such as scoring wingers and possibly even the new style of puck-moving defenceman — the type of defender that is smooth skating and able to control puck possession for 25 minutes per game.
For this exercise of identifying the untouchable prospects, we will be placing prospects into tiers, from untouchable and down. Also, we shall not be counting those who have already played, or are penciled in to play, an NHL season, such as Alexander Romanov, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Top Tier – The Untouchables
This tier is a short list, it comprises a handful of players that provide unique skill sets in the Canadiens’ prospect system.
Cole Caufield was the Canadiens first selection in the 2019 NHL Draft. The unique skill set he provides is his goal-scoring ability. In his draft year, he was by far the top goal-scoring forward available. Despite this, he slid out of the top 10 to the Habs at 15 overall. It would seem his size — he is 5-foot-7 — was the major factor in this.
He completely shattered goal-scoring records in the US National Team Development Program (USNTDP) by scoring 126 goals, surpassing Phil Kessel’s record of 104 goals. Caufield also set a record for single-season scoring with 72 goals, surpassing Auston Matthews’ 55 goals. This level of ability is unique in the Canadiens’ system. Despite his size, his development will be key in eventually adding goals to the NHL roster.
Caufield’s development will be crucial. Allowing him to build strength, muscle mass and to develop his game overall. In his first season in Wisconsin as a member of the NCAA Division I Badgers, Caufield led his team in scoring, points and was named Big 10 Conference Freshman of the year.
Cayden Primeau is unique in the Canadiens’ prospect system as the only goaltender that has the potential to be an NHL starter. For that reason, he would be untouchable. A former seventh-round pick at 199th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, he entered the prospect system with little fanfare.
However, that soon changed. Primeau provided two great seasons, moving up to the top five of the Canadiens prospects on most prospect lists. In his last year of university, Primeau posted a 25-10-1 record with a 2.09 goals against average (GAA) and a .933 save percentage (SV%) won the Mike Richter Award as the best goalie in NCAA Division I hockey, with Northeastern University.
Immediately following his second NCAA season, he surprised many by deciding to sign his entry-level contract (ELC) at 19 years old. Last season, his first as a professional, Primeau began playing in a platoon rotation, starting every second game. Prior to the AHL being shut down due to the pandemic, he had earned Laval Rocket head coach Joel Bouchard’s trust and taken over the role as starter on a team that was in the heart of a playoff battle in the AHL North Division. His season ended with a record of 17-11-3 in 33 games played with a .908 SV%.
Kaiden Guhle is on this list as untouchable, mostly due to being just recently selected. Being a first-round pick points to the management team thinking he is a long-term fit. Also, it’s rare a team trades a top pick in the year following their selection.
That being said, Guhle provides size, mobility and a physical game that can become a key component of the Canadiens’ top four in a few years. The Hockey Writers provides a much more in depth report here.
Middle Two – The “Either Or’s”
This grouping of prospects still holds a high value, but there are multiple prospects that fit into positional value. These include multiple left-handed, puck-moving defenseman, two-way centers, etc.
Jordan Harris/Mathias Norlinder
These two left-handed, puck-moving defenders have both been praised to differing amounts.
Mathias Norlinder — an overager when the Canadiens selected him in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft — has remained in Europe to continue his development. This season, he made the leap to the Swedish Elite League with Frolunda. Since then, Habs fans have been watching highlight videos with excitement, but the question that will be asked by the NHL management staff is how has his defensive game developed? His coach, Roger Ronnberg, provides some insight:
“His defensive foundation is strong: he can stop the play; he is good one-on-one; he is strong around the crease; he is also fast in his defensive reads and really, really strong in his game without the puck.”Roger Ronnberg
Jordan Harris played a top-pairing role for Team USA at the World Junior Championship and an average of 27:07 for Northeastern at the NCAA Division I level. He also added 21 points in 33 games played for Northeastern. His head coach, Jim Madigan, was all praise:
“…he’s come back as a sophomore knowing he was going to play a lot more, and he knew how to manage the game and situations better. So, he incorporated more patience to his game — knowing when to carry the puck, when to support the rush versus lead the rush. His overall disposition on the ice and his overall patience and game management improved very much from his freshman to his sophomore year.”
Both Norlinder and Harris play a similar possession game, but their styles vary. The choice would fall to how the organization sees either eventually develop and fit into the Canadiens’ roster.
One will hopefully be able to reach his potential in the Canadiens’ system and the other could hold value in a trade.
Cale Fleury/Noah Juulsen
Both Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen provide physicality, mobility and an ability to play as a third-pairing defender in the NHL on the right side of the blue line. These two young defencemen are knocking on the NHL door to become regulars in the lineup, but with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry under contract playing on the right side, their roles will be kept to third pairing defenders for the time being if they crack the lineup.
If it comes down to it, the decision on who to retain would be difficult. Both are very good prospects, but Fleury would hold higher trade value at the moment due to Juulsen’s injury history. Juulsen has only played one game since returning from facial injuries that sidelined him almost all of last season. There will be question marks about his health and desire to play his brand of hockey.
Lower Tier – The Remainder
Any prospect not named in the top tier, or named as one that needs to face a second thought prior to dealing is in this tier. While there may be several very good prospects, Canadiens fans must realize that none would be projected to become elite or star players. Due to this, using one in a trade — if it can fill a need on the NHL roster — should be an acceptable move. This means that the priority for the team should no longer be to rebuild through the draft but to begin using the stockpile of picks — Montreal has 14 for the 2021 NHL Draft — and prospects to help them take the next step in becoming a perennial playoff team.
No one knows for certain how long this offseason will be and what the NHL season, divisions, or playoff formats will look like. Once it starts, fans can be guaranteed that NHL GMs will stick to their plans, and Bergevin will be no exception.
As this upcoming edition of the Canadiens have playoff hopes pinned to them, Bergevin will look to create enough salary cap space at the trade deadline (whenever that will be) to add a roster plate to help the Habs in this year’s playoffs. Merely making it into the first round won’t be enough; they will need to show progression over last season’s shocking outcome to placate the media and fans alike. Using this deep prospect pool will likely be a key ingredient in any deal.