The one silver lining behind the Montreal Canadiens’ current injury situation? How executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton has been forced to give chances to the team’s prospects and get a closer look at their potential.
Well, that would actually make two silver linings, right after points in the standings becoming harder to earn during a season in which tanking and getting a high draft pick might be what’s best to ensure a faster rebuild. The only issue is players don’t typically tank, management does.
Players typically try every night, and those prospects? Perhaps as expected, they’re proving to try as hard as anyone, potentially with jobs for the future on the line. Here are the five likeliest to stick around past this 2021-22 NHL season as a result:
5. Corey Schueneman
Heading into this season, defenseman Corey Schueneman was more likely to make a list of farmhands whose names fans couldn’t spell (or weren’t even aware of altogether) than a list of Habs prospects on track to see NHL action. However, the Habs gave him his first NHL games, admittedly in part out of necessity, and he’s impressed relatively speaking.
In the interest of full disclosure, both Schueneman and Laurent Dauphin were just assigned to the taxi squad. However, that’s more of a reflection of the team getting healthier than their play. And, while Dauphin has positively stuck out at times too, he’s a pending unrestricted free agent. The 26-year-old Schueneman will still be a restricted free agent.
More to the point, the Canadiens are filled to the brim with forwards like Dauphin, some on this very list. They only have one full-time left-handed defenseman signed past this season in Alexander Romanov. While Schueneman’s still a longshot to earn a top-six role, he’s at least entered into the conversation of potential seventh defensemen.
True, players with more experience like Sami Niku and Kale Clague remain in the mix, but Schueneman’s arguably showed more consistency with less playing time. And his profile probably aligns more with what the Canadiens would want in someone playing in a reserve role.
4. Rem Pitlick
It’s only been one game, but waiver-wire pick-up Rem Pitlick didn’t look out of place playing with Christian Dvorak and Jonathan Drouin. Insert joke here about whether or not that’s a good thing, based on the former’s season to date especially.
In any case, Pitlick may not be a long-term top-six option, but he did score six goals (and five assists) in 20 games with the Minnesota Wild. That would put him on pace for 25 over a full 82-game schedule and 20 if he sticks with the Habs the rest of the season.
Sad, but true? That‘s more than what leading scorer Nick Suzuki or the injured Josh Anderson (if he were to return tomorrow), who has the highest goal-per-game clip on the team (with exception to Rafael Harvey-Pinard who has one goal in three games), are on pace to score.
Bottom line: Pitlick got picked up for a reason. One of those reasons was because he was healthy and could pick up a stick. But the 24-year-old does have some potential. He’ll at least likely be given the chance the rest of this season to see if it materializes. Then next season if it does.
3. Rafael Harvey-Pinard
You get the sense it’s not a matter of if but when Harvey-Pinard makes the Habs for good. Maybe next season? He’s already drawn comparisons to Brendan Gallagher, and, with the Canadiens facing a difficult decision with Gallagher, *hypothetically* leaving his days with the organization numbered, they’d need a replacement.
If the Canadiens do need to bolster their bottom six next season with some youthful exuberance, Harvey-Pinard is an undeniable option. Sure, Alex Belzile, with 11 games played this season, would theoretically be a favorite to contribute in a pinch, but, at 30, he can’t really be considered the future of the organization, especially as a pending unrestricted free agent.
In contrast, Lukas Vejdemo and Jesse Ylonen have each shown flashes of offensive potential, but they’d only really fit in as top-six forwards. And, if the Canadiens are planning on giving either one a permanent slot in the top six next season at this point of their respective careers, it’s more a sign things aren’t just going wrong for (Shane) Wright, but that they’d just be fodder to draft Connor (Bedard) in 2023. Harvey-Pinard just projects more as someone who can be played up and down the lineup, which adds to his versatility… and chances of catching on with the Habs.
2. Michael Pezzetta
In contrast, Michael Pezzetta lacks the offensive upside of a guy like Harvey-Pinard, but he’s gaining more and more attention for his work ethic, among fans.
That also goes for head coach Dominique Ducharme, who gave him a career-high 12:13 against the Boston Bruins last week. Not even because he scored the team’s only goal. It’s more the opposite. He scored, because he was given the ice time.
“[Pezzetta] was skating. He was physical, then after that got rewarded with a goal. Some of the guys were not going as much, so he got more,” Ducharme said after the game.
What’s most impressive and should not be overlooked is the following stat: of all the players who started the season in the American Hockey League, Pezzetta has played the most games: 23. That’s more than fellow top-six forwards Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault, albeit mainly due to injuries they each sustained. Still, the more Pezzetta plays, the more he ingratiates himself with his teammates and the team as a whole. The likelier he is to get a long-term look and eventually replace one of them, when they each become unrestricted free agents next summer.
1. Ryan Poehling
Ryan Poehling is right behind Pezzetta with 22 games played, but definitely ahead of him on the depth chart. While his four goals and two assists leave something to be desired, especially as a 23-year-old former first-round pick, he’s still averaging 12:51 per game (compared to Pezzetta’s 8:17) for a reason.
“Since [Poehling] got back with us, he plays a great 200-foot game. I think he’s getting a lot more confident with the puck, winning puck battles. I think that’s something he wanted to go down to [the Laval Rocket] and work on and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Nick Suzuki after Thursday night’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Take it with a grain of salt, considering Suzuki, who had just been named to the All-Star Game, also said: “It’s definitely an honor to represent Montreal at the All-Star Game. There’s a bunch of guys who could have went for sure.”
That’s just not true, but what can’t be denied is Poehling is in all likelihood going to stay with the Habs out of training camp next season. He’ll be eligible for waivers for the first time, meaning the Canadiens would risk losing him if they send him down. However, he’s arguably shown enough to stay. The Canadiens may need him to step up his game overall, but, for a team lacking depth down the middle, they just need him, pure and simple.