As the 108th edition of the Montreal Canadiens prepares to step onto the ice and begin the 100th NHL season, questions have been raised about organizational youth. That is, whether there is space in the lineup that will allow young players to make valuable contributions and whether young players have been sufficiently developed to make the leap to the NHL.
To have a crop of young players to harvest regularly, the farm system must be well-seeded, allowing for development by a competent coaching staff. Some say the issue faced by the Canadiens is that the farm hands are not pulling their weight and that the crop provided has not been of a high quality.
Once Marc Bergevin arrived in 2012, he was tasked with adding the shine back to the prestige of the franchise. Growing up in the Montreal area as a fan of Les Glorieux, Bergevin had a true appreciation of what that meant to fans. His plan included building through the draft, which meant building a strong foundation for the franchise.
To provide some perspective, the following is a list of young players inherited by Bergevin from previous general managers, namely Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier.
Alexei Emelin 3rd round (84th overall), 2004
Carey Price 1st round (5th overall), 2005
Max Pacioretty 1st round (22nd overall), 2007
P.K. Subban 2nd round (43rd overall), 2007
Lars Eller 1st round (13th overall), 2007 (selected by St. Louis Blues)
Aaron Palushaj 2nd round (44th overall), 2007 (selected by St. Louis Blues)
Danny Kristo 2nd round (56th overall), 2008
Louis Leblanc 1st round (18th overall), 2009
Mac Bennett 3rd round (79th overall), 2009
Gabriel Dumont 5th round (139th overall), 2009
Jarred Tinordi 1st round (22nd overall), 2010
Brendan Gallagher 5th round (147th overall), 2010
Michael Bournival 3rd round (71st overall), 2010
Nathan Beaulieu 1st round (17th overall), 2011
As you might expect, the players that had not been on the NHL roster when Bergevin took over it is a mix of hits and misses, from players who are simply trivia questions to some of the league’s superstars. But it is clear that the organization had holes and one of Bergevin’s primary responsibilities was to find solutions for those holes.
The reality is that when a team is most often drafting from midway to late in draft rounds, it takes time for players to reach maturity. These players are available later in the draft because they need time and coaching to improve their game to NHL standards.
Bergevin has had six years to oversee the entry draft as Canadiens GM. It’s reasonable to expect that we would begin to see the fruits of those draft selections as of last season and that is what has happened.
Alex Galchenyuk was the first of the selections taken in the Bergevin era to make the leap to the NHL, but that is not a surprise for the third pick overall from the 2012 Draft.
Last season, it was encouraging to see Artturi Lehkonen (2013) make the jump from Europe to becoming such an effective NHL player. This season, three young players have made the Canadiens opening night roster: Charles Hudon (2012), Jacob De La Rose (2013) and Victor Mete (2016).
Jacob De La Rose
De La Rose was a second round selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft who has always been NHL-ready defensively. A common complaint is that De La Rose hadn’t found his offensive game. After spending several seasons shuttling between the NHL and AHL, De La Rose scored 11 goals in the final 24 games of the 2016-’17 season with the IceCaps.
While it took some time under coach Sylvain Lefebvre, De La Rose carried the confidence last season to a strong training camp, scoring two quality goals versus the Senators.
De La Rose is not expected to become a top six forward. However, his defensive abilities coupled with his budding offensive skills can make him a younger, more cost-effective long-term replacement for Torrey Mitchell.
The second rookie to crack the opening day roster is Hudon. He apprenticed for three seasons in the AHL under Lefebvre producing 19, 28, and 27 goal seasons. He needed time to mature physically and defensively. Hudon’s experience in the minors has helped develop him into a potential top-nine NHL player.
Hudon has put his offensive skills on display in camp. Playing with Tomas Plekanec and the sophomore Lehkonen, each shift played by that trio in the preseason consistently generated scoring opportunities. Head Coach Claude Julien placed Hudon in an excellent situation for him to prove his NHL value and Hudon seized that opportunity.
Mete is the third rookie to crack the opening roster and is the largest surprise. The 2016 fourth round selection entered camp paired with Shea Weber. Mete also played on his off side with Jordie Benn Julien and received some time on the power-play. His play during pre-season was poised and mature beyond his age. His fluid skating style and ability to calmly correct his errors has earned him a roster spot to start the season on the top pair with Weber.
In some cities, a young player stepping in is seen as good news. In Montreal, it is seen as an indictment of lack of quality blue-liners.
“He will be destroyed by the end of October” — Pierre McGuire
Returning Mete to play in the Ontario Hockey League and an opportunity to play for Canada in the World Junior Championships were seen as ideal. However, Mete has proven he is one of the top six defenders in Montreal.
Being paired with Weber will insulate Mete and compliments his skill set well. As one of the league’s best puckhandling goaltenders, Carey Price will also be an asset to Mete minimizing the effect of larger forecheckers and giving the 19-year-old an extra second to make decisions.
Mete’s age and experience are the biggest obstacle to his being an effective defender, not necessarily his size. He may still have consistency issues, and if that were to happen, he will undoubtedly be returned to OHL London to gain experience and add some muscle before he returns next season. He’s been looking good in the preseason practice hockey but now he gets his chance.
If Mete steps in and plays Julien’s system effectively, he’ll remain past his nine game audition. If he doesn’t he’ll be returned to London. Thus far however, he has earned the confidence of a Cup champion coach.
“Right now I’m starting without feeling I have to shelter him too much….If you have a player on your team that young and think you need to shelter him then maybe the decision would have been to send him down.” — Claude Julien
Waiting in the wings
The top NHL-ready prospect in the Canadiens’ system hands-down is goaltender Charlie Lindgren. While Lindgren outplayed Al Montoya and looked to be a better choice as Price’s backup, Charlie returned to Laval to start more than the 20 games he would receive in Montreal.
While Brett Lernout performed very well in camp, he returns to Laval to continue to mature in his physical yet defensively-responsible game. As Lernout matures he’ll improve his first pass and learn when to jump into the offence to unleash his shot, which he did in Laval’s first pre-season game when he scored a power-play goal.
Michael McCarron doesn’t return to Laval with the same hopefulness. McCarron had a poor camp. Perhaps his summer training in Montreal gave him a false expectation that he had a position won. Larger players do take time to develop, yet he’ll need to work much more on using his size to win more puck battles and become a puck-retrieval player.
The top Canadiens defensive prospect, Noah Juulsen, had a tremendous start to the year acting as Canadiens captain at the Rookie Tournament. Unfortunately Juulsen broke his foot blocking a shot versus Boston in an exhibition game. Juulsen will be out for another month and once he returns, may play a full season in the AHL.
The Canadiens forward group, led by newly acquired 22-year-old Jonathan Drouin, are a young group. There are only four players are above the age of 25, and of those four, only Max Pacioretty, 28, is a top-six forward. The farm system is bearing fruit which can provide inexpensive talent, allowing for high-priced proven additions.
While the Canadiens have added several young pieces during Bergevin’s tenure, we can’t ignore that his job is on the line, like any year for any GM, if he cannot improve the outcomes compared to last season. Despite his efforts to build an team for long-term success, Bergevin is gambling on Julien’s ability to work with youth to take this franchise on a long playoff run.