by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

The Canadiens, despite winning the top spot in the Atlantic, cannot rest on their laurels. Management, regardless of how the team fares in the playoffs, must continue to help improve the team over the short term as well as long term.

Short term, the Habs still have room to grow offensively by adding scoring to the top six forward group. This is also the case in the prospect pipeline. The Canadiens can boast several quality defensive prospects in Mikhail Sergachev and Noah Juulsen.

Additionally, there are several minor league defencemen close to being NHL-ready as bottom pairing, or depth defencemen. Yet, the pipeline has very few offensively gifted forward prospects who are projected to be able to reach NHL-level quality.

In leading up to the NHL free agent frenzy, Marc Bergevin will have to rely on the NHL Entry Draft and the undrafted unrestricted free agent (UFA) market to add the missing offensive weapons to the prospect pipeline.

The Canadiens are set up well for the Draft, holding three picks in the top 60. Yet, if Bergevin is looking for a specific prospect he may be forced to trade some of these assets to move up to find the prospect that better fits the team’s future plans.

To offset any loss of draft picks, Bergevin may look to the undrafted class of UFAs for help.  This group may have some unpolished gems, late-bloomers who can help fill a need for a franchise. These players tend to be inexpensive gambles, however, if signed to a two-way NHL deal, cost a roster position in the 50-player contract limit. Bergevin has already signed two forwards to minor league contracts this season, neither count towards the contract limit.

The first was a familiar face from the Canadiens summer camp, Guillaume Assellin. He is a 5-foot-11-inch, 194-pound right winger who just completed his CIS career with L’Université de Québec. Asselin was signed to an AHL/ECHL contract and after he played with the ECHL affiliate Brampton Beast, he was recalled by St. John’s. The likelihood of him seeing playing time in the NHL is remote, but he can add value as a complimentary piece in the AHL or ECHL.

The second signing was 6-foot, 203-pound, OHL Hamilton Bulldogs center, Niki Petti. The 20-year-old forward was a teammate of Canadiens prospect Will Bitten in Hamilton.

Petti signed an amateur tryout contract with St. John’s for the remainder of this season, and a one year AHL deal for next season. This was likely in the hopes the centerman can overcome his injury issues and translate his excellent two-way play and steady offence to the professional ranks and earn a contract.

Petti scored a goal in his professional debut with the IceCaps against Albany. He already played a more complete pro style game in junior and has a good chance of getting an NHL opportunity in the next few seasons.

Marc Bergevin has a tendency to gamble on lesser signings and trades on players with which he is familiar. To that end, there are a few more names that can possibly fill the prospect void allowing Bergevin to deal more freely with his picks on draft day.

Tyler Boland, the 6-foot, 181-pound centerman from St. John’s, Newfoundland had a career season in Rimouski. He finished the year second in the QMJHL, scoring with 48 goals and 103 points. Yet, he saw his team bow out of the playoffs in four games to the favoured Saint John Sea Dogs. The Canadiens have been rumoured to have had talks with his agent, and could offer him a chance to play professionally in his hometown for the remainder of the season.

Boland’s offence took a massive leap forward in his overage year, and that could have a lot to do with having an improved team around him. Whether his offence can translate to the professional game is a question many 18-year-olds drafted late in the second or early third round have asked. He would need to add bulk to his frame but could surprise if given an opportunity.

Giovanni Fiore, the 6-foot-1-inch 194-pound left winger was a Canadiens Development Camp invitee this past season. Learning from the pros on how to prepare for the season seemed to aid the already offensively gifted forward, allowing him to score 52 goals and 90 points this season. This scoring output made him the second highest goal scorer in the CHL this season, with only the undersized Chicago prospect, Alex Debrincat, out scoring him with his 65 goals.

The Laval native has progressed well in each of his junior seasons. His ability to find open ice in high danger areas, coupled with his size and skating ability, point to the probability he can translate his play to the professional ranks.

Signing Fiore could offset the loss of using a second round pick to address needs elsewhere. Also, as a Laval native, he would be an ideal addition to add offence and a hometown hero for the Canadiens new AHL affiliate, Laval Rocket. In my opinion, Fiore is the likeliest player mentioned to be targeted by the Canadiens.

[Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Giovanni Fiore was signed to a three-year entry-level contract by the Anaheim Ducks.]

After a solid showing as a member of the Jets rookie tournament team, Antoine Waked returned to Rouyn-Noranda with a better view of what it takes to play at the next level. He used that to fuel his best season of his Major Junior career and to lead his team in scoring with a 39 goal 80 point showing. This has turned the heads of several NHL scouts, including those of the Canadiens.

The 6-foot, 194-pound right winger isn’t gifted with impressive size, but he plays a physical style that could translate well into the pro ranks if he’s able to add some bulk to withstand the physical demands it would take. He is also capable of playing a complete two-way game as he is an effective defensively responsible forward used in all situations.

It’s this style, added to his offence this season, that makes him a prime target as a UFA singing. Being a homegrown prospect that grew up next to the Brossard training facility would also play well with the newly minted Laval Rocket fan base.

(Edit: The Canadiens did sign Antoine Waked )

Signing any undrafted unrestricted free agent doesn’t mean that Bergevin would do so to trade away a top-60 pick to fill a need or move up in the draft. However, it would make it easier for him to do so if need be. It could also lessen the impact of any possible loss of personnel in the expansion draft.

Edited by Donna Sim