Fans can argue if the current Canadiens rebuild is by Marc Bergevin‘s design or accidental, but we won’t be exploring that in this piece. No matter the trigger underlying this current direction, the Canadiens are living a youth movement.
I expect that there will be calls to trade away the team’s over-30 stars such as Carey Price and Shea Weber. However, leadership and experience is a necessary aspect of any successful youth movement, a path the Boston Bruins undertook in the last few years using Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara as their core veterans.
This series, co-written by my Habs Unfiltered co-host Trege Wilson, will look at just a few of the many prospects that could provide an NHL impact for the Habs in the near future. This list is neither exhaustive nor ranked but it gives a glimpse into what fans can look forward to as Trevor Timmins stockpiled 24 draft picks over the last three seasons giving plenty of opportunity for Bergevin to build the prospect pool back to respectability.
A highly-mobile undersized left-handed defenceman, Victor Mete fills an organizational need. He is also a very rare breed, a 19-year-old defenceman who played full-time in the NHL as a fourth-round draft pick.
Mete’s main asset is his skating, allowing a five-foot-ten-inch, 180-pound rearguard to compete defensively in the NHL. He excels at generating a transition game either with a laser accurate first-pass or a simple rush up the ice. While Mete can be an excellent power-play specialist on a second wave, he will need to work on improving his shot to make himself more effective.
Defensively Mete relies on his mobility and situational awareness to anticipate the play and create turnovers. Sadly his size limits his effectiveness often struggling to contain larger forwards. This is an aspect of his game that may improve as he gains confidence and experience.
Overall Mete has proven he is an NHL-level defenceman. He is projected to be a second-pairing defender who can fill a secondary power-play role. He may be called into service sooner than later due to lack of options in the Habs system.
Much like Mete, the 21-year-old Juulsen has an excellent amateur pedigree. Yet that is where the similarities end. Juulsen prefers a much more physical style of play. The six-foot-two-inch, 195-pound right-handed defender has a frame and attitude that suits his style.
Noah uses his lateral mobility and NHL-level skating to keep pace with NHL forwards. He has a willingness to battle along the boards, making life difficult for opposing forwards, as demonstrated by his solid 23-game NHL debut last season with the Canadiens.
While his defensive game is his strength, Juulsen does have offensive potential. He is willing to step up into the play offensively in the transition. He wields a strong shot that he accurately places on net generating rebounds through traffic. He has excellent on-ice awareness making high-percentage plays, without sacrificing his defensive positioning.
Overall, Juulsen has shown he can play in the NHL at an young age. He clearly has room to grow but has an ability to make his defensive partner better last season playing with Karl Alzner. Like Mete, Juulsen is also as a second pairing-defender, and should be called upon to fill that role as the year wears on.
Next we look to centre ice. It is an area that has been a serious concern with the organization for almost three decades. Yet over the last two seasons there seems to be a concerted effort to flood the system with numerous prospect centres. That said, the top two prospects at centre were taken by Timmins in the first round of the last two drafts.
The Canadiens selection of Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft has to be seen as a surprise. However, there were indications in the weeks leading up to the draft that Bergevin was focusing on drafting a centre. The GM is fond of saying that top line centres must be drafted. While not as NHL-ready as a player like Filip Zadina, Kotkaniemi is projected to be a very good all-around top-six centre. The jury is still out on whether he can become a true number one centre.
Kotkaniemi’s draft stock rose as the season wore on. He was always seen as an excellent two-way centre who had skating issues. While he does need work in that aspect of his game, it isn’t anything that coaching and added strength can’t rectify, in my opinion.
Defensively his game is very mature. Kotkaniemi reads plays, positioning himself to place pressure on his opponents. He can also play along the boards, winning more board battles than he loses. However, he must add more strength to compete in the NHL.
Offensively, Kotkaniemi has shown that he can shine. Last season, the six-foot-two-inch, 187-pound centre led Finland to World U18 Gold with a nine points in seven games. He generated offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates, finishing with a respectable 29 points in 57 games as a 17-year-old against much older competition in the highest caliber professional league in Finland.
The 25th overall selection in the 2017 NHL draft had a massive leap in progression as St. Cloud State University’s top centre. Poehling was able to add about 20 pounds to his six-foot-two-inch frame to bump him over the 200-pound mark. He went from 13 points in 35 games in 2016-17 to 31 points in 36 games last season. He also played a top-six role helping to lead Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2018 World Junior Championships.
Poehling is known for a 200-foot game. Defensively, he excels when playing down low in support of his defencemen, winning board battles to regain possession and helping to facilitate the transition game. He is a very good skater with a powerful stride who prefers a north-south style of play. Once on the transition, Poehling prefers puck distribution along the wings to build a give-and-go play driving to the net to create chaos in the opposition zone. He is also adept at using his size and strength to generate the cycle game in the offensive zone leading to more scoring opportunities
Poehling projects to become a big-bodied, two-way, middle-six centerman. The Canadiens are hoping he can become a bonafide top-six centre.
Next up, the wingers.
The six-foot-two-inch, 195-pound 2014 Canadiens’ first round selection has been directed along at a patient pace by the Habs development staff. The uber-talented winger has had injury issues which affected his confidence during his AHL apprenticeship.
The offensively-gifted winger has had a taste of the NHL and has shown flashes of what he is capable of with his strong and accurate shot, excellent playmaking abilities and powerful, albeit unorthodox style, skating and edgework. Defensively he has shown good anticipation and solid positioning as well. His issue has been consistency.
This season is a key year in his development. There is a legitimate top-nine opening to be filled on the NHL roster. The Habs need additional scoring and Scherbak has the right skillset to provide it while playing responsibly on defence. If he can enter camp in the right mindset and find the consistency that has eluded him the job will be his which could force Bergevin to make roster moves to fit him into the role. Nikita’s story this season will be a key one to watch to see just how this youth movement is being handled as he is at a critical stage of his development.
Ylonen was projected by some scouting lists to be a late first round selection this past draft in Dallas. Timmins seemed very excited when Ylonen was available for Habs at 35th overall. The six-foot-one-inch, 168-pound winger has good size, but needs to fill out his frame to handle a NHL season.
Ylonen’s strength is his skating. The NHL is evolving into a game built on speed and Ylonen fits that very well. He has an excellent shot and plays a possession game well. He prefers to play on the outside choosing to use his quick release to confuse goaltenders or to make passes into the slot to create offence. He will need to improve his play in the slot to become a true top six winger in the NHL. Defensively he will need to work on proper positioning as he has a tendency to chase the play using his skating abilities to recover from his errors, something that limits his usefulness in the defensive zone.
Overall, Ylonen has the offensive skills to be a top-six winger. If coaches cannot trust him defensively against top six opposition he will be relegated to third line duties which will limit his ice time and his offensive production. As a second round selection there is no pressure to rush his development as he is likely to get time needed to correct his deficiencies while getting to play a key role internationally for Finland as well as for his Liiga squad in this coming season.
Check back here at All Habs Hockey Magazine for part two of this series authored by my Habs Unfiltered co-host Trege Wilson.