After an intriguing season in which many thought would be a rebuild, the Montreal Canadiens surprised everyone with their youth, speed and compete level to nearly squeak into the playoffs. The two things that general manager Marc Bergevin decided to focus on before the start of last season were drafting well and integrating more young players into the lineup. Last year, the team drafted an 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall from Finland and kept him up the entire season.
While Kotkaniemi was living up to the hype and flourishing on the top level, there were also a handful of players in the Canadiens farm system that were also rising up the ranks and having stellar seasons. Here is a look at the top 10 prospects in the Canadiens organization:
10. Allan McShane
Allan McShane is a young, skilled and talented centre with terrific vision on the ice. He scored 34 goals and 35 assists, but the strongest part of his game is his vision on the ice and playmaking abilities. He has a phenomenal hockey IQ and is keenly aware of his surroundings, making sure the right plays develop properly.
The thing that stands out in his game is that he can recover quickly from broken plays to help create scoring opportunities. Just like another former Habs centre, Tomas Plekanec, McShane plays a strong two-way game with a tireless amount of pressure that he puts on the opposition.
9. Michael McNiven
The Canadiens have a plethora of depth between the pipes with Cayden Primeau (later down this list) and Charlie Lindgren, but one of the other key name on that list is Michael McNiven. The 2018-19 season, was an interesting one for McNiven, who played a single game in the ECHL, 30 games in the American Hockey League with the Laval Rockets, and was recalled but never played in the NHL. He outplayed Lindgren for the starter’s role as the season grew on, and one thing that became very apparent about his game is how combative he is.
Despite struggling at times throughout the season, the former goalie of the year award winner in the OHL still ended his campaign with a 2.52 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .902 save percentage (SV%). With Lindgren on the short-track to win the backup role behind Carey Price, expect to see McNiven in Laval next season in a competitive battle with Primeau for the starter’s job.
8. Cole Fonstad
Cole Fonstad is a fifth-round pick who is playing like a first-round selection. His 44 assists were third on the team that was loaded with talent and ended up falling just short of winning the Memorial Cup with the Prince Albert Raiders. His season did not start off strong, but after a stretch of 26 points in 16 games, was inserted into the team’s top line. Standing at 5-foot-10, Fonstad is usually the smallest player on the ice especially playing at the center position. That being said, he likes to play in the dirty areas and excels by maneuvering out of the tough zones, and combining his skill and vision to create plays.
One area the Canadiens desperately need to improve on is their entry into the offensive zone. As a shifty stickhandler who can skate well, Fonstad led the Western Hockey League in zone entries. His quickness and elusiveness works out into seamless entries; after a few more years in the minors, and with some consistent strength training, he can be a valuable third or fourth-line player in the NHL.
7. Jesse Ylonen
The Canadiens seem to have a fascination with players who come from Finland. They had so much admiration for Saku Koivu when he played for them, and so does Ylonen. On most nights last season, Montreal had three forwards dressed of Finnish descent. More importantly, the player development overseas has gotten so much better that the quality of talent coming out of Finland is some of the best in the world. Ylonen was actually born in the United Sates, and that is because his dad, Juha, played for the Phoenix Coyotes at the time.
The 6-foot-1, 173-pound plays on the right wing for the Lahti Pelicans and has a great skillset, including stick-handling and a very good shot. Those are the two reasons that the Canadiens selected him 35th overall in the 2018 Draft. Last year, he was a crucial piece to Team Finland with three goals and six points in seven games, to help guide them to winning the World Junior Championships. If he can continue to develop, then his size and talent will take him a long way.
6. Cayden Primeau
The 199th-overall pick in the 2017 Draft is usually not televised and just reported in the newspaper the following day. However, Trevor Timmins, the vice president of player personnel, knew the value to be had in Primeau. Since being drafted, Primeau has been the starting goaltender for the Northeastern Huskies in the NCAA the past two seasons, and has been nothing short of fantastic.
The New Jersey native posted an incredible 1.92 GAA as a freshman in 2017-18 to go along with a .931 SV%. He was also the youngest goalie in the last two decades to become one of five finalists for the Mike Richter award for the NCAA’s top goaltender.
This season, Primeau posted a 2.09 GAA with a .933 SV% and won the aforementioned Mike Richter award. He also backstopped the USA World Junior team to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships. The Canadiens seem to have found a diamond in the rough with Primeau.
“We might have another Tom Brady on our hands,” -Timmins said after making the comparison to the New England Patriots quarterback who was also chosen 199th overall in 2000 NFL Draft. -Timmins said after drafting Cayden Primeau.
5. Josh Brook
Josh Brook is arguably the Canadiens’ best blue line prospect. This past season he was the captain of the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he put up career highs in goals (16), assists (59) and points (75). His spectacular season ranked him second among all Canadian Hockey League defensemen, and earned him a WHL best defensive player nominee. The 6-foot-1 Manitoba native also played for Canada in the 2019 World Junior Championships, collecting two assists and finishing the tournament with a plus-seven rating in five games.
Brook’s game is best resembled by current Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry. Just like Petry, Brook plays a strong two-way defensive game with a tremendous offensive upside. At just 19 years of age, there is so much opportunity for growth in his game. By all accounts he looks like a future NHL player for many years to come.
4. Joël Teasdale
Joël Teasdale is coming off one of the best season you can have as a young player. His team, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Championship and the Memorial Cup, and Teasdale himself took home the tournament’s most valuable player award. The 6-foot winger, who signed with the Canadiens on Sep. 21 as undrafted free agent, played in the QMJHL final each of the last three seasons.
However, this season was the Lavaltrie native’s coming out party. He managed to string together a 16-game point streak in the postseason, the fifth-longest in league history. He finished first in his league with 34 points in 20 playoff games. To put that in perspective, across all the Canadian Hockey Leagues, he was behind just one player in total points, fellow Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki who had 44. This is just the beginning for the Quebec born player, who grew up idolizing the bleu, blanc et rouge, and in a matter of time will be living out his childhood dream.
3. Alexander Romanov
When the Canadiens selected defenseman Alexander Romanov with the 38th pick in the 2018 Draft, many teams were caught off-guard. The Russian-born defenseman was not highly touted and was not expected to go in any of the first four rounds. Like in years past, Timmins and his scouting department saw something special in the undervalued 5-foot-11 blueliner, so much so that they used a second-round pick on him. All Romanov has done was make Timmins and Bergevin look like geniuses. At 18 years old, he made it into the KHL and averaged 11:23 of ice time per game. He suited up for 43 games, but posted just four points.
However, he looked like a man playing with boys when he played against players his own age at the World Junior Championships in 2018. In eight games, he scored a goal and added seven assists. His eight points tied him with fellow Canadiens prospect Ryan Poehling, and was named the tournament’s top defenseman. His skillset is through the roof and there is no telling what his ceiling is. He will definitely be worth the wait.
2. Ryan Poehling
You could not have scripted a better debut for Poehling. He was inserted into the Canadiens; lineup for the season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a meaningless game. Despite it being a pointless game in the standings, it sure was not for the young American centre. He showcased his speed, athleticism, and nose for being around the net, and wound up scoring a hat trick and adding the shootout winner to boot. Before dazzling in the NHL finale, Poehling led his St. Cloud State Huskies to a number one ranking in the NCAA for most of the season. The Canadiens’ first-round pick in 2017 is coming off a campaign in which he eclipsed 31 points in 36 games this season.
That is very close to being a point-per-game in the toughest college hockey league, which is something in itself. It’s even more impressive when you take into consideration that he was 17 years old for the first half of the season, playing in a league dominated by 20 and 21-year-olds. His game plays well on both sides of the ice and even got to play on a line with his twin older brothers Jack and Nick.
Poehling played for the United States at the World Juniors and was excellent. He scored five goals and had eight points in seven games. He led all scorers in points, and was integral in helping Team USA to a silver medal. He was also named tournament MVP for his remarkable two-way play throughout the event. While he is not guaranteed a spot for the upcoming season, the Lakeville, Minnesota product raised enough eyebrows with his play against the Maple Leafs to keep him in the hunt all training camp long. Expect big things in the future from the big versatile centre.
1. Nick Suzuki
There are no doubts that by now you have heard the name Nick Suzuki. Suzuki is not only the Canadiens’ top prospect, but he is also one of the top prospects in the entire NHL. He is coming off a season in which he helped the Guelph Storm win the OHL Championship after being traded by the Owen Sound Attack earlier in the season. He came to Montreal via the Vegas Golden Knights as the key piece in the Max Pacioretty trade.
His 38 points in 22 playoff games is not only a Storm record, but it is also the first time since 2017 that a player in the OHL compiled that many points in the playoffs. The last player to do so was current Chicago Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat, who registered 38 points in 22 games with the Erie Otters.
The 5-foot-11 forward finished the postseason with 16 goals and 42 points in 24 games, and because of his incredible play, was named MVP of the OHL Playoffs. He also took home the league’s most sportsmanlike player of the year for the third consecutive season, as well as at the Memorial Cup. While Suzuki may look like a strong candidate to crack the Habs’ lineup to open next season, he does need to bulk up and add some more weight. What is absolutely not a question mark, though, is his insane skillset, and the fact that he will be the cornerstone for the Canadiens franchise for many years.
Future Is Ablaze
Barring a trade involving any of these aforementioned players, it is only a matter of a time before all these prospects don the Canadiens jersey and make their debuts in the NHL. Montreal had a strong season with a lot of positives to be taken away from it. However, their future is a lot brighter than it has ever been, and it is glistening with a ton of hope.