While there may be some opportunities for Canadiens’ prospects to crack the opening night line-up, prudent players would be wise not to surrender their leases in St. John’s or terminate their billet arrangements with the Junior or European city that is their Plan B. As of yet, the Marc Bergevin era has not blessed the Habs with an abundance of top six forwards or elite defencemen. However, the competition for the bottom six forwards and serviceable third pairing and spare defencemen has rarely been more intense.
Let’s consider the 2016/17 forwards first. One can debate line combinations – and we all know Michel Therrien’s lines vary with the moon, the tide, and what he ate for breakfast – but we know that, barring injury, the following forwards are likely to suit up in Buffalo on October 13:
Left Wing: Pacioretty, Shaw, Byron
Centre: Galchenyuk, Plekanec, Desharnais, Mitchell
Right Wing: Gallagher, Radulov, Flynn
One can debate about the fourth line but Mitchell-Flynn-Byron add energy and can chip in offensively, not to mention their ability to kill penalties and win key faceoffs. Besides, why bring up a developing player and place him on the fourth line when he can play top six minutes and develop in St. John’s? The fourth line spots are theirs to lose.
At this point, one could start venting about Therrien’s infatuation with David Desharnais and the Canadiens’ unrequited passion for diminutive centremen – a 20 plus year affair that has, not coincidentally, resulted in a dearth of Stanley Cup Parades. However, that’s what happens when, with a few exceptions, a team drafts Terry Ryan and David Fischer (and others like them) with their first round pick for 20 years…and when a head coach cannot help playing favourites.
For the final two forward positions, candidates include Phillip Danault, Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr, Charles Hudon, Mike McCarron, Nikita Scherbak, Stefan Matteau, Arturri Lekhonen, and Jacob de la Rose. Some of these names regressed last year (e.g., de la Rose who will be in purgatory on the Rock as a consequence) and others need at least a little more time (Scherbak). The leading candidates might appear to be Carr, Andrighetto, and Danault based on last season.
If the Habs move in a different direction, one expects that their hand will have to be forced. McCarron may well force their hand. He can play the wing (and we know from the Alex Galchenyuk experiment that Therrien does not like young centremen). Michael arrived at the 2016 London, Ontario NHL Rookie Tournament ten pounds lighter than last year’s playing weight and totally ripped. He was arguably the tournament’s best player. The younger ‘Big M’ was flanked by Lekhonen and Scherbak. He finished with four goals and an assist. And did I mention that he is no midget? For once, it was the other team’s forwards that were flattened. McCarron may not have the same talent as the original ‘Big M’ (or his brother Peter) but the pride of Schumacher, Ontario never had this Big M’s physical presence. While it will be a challenge to replicate this performance with the veterans at camp, at a minimum, Bergevin’s calculated gamble in taking the 35th ranked North American skater in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft may pay dividends as early as this winter. If McCarron is not in the lineup in mid-October, fear not. The arrival of a big physical centreman with some skill is imminent.
Lekhonen’s chances are more difficult to assess. The talent is there and his playoff performance in Frolunda’s playoffs (where he broke Daniel Alfredsson’s playoff scoring record) was impressive. His ceiling is certainly higher than almost all the Habs prospects, save Scherbak, Sergachev, and possibly Hudon. He could even crack the lineup as a top six forward, relegating Andrew Shaw to the third unit. However, the North American ice surface will require some adjustments. Lekhonen has not played on this side of the pond. That makes him that much harder to evaluate. His contract provides that he will return to Frolunda if he does not make the team. That is unfortunate as an audition in St. John’s may greatly assist his transition and development. While I like McCarron’s chances this year better, Lekhonen will be arriving in hockey’s Mecca, this year or next.
The Habs defencemen will almost certainly include, in no particular order, Shea Weber, Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry. That leaves two spots for Mark Barberio, Zach Redmond, Noah Juulsen, Greg Pateryn, and Joel Hanley to fight over. In the medium term, expect Pateryn and Barberio to win the battle. But do not be surprised if Mikhail Sergachev earns a ten game dress rehearsal.
This young man is the real deal. He is physical, skilled, confident, and, yes, dominant. At the 2016 NHL Rookie Tournament, Sergachev was a man among boys. There has been no prospect since P.K. Subban with more potential than Sergachev, and Sergachev may well be better. One shakes their head when they consider that he lasted until number nine in the 2016 draft. He was not even the first defenceman selected (that distinction belongs to Olli Juolevi, a fine young London Knights’ defenceman who benefitted from playing with the Memorial Cup Champions). This writer lives in London and is a Knights fan. Olli is not Mikhail, not even close.
As for other prospects in the system, this is not their year to make the team out of camp. Of course, a lot can happen through the year and we will likely see a lot of the above names with the Canadiens during the course of the season.