In some years, Montreal’s training camp hasn’t featured many chances for youngsters to make the team. That isn’t the case this season though. Our writers have made their picks on who might make a run at a roster spot this preseason.
Gordon Black: Beginning with the forward position, it is obvious that all eyes will be on Arturri Lehkonen. He has the skill and the two-way responsibility; if he’s even close to ready on terms of physical maturity, I think they try to keep him (although having Therrien give him long tastes of the bench and 4th line grinding minutes may be a worst-case scenario). My underdog is Charles Hudon – watching him in the AHL under a similarly stifling system – he just has nothing left to learn there. I think he is as ready as any of the forward prospects and needs an extended look in an offensive role to determine if he has a future in the league or not.
For defencemen, I think Mikhail Sergachev would greatly benefit from another year in junior where he can flat-out dominate at both ends and play heavy minutes – that said if he’s heads and tails above all but five other defensemen in camp, you have to give him at least nine games. I’m actually excited to see Ryan Johnston in camp. I really liked what I saw last year, especially during his call-up. Although undersized, he seems to have the head for the game that often separates a great toolkit from an actual career.
I will also mention that Charlie Lindgren may force the Habs to trade a goalie during camp. He’s simply that good when he’s on. I have no problem with him logging heavy starts in the AHL and being available for call-ups when needed. I don’t think he will improve by being in the ECHL, and can’t see either Zach Fucale or Mike Condon loving it down in Brampton either.
Hilding Gnanapragasam: While it may seem like the trendy choice, Lehkonen is my pick to make the biggest run at a roster spot, because of his unique situation. Unlike all of the other candidates, if Lehkonen doesn’t secure a spot out of camp, then he’ll be headed back to Sweden and may not see NHL ice until the end of Frolunda’s season at the earliest. The likes of McCarron, Daniel Carr and Nikita Scherbak can be much more easily called upon for spot duty in case of injury, so training camp doesn’t hold the ‘all or nothing’ implications that it does for the flashy young Finn.
Brian La Rose: Up front, Lehkonen is the easy choice. He has shown considerable improvement overseas and has enough of a two-way game that the Habs can safely put him into a bottom six role to allow him to work his way up the depth chart as the season progresses. That’s a low risk spot to put him in which should allow them to keep him up instead of sending him back to Sweden for the time being.
I know Michael McCarron is a popular pick for a roster spot – and he may wind up getting one – but unless he can lock down a top nine role, I’d start him in St. John’s. He still has plenty to work on when it comes to his offensive game (look no further than his inconsistency in his point total from last year) and at this stage of his development, I’d rather him play 17-20 minutes a night in the minors than half of that in a grinding role in the NHL. Regardless, he’ll get a really long look at camp.
On defence, I can’t see Sergachev landing a full-time spot (even a nine game tryout seems iffy to me given the players in front of him). One player I’m intrigued to see is Joel Hanley. I highly doubt he gets a spot out of camp but his time with the Canadiens last season got him on the radar. I think the Habs will put him in a few different situations this preseason to see how he holds up in different roles. He may not battle for a roster spot right now but he’s definitely in a battle to be one of the first recalls during the season when injuries inevitably arise which makes him a player to watch for as well.
Craig Scharien: With the likes of Sergachev, Noah Juulsen, and Scherbak among the ranks, the Habs have managed to rebuild a strong group of young players that will challenge for spots on the big club. While the aforementioned players will almost certainly make an impact in the future, this year the two I expect to make the most noise at camp are McCarron and Lehkonen.
McCarron embodies exactly what the Habs have been trying to accomplish all offseason – get harder to play against. Big and physical, he brings the kind of character and grit that both Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien covet. He also has shown the ability to put the puck in the net in the AHL and during his junior career, addressing the other glaring weakness for the Canadiens, a lack of scoring. His size and versatility mean that while he likely isn’t ready to take on a major role yet, he could grab a spot in the bottom six if he has a strong camp.
While Lehkonen isn’t going to wow anyone with his size, he brings an even more important element, the skill to score goals as a professional. He was dominant in the SHL playoffs last year and the 21 year old former second round pick seems like he may have what it takes to play as a scoring winger in the NHL. If he can put it all together, and adjust to the smaller ice surface, he has an excellent chance to break camp with the team and if the opportunity presents itself, move into the top six.
I would also mention Carr here, but given his strong play in Montreal last season he likely already has a leg up on the competition. The infusion of young talent will certainly help drive competition within the organization and is definitely something worth getting excited about.
Norm Szcyrek: I believe it will be very tough for any of the Habs prospects to make the pro squad this season. However, there are a couple of forwards with an outside chance. First is Lehkonen. The young Finn has played a couple of seasons in the Swedish Hockey League and has progressed each year. In the playoffs he was outstanding, tying for the team lead in scoring on their way to winning the league championship. So far Lehkonen has shown some very good hockey sense with overall good offensive skills. He appears to be comfortable enough to handle defensive responsibilities also, which means he could fit in the bottom six or the top six if necessary.
The other possible forward is McCarron. After a call-up late last season, the big forward showed a few flashes of physical play as he adjusted to the pace of the NHL. He has versatility at both centre and on the wing, and is good at faceoffs. However he seemed to struggle a little when playing the wing last season. During the rookie camp, McCarron was very impressive, arguably the best player in the tournament. He provided considerable offence while utilizing his big frame to his advantage. The report to start training camp were that he lost some weight and gained muscle, which should help him pick up his skating to keep up with the play. He could fit a bottom six role, which is his likely destination in the NHL. To me he’s a similar style to Brian Boyle, which is a very useful player to have on the roster.