HabsWorld has already reviewed the difficult decision(s) for the Habs that must be made for the upcoming expansion draft in relation to defencemen. This article focuses in on Montreal’s forwards.
The Canadiens will most likely protect seven forwards. In this writer’s view, six of those spots are already reserved. For a combination of factors that includes performance, potential upside, club-friendly contracts, organizational needs, leadership and so on, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Andrew Shaw, Phillip Danault and Paul Byron are highly unlikely to be made available in the expansion draft. The seventh forward protected likely will be a decision between Tomas Plekanec, Alexander Radulov and minor-league standout Charles Hudon.
If Radulov was not an unrestricted free agent, the decision would be an easy one. However, with free agency pending on July 1, the Canadiens would risk protecting him and losing him weeks later, possibly losing two key forwards in the process. It would be a critical blow to the Canadiens’ already-middling offence if they were to lose the talented and passionate Russian. He was their best forward in the playoffs and was certainly among the Habs’ elite forwards all year. However, the rumour mill out of Montreal is that Radulov wishes to return and there may even be a tacit, unwritten “understanding” between the two camps on a new contract. In these circumstances, GM Marc Bergevin will most likely protect another forward. It follows that the decision will ultimately come down to Plekanec and Hudon.
Fans who follow only the big club may have minimal information on Charles Hudon. For inexplicable reasons, the Habs have not even offered Hudon a meaningful audition in the Show, even though he has excelled at the AHL level for the past three years. It is worthwhile to review Hudon’s resume at this point.
Hudon has been a scorer and playmaker at every level to date. Undersized at 5’10-5’11” and 180-190 lbs., he was the Canadiens’ fifth round pick in 2012 (122nd overall) when he was ranked the 95th North American skater. Named to the QMJHL’s All-Star Team in 2010-11, Hudon also represented Quebec in the 2011 U17 Tournament and Canada in the 2011 U18 World Championship. His status as a prolific scorer in the ‘Q’ continued uninterrupted from 2010-14 until he was traded to Baie-Comeau where he helped lead the Drakkar to the QMJHL Finals.
Hudon’s professional career began with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs – the Canadiens then minor league affiliate – in 2014-15 where, as a rookie, he was the Bulldogs’ second leading scorer (19G, 38A for 57P). In 2015-16, Charles followed that performance in St. John’s by again being a premier scorer on the team (28G, 25A for 53P), second only to career minor-leaguer Bud Holloway. Hudon also made a cameo appearance with the Canadiens, earning two assists in three games of limited ice time in 2015-16. Last season, Hudon was limited to 57 games due to a broken sternum (which was sustained during practice while on a brief call-up with the Habs) and an ankle injury he suffered shortly after returning from the initial injury. However, despite his bad luck, Hudon registered very respectable scoring numbers (27G, 22A, 49 P) with the Ice Caps.
Hudon is a scorer and playmaker, the type of player that the Habs lack. Despite his size, scouting reports highlight his ability to manoeuvre well in traffic. Hudon shows patience in his scoring opportunities, often changing speeds to create open ice either for himself or teammates. Hudon is a creative player. His stint in the minors has also improved his defensive game, making him a more reliable two-way player. Those close to the team also speak highly of his intangibles, such as his work ethic and leadership skills.
Hudon has outperformed many of his teammates at the AHL level. Yet, even during the 2015-16 injury-plagued season, the Habs granted Charles only a cup of coffee in Montreal. Meanwhile, Michael McCarron (20 games) – a good prospect but someone who clearly needed the entire year in the AHL – and Jacob de la Rose (22 games) – a tradesman with hands of stone – were apparently more prepared for prime time.
The Canadiens rightfully value McCarron’s size and reasonable offensive skills but de la Rose before Hudon? Some might say the answer to the question lies in former coach Michel Therrien’s uber-obsession with “playing the right way”, Therrien’s defence first, responsible in your own end “system”. Hudon is creative and Therrien is no patron of the arts.
That is probably an unfair or at least an incomplete explanation. One can reasonably characterize Hudon’s skill set as not fitting into a role with the Canadiens at that time. Hudon is a potential top-six forward and there are other players that are higher up on the depth chart. He also may suffer from Corey Locke-syndrome, the stigma that has sometimes unfairly relegated smaller talented players to the minors. Thankfully for Mr. Hudon, the NHL has recently experienced a resurgence of talented under-sized forwards over the past few years. All that said, since he has not had an extended audition in Montreal, Charles Hudon remains an unproven player at the NHL level.
Tomas Plekanec is anything but unproven. While Plekanec’s offensive numbers dropped off materially this past season (10G, 18A, 28P from 14G, 40A, 54P in 2015-16), he remains a solid shutdown centre who was a plus 10 last season. Plekanec continued to take key faceoffs late in the game for the Canadiens last season and he remains a key member of their leadership group. He was also one of the Habs’ best forwards in the playoffs.
It remains to be seen if last season was a blip or a long-term downward trend for Plekanec offensively. However, he will turn 35 in October, 2017 and his cap hit of $6 million is awfully expensive for a centre that will likely fill a third line defensive role in 2017-18. Nonetheless, Montreal’s 2001 third round pick (No. 71 overall) has more than earned the respect and gratitude of every Habs fan for twelve stellar and consistent seasons as a Montreal Canadien.
If the Canadiens had provided Hudon with more of an opportunity in 2015-16 or this past season, they would have better information on which to base their decision. Unfortunately, the Canadiens’ injury woes in 2016-17 coincided with Hudon’s own time on the injury list. When Hudon was finally healthy, the Canadiens’ forwards were also healthy. Players would have then had to clear waivers in order to give Hudon the opportunity that, in this writer’s view, he has so clearly earned.
While the decision is difficult, the prospect of the Canadiens losing in the expansion draft one of their only prized forward prospects – that they drafted and developed – is simply too short-sighted. Tomas Plekanec may have a few more quality seasons in a Montreal uniform but father time will more than likely catch up with him in the near term. Further and in any event, Plekanec’s cap hit may dissuade the Vegas Golden Knights from selecting him. If he is selected, $6 million in cap space will likely be an asset come July 1st.
On balance, Charles Hudon would be the seventh Canadiens forward protected by this writer.