While the Habs don’t have an elite left winger, they’re fairly deep at that position. However, that depth doesn’t extend to the rest of the organization.
Some players have played in multiple positions but they’re placed either by their natural spot or the side they play the most.
Signed: Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen, Tomas Tatar
RFA’s: Charles Hudon
Tatar had another strong regular season and actually set a new career high in points despite the pandemic shutting down the campaign early. However, that didn’t carry over to the playoffs as he struggled against both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. GM Marc Bergevin now has an interesting call to make. Tatar has been a strong regular season player in both years with the Habs but has also been a no-show in two straight playoffs (Detroit fans may even argue for longer than that). Is he a part of the core moving forward? If not, might this be the time to try to move him?
The same two questions apply to Drouin but for different reasons. He continued to be hot and cold throughout the year and that even carried over to the playoffs where he was largely quiet but made a difference on a few occasions to salvage a respectable stat line in the end. With three years left on his deal, it’s fair to question whether he should be part of the core of the team. However, unlike Tatar, there probably isn’t enough of a market to explore moving him.
Byron wasn’t himself to start the season but once he came back from knee surgery, his speed came back and his effectiveness increased. However, he’s still a fairly high-paid role player whose best weapon is his speed and at 31, he will start to slow down eventually. If Montreal wants to free up a bit of long-term money, it would make sense to try to move him. Lehkonen continues to impress defensively and frustrate at the offensive end where he’s not the most opportunistic of scorers, to put it nicely. He’s an important role player but he’ll be eyeing a raise after next season and as is the case with Byron, it’s hard to justify paying a defensive player that mid-tier price, especially in this cap environment. I think they’d prefer to keep him for a while yet, however. In both their cases, the fact that they can play either wing certainly helps.
Hudon seems to be at a crossroads. He showed in Laval that he’s too good for the AHL but the problem for him is that he got there in the first place after clearing waivers. He did little with his opportunities with the Habs this season but he might be useful enough to try to bring back with an eye on getting him back to the Rocket. That’s not a role he’s going to want so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bergevin try to give him a change of scenery.
Needs Assessment – Medium: Having one of Byron or Lehkonen on the fourth line is a nice luxury but with questions surrounding Tatar’s long-term future with the team and Drouin’s ability to be a consistent core contributor, a more proven option would certainly be beneficial. Shifting Max Domi to a full-time left wing spot isn’t the solution either.
Signed: Arsen Khisamutdinov, Michael Pezzetta, Joel Teasdale, Hayden Verbeek
RFA’s: Jake Lucchini
AHL Contracts: Pascal Aquin, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Yannick Veilleux
AHL Free Agents: None
Where to begin… Let’s start with the best-signed winger in Joel Teasdale who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL and MCL in summer training. He was actually someone that I was looking forward to seeing with the Rocket where I thought he had a chance of being a useful player. Skating was never his strong suit so I’m a little worried that this injury will be particularly problematic but with a dearth of other options at the moment, he should see plenty of chances to prove he can still contribute.
Khisamutdinov didn’t have a season to remember. While he was able to play more regularly in the KHL, he was stuck on the fourth line and managed a single goal in 31 games. However, the Habs still quickly signed him and in doing so, showed that there was an agreement when they drafted him which likely resulted in his limited role (similar to Alexander Romanov’s situation). Khisamutdinov is a bit of a wild card player as a result; he’s 22 with minimal KHL success but the tools are there for him to at least be serviceable.
Pezzetta’s second professional season wasn’t as good as his first and that was a pretty low bar to clear. He’s a fringe player who can drop the gloves but hasn’t shown enough skill to be worthy of more ice time (or even regular time on the fourth line). Verbeek has speed to burn and might be the fastest player in the organization. The problem is that he hasn’t brought much else of consequence to the table as he has also yet to lock down a regular spot in two years. Both are in the final years of their deals and are players the Habs would part with in a heartbeat. They could be moved to match contracts in a trade.
Lucchini actually played well in his very limited time with Laval after coming over from Pittsburgh in a trade that resulted in a lot of AHL talent going the other way in a move to send a message to the room. At 25, it’s hard to justify a qualifying offer but if they could convince him to come back on an AHL deal, I’d be all for it.
Among the players on AHL deals, two are notable. Veilleux joined the team midseason on a PTO when there plenty of injuries and recalls and instead of being a serviceable depth player, he became a go-to scorer quickly and eventually earned a conversion to a one-way deal in the process. It would be hard to count on him to do that next season but he should have an opportunity to play a big role as things stand. Harvey-Pinard had a good year with Chicoutimi in his overage season and while he wasn’t able to land an entry-level deal (he has one more year before he has to sign), he should be an intriguing player in Laval that likely starts low but has a chance to work his way up. Aquin was recently added on a two-way minor league deal and will likely start in the ECHL.
Needs Assessment – Medium: I don’t want to put a ‘high’ designation on filling a roster spot in the minors but this is a pretty weak crop of left wingers. Yes, some centres (Ryan Poehling and Laurent Dauphin) spent some time there and could be candidates to swing over as could the recently re-signed Joseph Blandisi but it’d be preferable to leave them down the middle which means additions are needed here.
With most of Montreal’s focus in recent years being on defencemen and centres, they’re understandably thin on the left side.
Rhett Pitlick was the lone left winger picked last year and while I think he has some upside, he’s a long way away from being ready to turn pro. He might stick around in the USHL for another season (his college commitment isn’t until 2021-22) and then with up to four years of NCAA hockey, it may be until halfway through the decade before he signs.
Jack Gorniak is already in college but hasn’t progressed much in his two years at Wisconsin. In fact, you could make a case that he regressed as he spent a lot of last season on the fourth line which isn’t ideal. Like Verbeek, he can fly but not a whole lot else at this point.
Needs Assessment – High: Other than maybe Drouin (thanks to his contract), there isn’t really anyone else in the organization on the left side where it’s certain that they’ll be part of the team a couple of years from now. There are going to be openings to fill down the road and right now, those will have to be filled from outside. Adding some quality prospects (not project wildcards) would go a long way towards shoring things up.