At the NHL level, right wing isn’t the deepest position for the Habs with left wingers often playing out of position. However, there is help on the horizon in the prospect cupboard.
Signed: Joel Armia, Brendan Gallagher, Jordan Weal
UFA’s: Dale Weise
With the exception of an untimely slump in the playoffs, Gallagher continues to be one of Montreal’s best offensive weapons year in, year out. It’s a safe bet to pencil him in for a spot on the top line again next season and given that Marc Bergevin has already pledged to make him the highest-paid forward on his next contract while trying to make him a Hab for life, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be sticking around past the one year remaining on his current deal.
Armia is an interesting case. On the third line, he’s a great fit and his penchant for dominance one night and invisibility the next can be largely hidden and he’s a good enough checker to help Montreal even when he’s off offensively. However, the lack of depth has often pushed him into the top-six. He responded with a career high in goals and points despite the game-to-game fluctuation. As the flattened salary cap wreaks havoc, it should be the mid-tier players that feel the squeeze the most. Armia is in that group which makes his future with the Habs uncertain beyond next season when he also will be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Weal is someone who clearly wasn’t in the good graces of the coaching staff down the stretch. The offensive talent is there but he struggled on the fourth line and didn’t produce enough when he played on a higher trio. In a vacuum, his $1.4 million contract isn’t terrible but if the Habs want to try to add (and their cap space is well overstated with Max Domi still needing a new deal), they may want to try to move him out to replace him with someone a bit cheaper.
Weise cleared waivers early in the year and didn’t do much in Laval. He was brought up late in the year basically as a reward for trying to help out the prospects with the Rocket and then inexplicably was used for a bit in the playoffs. He’s testing the market in the hopes of landing another NHL job but that may be difficult to come by now.
Needs Assessment – Medium: While players like Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen, and Paul Byron can all shift over, there’s still a distinct hole on the second line. Adding someone that would push Armia back into a regular spot on the third line and provide more of a consistent scoring punch in the top six would be ideal if they can find the cap space to do it.
Signed: Alexandre Alain, Alex Belzile, Jesse Ylonen
UFA’s: Andrew Sturtz, Antoine Waked
AHL Contracts: Brent Gates
AHL Free Agents: Morgan Adams-Moisan, Joe Cox
Belzile looked to be well on his way to pushing to be the top scorer in Laval again before a torn pectoral muscle ended his regular season prematurely. He was able to come back for the playoffs in Montreal and actually got into the lineup for a handful of games. If he clears waivers, he should be a top liner again for the Rocket but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him make a case for the 12th or 13th forward spot with the Canadiens in training camp.
Alain has fared better than some of Montreal’s other undrafted free agent signings although that’s not necessarily the highest bar to clear. He’s an effective checker in Laval but his offensive game hasn’t progressed much along the way. It took him a while to make a big impact in junior and he could be following a similar path here but at this point, his NHL upside appears to be limited.
That’s something that can’t be said about Ylonen who is one of Montreal’s more intriguing prospects. In an organization that doesn’t have a lot of true shooters, he’s one of them and has the speed to keep up with Montreal’s higher-tempo pace of play. He will need some time to adapt to playing in North America but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a stint with the Canadiens next season.
As for the two pending unrestricted free agents, Waked never progressed past being a depth player in Laval over his three seasons with the team. Sturtz, meanwhile, never played for Laval at all so the fact they were non-tendered on Saturday comes as no surprise.
As for the AHL contract situation, Gates was recently added and presents a bit of intrigue having only played one full professional season. He could hang around on the fourth line in Laval or serve as ECHL depth. Cox is someone I hoped Laval would bring back. At 26, he’s a bit old for an AHL option but he played well in a checking role and chipped in a bit offensively as well. Adams-Moisan was overmatched in his limited time with the Rocket and it would be surprising to see him re-signed considering some of the other players that have already received AHL contracts for next year.
Needs Assessment – Medium: With Belzile not being a certainty to be brought back, another right winger that can play in the middle six wouldn’t be a bad idea. I know Ylonen needs to get plenty of playing time early on but with injuries and recalls, there has rarely been a roster logjam for a long time in Laval. Depth never hurt anyone.
The Habs took a big step in adding to their prospect pool at the draft last year by drafting Cole Caufield who is anything but big. That’s basically the only reason he made it to the 15th spot despite the fact he simply was a dominant scorer. He made an immediate impact at Wisconsin to the point where he wanted to turn pro for 2020-21 which is something that Marc Bergevin talked him out of doing. (While there were reports he could go to Sweden for the upcoming season, he is now expected to remain in college.) Nevertheless, it’s likely that he’ll be making an impact in Montreal before too much longer.
Then there’s Joni Ikonen. He missed all of last season due to injury which makes this season, the last before the Habs to sign him or lose his rights, even more important. This is normally where I’d say he needs to show he can stay healthy but lo and behold, he’s already out 8-10 weeks. There is legitimate talent and upside with the 21-year-old. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine Montreal signing him since he has missed so much time. Unfortunately, those injuries have also killed any trade value he may have had.
Needs Assessment – High: Caufield won’t be in this section much longer and Ikonen won’t be around much longer. After that, the cupboard will be bare so the Canadiens would be wise to add a prospect or two on the right wing between the draft and any offseason trade activity.