There is certainly some risk in having a player make his NHL debut in a must-win series to get to the playoffs but in the case of the Habs and Alex Belzile, it’s one that may very well be worth taking.
Belzile has taken a bit of an odd path to get here but his improvement over the last few years has been enough to show that late-bloomers do still exist. In the process, he has gone from a depth AHL player to someone that is somewhat of an NHL prospect if it wasn’t for the fact he’s already 28.
Let’s look back at his professional career so far. He started off in the ECHL in 2012-13 and earned a PTO with Hamilton late that season where he played quite well. However, that wasn’t enough to get brought back and he spent two more years in the ECHL before getting an opportunity to split time between there and the AHL for two seasons starting in 2015-16. He did well enough to get a full-time AHL role in 2017-18 and responded with a career year, 34 points in 61 games.
Those numbers certainly don’t jump off the charts but it was enough to make him a free agent signing of Laval for their inaugural season. That’s where things started to turn. Originally expected to be a depth player with the Rocket, Belzile made an early impression on Joel Bouchard who moved him up a line. And then he went up another one. And then another one. All of a sudden, he was a fixture on the top trio and he responded by leading the team in scoring with 54 points in 71 games.
That got him an NHL contract and a legitimate chance in training camp this season where he was among the final forwards to be cut after showing well in a limited role in the preseason. He went to Laval and picked up where he left off with seven goals and seven assists in 20 games before needing surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle that required a six-month recovery which ended his season. Or so we thought.
Had Belzile stayed healthy, he wasn’t far away from getting a midseason recall from the Habs. Considering who else they’ve thrown out there at times (with all due respect to Matthew Peca, Riley Barber, Dale Weise, and Lukas Vejdemo, Belzile is better), it’s safe to say he was going to get his chance. And as a player who has improved enough defensively to be a serviceable two-way forward with a bit of offensive upside, I truly believe he could have had some staying power in that spot. The Canadiens evidently feel the same way as he has already been signed to a new deal for next season.
Assuming Max Domi moves over to the wing with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans holding down the last two centre spots, Paul Byron should shift to the fourth line which would leave one battle on the right wing. Presently, there are two veterans vying for that spot – Jordan Weal and Weise. Weal has some value but the fourth line isn’t a great spot for him as more as an offensive-minded finesse player while Weise shouldn’t be in the lineup under any circumstances. He struggled in the AHL this season and got recalled to play out the stretch as a bonus for being a good soldier. In games that the team is now viewing as must-win, he should not be considered for playing time. As a more well-rounded player, Belzile is a better fit for this series.
Sure, there’s always some risk in having a player make his NHL debut in the playoffs. (And while this isn’t technically the playoffs by designation, it’s a playoff-like series.) There can’t be a long list of players getting their NHL debut in a playoff-type game at 28 either. Belzile has shown enough over the last couple of years that there may be some upside which is more than what you can say about the other options; you know what you’re going to get from them and it’s not anything to get excited about. Montreal doesn’t have a lot of pressure given how they played down the stretch so when it comes to Belzile, putting him in is a chance worth taking.