Most of the roster for next season is basically set with the biggest question being when it’s actually going to start if it does at all. But one uncertainty that still remains is who Montreal’s extra forward will be.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the conclusions from the article earlier this month that looked at their cap situation. In a nutshell, Jake Evans is the fourth line centre and Jordan Weal is waived and sent to the minors. That would put the Habs with just over $708,000 in cap space which is enough to add a 13th forward to the roster with the caveat that it needs to be someone making the minimum salary. That takes Ryan Poehling out of the equation so he won’t be considered here. There are six forwards that can be recalled in this scenario so let’s rank and go through each of those in terms of their likelihood of earning the spot.
1) Alex Belzile – The fact that he was seeing minutes in the playoffs (limited as they were) has to give him the top odds at this time. He has shown that he can be productive in the minors and he’s defensively responsible enough to not be a liability on the fourth line. That’s a key for anyone trying to get into Claude Julien’s lineup. It’d be better for Laval if Belzile went back there but their season isn’t starting until February at the earliest.
2) Laurent Dauphin – Had the pandemic hit just a few days later, chances are that Dauphin would have been up with the Habs as he was believed to be on the verge of being recalled as more players were ruled out due to injury. The fact that he can play centre will help his cause and he is a defensively-responsible player. He won’t be much of a point-producer in the NHL – he certainly wasn’t with Arizona – but he can handle a few minutes per night if need be.
3) Lukas Vejdemo – He was up when the pandemic hit and actually scored the last goal of the season though he wasn’t invited for the Return to Play camp. Vejdemo was drafted as someone whose ceiling is basically a fourth line defence-first player and while he hasn’t produced much with Laval, he has been strong in his own end. There isn’t much development left at this stage of his career so there wouldn’t be much risk by keeping him up. He is still waiver-exempt which makes it easier to shuffle him back and forth on paper transactions to free up cap space as well.
4) Joseph Blandisi – He’s someone that probably isn’t well-known but he’s the most experienced of anyone on this list with 101 career NHL games under his belt including 21 just last season. He’s more of an offensively-oriented player than a defensive one which hurts his chances but Blandisi can play both down the middle and on the wing. If there’s a taxi squad where players can sit and be deployed on a short-term basis if a late injury strikes, he could be a leading candidate for that role as a result.
5) Brandon Baddock – Montreal’s lone free agent signing on the opening day of free agency last month, Baddock has no NHL experience and is likely to be a fourth line fighter in Laval. If the Habs worry that facing the same handful of teams so many times could result in some liberties being taken, having him as the extra forward could provide a bit of comfort. (I’m really grasping at straws here, I know…)
6) Jake Lucchini – He did well in limited action with Laval last season but it’s hard to envision a scenario where he’d contend for a spot out of training camp. Come to think of it, with limitations on the number of players being allowed to attend camp, I’m not sure Lucchini will even be invited. Clearly, management saw enough in him to extend a qualifying offer but the next step will still be in the minors, not with Montreal.
If you’re looking at this list and feeling a little underwhelmed, you’re probably not alone. That’s what makes the considerable number of remaining unsigned forwards in free agency notable. A lot of them will be looking at having to take minimum-salary deals and many of them would represent upgrades on the players here. Accordingly, it wouldn’t be shocking if Montreal winds up making a depth addition in the days leading up to training camp. If they don’t, then it appears that the extra forward spot is Belzile’s to lose.