The three games played by the Montreal Canadiens after the Christmas break may have at first seemed a bit like Cole Caufield dropping the gloves with Ryan Reaves, but in this unusual season for hockey’s most storied franchise, they actually turned out to be great opportunities to evaluate the team’s pro prospect pool.
The reality of the National Hockey League for the 2021-22 season is that teams are constantly losing players because they’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Add to that an especially tough season for injuries and with the Habs well out of the playoffs — but trying not to look TOO much like a team angling for the first overall pick — and an NHL lineup that featured nearly every available callup from the AHL’s Laval Rocket became at some point an inevitability.
But while losing all three games was always going to be the likeliest outcome, what wasn’t inevitable was the hard and energetic hockey the Rocket replacements played against defending the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and genuine Cup contenders in the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers.
Undermanned as it was, a young Habs lineup battled with considerably more passion than the regular roster displayed on more than a few nights earlier this season. And despite getting just a single point — from a harsh overtime loss to the Lightning where the tying goal was scored with just 20 seconds to go — these weren’t throwaway games.
In all, eight Rocket players who wouldn’t have been playing if the Canadiens had been able to ice its season-opening roster suited up for at least one of the three games in a rare opportunity to showcase their skills at the highest level. I’m not including Ryan Poehling on this list; he was called up earlier than the others and has pretty much cemented himself into a bottom-six role for the rest of the season, regardless of players coming back from injury or the COVID-19 list.
Here are three young forwards who I feel have made a good enough impression to maybe start thinking about finding a place to stay in Montreal next season.
Rafael Harvey-Pinard, 22, LW, 5’9” 182 lbs., drafted 201st overall (7th round), 2019, $825,000, RFA 2023:
Like many Montreal fans, I like to watch Laval Rocket games online. With the exception of Poehling finally breaking through, no young Rocket forward impressed me more last season than Harvey-Pinard. Undersized and drafted as an overage player in the seventh round in 2019, the left winger was a reliable three-zone presence in the Rocket lineup from opening day to the end of last season, collecting nine goals and 11 assists in 36 games as an AHL rookie. Not a flashy offensive player but defensively responsible with good wheels and some puck-handling ability, Harvey-Pinard’s first NHL goal against the Lightning could be the first of many the Jonquiere native collects as a bottom-six winger for the Montreal Canadiens. With the already team in rebuild/reset mode, he could win a job out of training camp next fall.
Jesse Ylonen, 22, RW, 6’1” 168 lbs., drafted 35th overall, (2nd round) 2018, $883,000, RFA 2023:
Another first-year North American pro in Laval last season, this young Finnish right-winger showcased the top-six skillset of a defensively responsible winger with above-average skating ability, a good shot, and decent passing skills. In 29 games with Laval over the 2020-21 season, Ylonen collected a respectable nine goals and eight assists. Called up before the post-Christmas break, Ylonen has moved up and down the lineup as needed, playing with every Montreal centre still healthy enough to put on a uniform. Over the recent Lightning-Hurricanes-Panthers stretch, Ylonen was one of the lineup’s more dangerous offensive players. I expect him to compete for a top-six job out of training camp, but if the Canadiens move a couple of veteran wingers at the trade deadline, his chance could come sooner rather than later.
Lukas Vejdemo, 25, C, 6’2” 196 lbs., drafted 87th overall (3rd round) 2015, $750,000, RFA 2022:
I like this player, but more for his never-say-die attitude for the North American pro game than his odds of enjoying a long and productive NHL career. Now in his fourth season with Laval, the Stockholm native picked up 13 points in 22 games with the Rocket last season, pretty much the same rate of production he enjoyed over his three previous AHL seasons. But while his expiring RFA contract means he may not be in Montreal’s long-term plans, I see value in a modest role for this player next season, so perhaps the Canadiens have a decision to make on re-signing him. Cheap and reliable forwards for the bottom six will be required in the short term for any rebuild/reset. With Vejdemo’s strong skating, good faceoff skills, and attention to detail in his own end, he could be a reasonable option to fill the fourth-line centre spot next season.
And while these are the three Rocket players I feel have the best chance to eventually crack the Montreal Canadiens roster as regulars, the other five fill-ins from the AHL who saw action — Michael Pezzetta, Corey Schueneman, Alex Belzile, Brandon Baddock, and Cam Hillis – all gained valuable experience over an intense five-day period that can only help them grow their games to another level.