The Montreal Canadiens have one of the better prospect pools in the league, but any long-term candidates to play top-six centre behind Nick Suzuki are still a few seasons from filling that role.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi had given the Habs a long-desired one-two punch of young centres that the rest of the roster could grow behind, but that dream went up in smoke last summer with a successful offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes. Kotkaniemi is gone and what’s percolating in the prospect pool is a long way from centring a scoring line at the Bell Centre.
With that in mind, Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton might want to dangle playoff-tested NHL hockey players in front of peers who not only find themselves well-stocked with what the Habs are looking for, but also see something on the Montreal roster that might help set them up for deep playoff runs.
Los Angeles Kings
As was the case with an earlier survey of right-handed defence prospects, the Kings, with arguably the deepest prospect pool in the league, should be the first phone call. They are well set up with experience and youth at the centre position and also have two blue-chip prospects playing in the AHL, either of which might be available, for the right price:
Alex Turcotte, 20, 5’11”, 185 lbs., fifth overall 2019 NHL Entry Draft
Now in his second season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, the Elk Grove, Illinois, native thinks the game well and is more passer than shooter at this stage of his development, but projects to be a complete player that is effective in all three zones once he reaches the NHL. Turcotte was seen as a future scoring line centre on draft day and his excellent skating and constant effort could see him become that when he reaches the NHL. Older Habs fans might remember his dad, Alfie, who played parts of three seasons with the Canadiens in the 1980s.
Gabe Vilardi, 22, 6’3”, 215 lbs., 11th overall, 2017 NHL Entry Draft
The Kingston, Ont., native is in his second season with the AHL’s Reign, but has already spent some time on the Kings roster, picking up 10 goals and 13 assists in 54 games during the 2020-21 season. Like Turcotte, Vilardi is also seen as a complete player who is comfortable all over the ice, but is more a finesse player than the power forward his physique would suggest. He has a nice passing touch to go with a variety of shots that he can get on target from various angles that, in addition to strong work on the boards, make him an offensive threat every time he’s on the ice.
Calgary is definitely going for it this season, as evidenced by the Habs’ first trade of the season that saw them send top-six winger Tyler Toffoli to the Flames for a first-round pick, a decent prospect, a modest roster player, and a fifth-round pick. GM Brad Treliving might want to dip his toe into the trade waters again for a defenceman to shore up his blueline or a good two-way forward to shore up his checking line. So, come on down…but all deals are final:
Connor Zary, 20, 6’, 178 lbs., 24th overall, 2020 NHL Entry Draft
Not particularly large and not an elite skater, Zary gets it done with an efficient all-around offensive game where he sees the ice well, distributes the puck effectively, and gets his shot off quickly and accurately from a variety of angles and distances. The Saskatoon, Sask., native works well on the wall for a player his size and wins his share of board battles. Zary picked up a pair of assists in seven games for Team Canada at the 2021 World Junior Championships and is now playing in the AHL with the Stockton Heat, where he’s adjusting to the faster pro pace, picking up five goals and ten assists in 34 games so far this season.
Adam Ruzicka, 22, 6’4”, 220 lbs., 109th overall, 2017 NHL Entry Draft
Like Vilardi, the Bratislava, Slovakia, native is a finesse player in a power forward’s body. As an offensive player, Ruzicka has a hard shot that, coupled with very good puck skills, allows him to drive the net or score from distance. He played on three World Junior Championships teams for Slovakia, collecting three goals and three assists over the course of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 tournaments. Ruzicka has been finding the net more in the AHL this year, picking up 10 goals and six assists with the Heat earlier this season before being called up to the Flames, where he has bounced between the starting lineup and the press box, picking up five goals and four assists in 21 games this season.
The Oilers are still in the mix for a playoff spot, but the Alberta team clearly could use some help in goal, on defence, and at forward, if it wants to nail down a playoff berth. Wouldn’t you know it – the Habs have exactly what they need, and in all sizes and varieties too. Make the call GM Ken Holland – the prices on some of the players you might be looking at could be about to rise:
Dylan Holloway, 20, 6’1”, 203 lbs., 14th overall 2020 NHL Entry Draft
The Calgary, Alberta, native has had a rough start to his pro career, playing his first game with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors in January, after nine months spent rehabbing a serious wrist injury. With good size and excellent skating, Holloway is a fearsome forechecker who would be an NHL player even without the offence that is clearly already showing in his game. Before his injury, Holloway was having a breakout season for the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA’s Big-10, picking up 11 goals and 24 assists in 23 games. His good hands for both passing and shooting could be his ticket to a top-six centre role in the league. In six games with Team Canada at the 2021 WJC, Holloway had a goal and an assist.
It’s no secret that the Jets are desperate to make the playoffs this season. The management team is having serious worries about the team’s competitive window coming to a close. In and out of a Wild Card spot, depending on which day the standings are checked, the Jets could use a boost from Montreal’s well-stocked roster of battle-tested playoff performers to get them to a safe place:
Cole Perfetti, 20, 5’10”, 177 lbs., 10thth overall, 2020 NHL Entry Draft
One of the headiest players in any prospect pool, the Whitby, Ont., native combines on-ice smarts with excellent vision and great hands for passing and shooting to make himself a clear and present danger every time crosses the opposition’s blueline. A smallish player and an average skater, Perfetti can be overpowered by larger players on the defensive side of the puck, but his defensive efforts are consistent and constant. Perfetti has split his time between the Jets and the Manitoba Moose this season, collecting two goals and five assists with the Jets before landing on LTIR. He’s been a standout for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, picking up three goals and nine assists over the course of nine games in the 2021 and 2022 tournaments.
Chaz Lucius, 18, 6’1”, 185 lbs., 18th overall 2021 NHL Entry Draft
Though the numbers aren’t there yet, the Lawrence, Kansas, native has a real chance to become a good goal-scorer in the NHL someday. It’s just going to take a little time, seeing as he missed some important development time last season when he was rehabbing a knee injury. With quick hands that get his shot away quickly and accurately, Lucius is off to a fine start in his NCAA career, with nine goals and 10 assists playing for the University of Minnesota in the Big-10. Also a good passer and puckhandler, average skating is perhaps the only item in his toolbox that can be viewed as a potential stumbling block to a top-six role. Lucius went scoreless in the one game he played for Team USA in the cancelled 2022 WJC.
The Stars are another Western team on the playoff fringes, but if they can string together a few wins and find themselves in a playoff position by the trade deadline, Hughes might be interested in lending a helping hand. It could cost something from the prospects pool, though:
*Mavrik Bourque, 20, 5’10”, 185 lbs., 30th overall, 2020 NHL Entry Draft
Bourque has a good all-around game and could turn out to be a solid number two centre in the NHL if his development goes as expected. Though undersized, he’s a very good skater with has a low centre of gravity that makes it difficult to knock him off the puck. An excellent passer, the Plessisville, QC, native is an even better shooter and is able to get his shot off effectively from a variety of angles and distances. Though he works hard defensively and has good instincts, Bourque’s size will sometimes put him at a disadvantage in his own end. With a goal and two assists in two games at the cancelled 2022 WJC, he has offensive skills with and without the puck but will need to become better on faceoffs before he reaches the NHL.
*Hendrix Lapierre, 19, 6’, 179 lbs., 22nd overall 2020 NHL Entry Draft1
The Gatineau, QC, native, has had an up-and-down season but made a good enough impression out of training camp to stay with the Capitals for six games before being sent down to the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan for the rest of the season. The 6’ 179-lb. centreman has a good offensive game and moves the puck well. Known for his vision, he’s more a passer than a shooter at this stage of his career, but has a sneaky wrist shot that he’s starting to use more this season. After a slow start, he’s picked up the pace in recent weeks and now has 35 points in 24 games for the Titan. Lapierre was a late cut from Team Canada’s selection camp for this year’s short-lived World Junior Championship.
Former Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was well-known for saying you can’t trade for good young centremen, you have to draft them. But that’s not true – Bergevin traded a coveted roster player to get Nick Suzuki and the Ottawa Senators did the same thing to acquire their own number one centre, Josh Norris.
With the nice assortment of baked goods Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes have laid out for hungry NHL general managers in advance of the upcoming trade deadline, the odds of finding a young centre prospect to move the rebuild/reset/retool along a little quicker don’t look that bad.
All it will take is one willing partner and the will to get the deal done.
(*Mavrik Bourque and Hendrix Lapierre were covered in an earlier story on French-Canadian prospects the Montreal Canadiens might be targeting in trades. But since they are both highly touted centre prospects, they belong on this list as well.)