The Montreal Canadiens’ offseason kicked into another gear over the past week with the NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo, bringing back Martin St. Louis as head coach for the next three seasons, re-signing defenceman Chris Wideman to a two-year contract extension, and naming Marie-Philip Poulin a player development consultant.
Regardless of what additional roster or staff changes are made in the coming months, there will be opportunities, in a transition year, for some of the top top prospects to crack the 23-man roster out of training camp.
The Wideman signing means the Habs currently have four veteran defencemen under contract for next season with Alexander Romanov still to sign his new deal. It’s unlikely that Kale Clague and William Lagesson will return, which leaves a couple of spots up for grabs and it will be up to the young blue liners to seize the opportunity in the face of some stiff competition amongst themselves.
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Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, and Corey Schueneman all played NHL games with Montreal in 2021-22 and will be aiming to be in a Canadiens uniform again come October.
Barron showed maturity, some offensive upside, and a smooth skating stride during his first stint with the Habs before suffering a season-ending injury. He’s probably the defensive prospect who is closest to being ready for full-time NHL duty. Harris and his cerebral game came as advertised when he turned pro following a fruitful NCAA collegiate career with Northeastern University. His ability to read and anticipate plays will serve him well as he attempts to distinguish himself from his peers for a place on the opening night roster. Schueneman was one of the feel-good stories for the Canadiens this season, proving that he can be a capable NHL defenceman when needed. He has proven his worth to the Laval Rocket and if he does not make the Habs out of training camp, he’ll be one of the first call-ups from the American Hockey League.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle is Kaiden Guhle, Montreal’s first-round pick in 2020, who could very well start next season with the Habs. The 20-year-old has dominated the Western Hockey League (WHL) this season, playing like a man amongst boys, and is poised to have a big impact as a pro starting next season. He’s physical, tough to play against and showed last year during camp that his game will translate well to the highest level. It’s a matter of when not if Guhle will play in the NHL and he could pass a few of his teammates on the depth chart rather quickly.
Jesse Ylönen has been knocking on the NHL’s door for some time and should be a permanent fixture in the Canadiens’ lineup starting in 2022-23, following in the footsteps of his former Rocket teammate Michael Pezzetta who made the jump this year.
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The Finn has a shot that is easily NHL caliber and has taken big strides in Laval to improve every facet of his game. He put up five points in 14 games with the Habs to go along with 36 points in 52 games as a member of the Rocket this season. He’s been impressive and dominant at times during Laval’s playoff run as well.
A breakthrough AHL season with 21 goals and 56 points in 69 games has Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, a 2019 seventh-round pick by the Canadiens, on the cusp of the NHL. Often compared to Brendan Gallagher, the 23-year-old plays a similar hard-nosed style. He may not be the most talented, but his heart and determination take him a long way. Despite his small stature, he’s always in the dirty areas and ready to take punishment to make a play.
Given Montreal’s tight salary cap situation, having effective players in their bottom-six on entry-level contracts like Ylönen and Harvey-Pinard is important and will help give them some flexibility to better the team in other areas.
The Canadiens could use some fresh faces to inject new life to kick start this next chapter for the franchise. The no. 1 overall pick will of course help rejuvenate them, but expect the biggest boost, at least in the short-term, to come from players already in the organization.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media & Marketing Manager as well as co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.