No Montreal Canadiens playoff hockey? No problem… and not just because of the first-overall pick the Habs are getting as a result. Fans have also been treated to an improbable run by the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League (AHL), as further proof the team’s future is fairly bright.
As the Canadiens’ 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Final may have proven, it’s obviously preferable to watch the Habs contend for a championship. However, when the team is in the process of rebuilding?
At the risk of jinxing the Rocket’s three-round success story so far, it’s all for the best in the name of sustainable long-term success. In this progress update of Canadiens signees, here are five other names helping to make that a reality, first by leading the Rocket… and eventually, at least more and more realistically, potentially the Habs:
In the interest of full disclosure, there’s a good chance Canadiens fans have seen the last of defenseman Sami Niku in a Canadiens jersey. He’s set to become a Group VI unrestricted free agent (UFA) due to a lack of games played with the Habs (similar to teammate Louie Belpedio), but he remains under contract for the time being.
That’s more than can be said for forward Danick Martel, who at least merits a mention despite only having an AHL deal at the time being. Martel’s come out from nowhere to lead the Rocket in goals and overall scoring with nine goals and 15 points in 14 games. However, at 27 and with just 13 NHL games played up to this point, it’s unfortunately unlikely he’ll develop into a full-time NHLer at this juncture.
The 25-year-old Niku could be another story. He’s second in scoring with 11 points (all assists, including three in the postseason’s opening game against the Syracuse Crunch) and has likely earned at least another shot at the NHL, with the Habs famously having signed him to potentially become a seventh defenseman.
Of course, Niku’s prowess in the AHL has never been in question as a winner of the Eddie Shore Award, given to the league’s best defenseman, in 2018. However, this run has reaffirmed his status as a depth puck-moving option, if not with the Habs than likely elsewhere.
This season has seemingly been the start of something special for Rafael Harvey-Pinard. He led the Rocket in regular-season scoring with 56 points in 69 games, eventually earning a call-up to the Canadiens, with whom he played four others, even scoring his first career NHL goal.
True, the Canadiens’ historic injury situation likely played a part in Harvey-Pinard getting his opportunity this season. However, it was likely only a matter of time, based on his playoffs, with five goals, including an overtime game-winning goal in Round 3, and 10 points to date.
Ultimately, Harvey-Pinard has a good shot to stick with the Canadiens, in spite of his relatively small 5-foot-9, 182-pound frame. After all, he’s nicknamed Lavallagher for a reason, i.e., his similar playing style to that of Brendan Gallagher (5-foot-9, 184 pounds).
Ironically those would be huge skates to fill, but the winger could realistically be in line for a depth role, as a beneficiary of the team’s rebuild. Someone’s got to play. It might as well be someone who’s earned it internally. That’s Harvey-Pinard.
Jesse Ylonen has already leapfrogged players like Alex Belzile and Cedric Paquette on the depth chart and for good reason. Whereas Belzile and Paquette were signings made by the previous regime who failed to get in games down the stretch, the opposite rang true for Ylonen.
Of course, Ylonen was drafted by ex-general manager Bergevin, but that’s only part of the story. Ylonen is almost a case study in the team’s shift towards youth, as the Habs seemingly give more of a chance to their young guns then battle-tested veterans, with the 22-year-old scoring five points in 14 NHL games this past season.
More to the point, Ylonen appeared in games past the point at which Martin St. Louis replaced Dominique Ducharme as head coach. The same can’t be said for Belzile and Paquette, who are each pending UFAs.
A 2018 second-round pick, Ylonen has upside with 36 points in 52 regular-season games with the Rocket (and six in 14 playoff games). He was actually the difference in Game 2 between the Rocket and the Springfield Thunderbirds in Round 3, scoring three points in a 4-2 win.
Ylonen’s earned rave reviews for his play, even if he hasn’t lit up the scoresheet. It’s the small things he’s done right, like driving play at both ends of the ice in a way that’s reminiscent of Artturi Lehkonen according to analyst Andrew Berkshire (from ‘Canadiens by the numbers: Jesse Ylonen offers more than meets the eye’ Montreal Gazette, April 13, 2022).
In that sense, Habs fans shouldn’t necessarily expect a top-six forward, but someone who could play up and down the lineup instead. As Lehkonen proved, even in what he was worth as part of a trade, that’s very valuable. With Lehkonen gone, there’s conceivably an opening right away.
It would be overly dramatic to suggest defenseman Corey Schueneman has been a revelation, but the fact is he was on the radars of few people outside the organization heading into this season. In part due to injuries, Schueneman ended up playing 24 Habs games, scoring six points, including the first two NHL goals of his career. There’s likely to be more from where they came, based on how he’s played.
Truth be told, it would be just as dramatic to suggest Schueneman’s earned a regular role with the Habs. However, he has legitimately played his way into the conversation of potential seventh defensemen moving forward.
Admittedly, Schueneman’s four points in 14 playoff games with the Rocket haven’t been Earth-shattering. In fact, none of his points have moved the needle much, with possible exception to a primary assist on the Rocket’s first goal in an eventual 6-5 triple-overtime win over the Rochester Americans.
However, he projects as a steadying presence, which is all you can ask of someone in that role. Well, you can hope for a steadying presence in that role at least. Schueneman delivers, with, for one example, a co-team-leading + 7 plus/minus rating right now.
At somewhat of the opposite end of the spectrum, defenseman Mattias Norlinder hasn’t exactly impressed. Granted, part of that is due to injury, with Norlinder not having played since receiving a hit to the head against the Americans in Round 2.
That was coincidentally the first game in five that Norlinder recorded a point, after returning to North America (from playing in Sweden) for the Rocket’s playoff run. As a left-handed shot and the left side being as jam-packed in the prospect pipeline as it is, it’s a less-than-ideal situation for the 22-year-old, who was arguably already at risk of getting lost in the shuffle (from ‘Mattias Norlinder is at risk of falling down the Canadiens’ depth chart,’ The Athletic, May 17, 2022).
Now, acclimating to the North American game is even harder. Even so, the value proposition is there, as a projected third-pairing puck-moving defenseman (if not more). For a guy that had an outside shot at sticking with the Habs entering training camp this past season, it is a step back. He remains close overall though.
This piece would be remiss without mentioning Joshua Roy, who just won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) scoring race as an 18-year-old, which is fairly impressive. For some context, Roy was picked 150th overall at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. He finished the 2021-22 season with 119 points, 20 more than Zachary Bolduc, who was taken at No. 17 (St. Louis Blues)… and is six months older.
It doesn’t guarantee NHL success, but it is a good sign. Surely the Canadiens would prefer he jumped the 84 points he did season over season (35 games played in 2020-21) than not. Soon thereafter he signed an amateur tryout deal with the Rocket (with his Canadiens deal only kicking in next season).
Roy’s played a single game for the Rocket up to now. Even though he didn’t hit the scoresheet, he’s in the situation he’s in primarily for the experience, but also because the Canadiens want him to gain the experience, effectively giving him a vote of confidence for his progression.
Next season though, it’s the NHL or back to the QMJHL for Roy, because of the NHL’s longstanding agreement with the Canadian Hockey League for recent North American draftees. It’s a shame, because the AHL probably presents more developmental value for him at this stage, and it’s reasonably unlikely a player makes the jump directly to the show after a single AHL playoff run. Right?
There are exceptions, like goalie Carey Price, who joined the Hamilton Bulldogs in time for their Calder Cup run back in 2007 (and made the Habs in 2007-08). Coincidentally, this edition of the Rocket have tied the longest playoff run by a Canadiens AHL affiliate since that 2007 Calder Cup, but that’s beside the point.
On the subject of Price, goalie Cayden Primeau has long since been seen as the former’s heir apparent. And not just because of how the first few letters in each of their first and last names are the same. Not even sure that would save the Canadiens on jerseys, to be honest.
Regardless, Primeau’s taken a step back since winning the Mike Richter Award in 2019 with Northeastern University. Through little fault of his own, the 2017 seventh-round pick was thrown to the lions this past season, posting an .868 save percentage through 12 games, playing behind a team ravaged by injury and, seemingly, apathy too.
The fear had been Primeau’s development suffered as a result, with the original plan having been to give him 200 AHL games. He hasn’t even played half that, though. So, his dominant 9-4 record, 2.10 goals-against average and .937 save percentage through 13 AHL playoff games this spring have been a welcome surprise to say the least.
The other players on this list have obviously contributed to the Rocket run, but the main reason they’re this far is Primeau. Knock on wood, it’s a nice throwback to 2007 when Price won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP.
Obviously Primeau isn’t Price. The comparisons should stop here and now for the sake of his own development, but, if Primeau comes out on the other side of the horror show that was this past season in one piece, it will be first a miracle and second an unforeseen development that only bodes well for the team’s goaltending depth from here on out.
The Canadiens can do with another Price. Every team could, but the $10.5 million price tag should be avoided. So, they may want another Price, but what they actually need is simply reliable goaltending on a reasonable deal. This run, while by no means a guarantee, shows Primeau could be that guy, the one to actually replace Price, as per the original plan. It’s obviously going to take more time to get to that point, but, looking at the Rocket, the future doesn’t seem so far away these days.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.