It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Certain Montreal Canadiens prospects were fortunate to gain opportunity this season that otherwise wouldn’t have been available had the team not been virtually eliminated from post-season contention by the time the calendar turned to 2018. But, at the same time, in an ideal world prospects are developed in a winning environment.
The hope has to be that the experience still accelerated the process for some of these players.
We believe that was the case for 2015 first-rounder Noah Juulsen. The steady defenceman turned 21 on Monday, just hours after playing more than 20 minutes in what turned out to be a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. It was his 20th game with the Canadiens and one in which he did an exceptional job of shutting down Devils leading scorer Taylor Hall. That was clear progress for the kid who kicked off training camp with a broken foot and only got into his first professional regular season game with the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Nov. 29.
Juulsen might have made it up to the Canadiens for a cup of coffee at some point regardless, but a season-ending injury to Shea Weber—and another to 19-year-old defenceman Victor Mete—opened the door for Juulsen to play important minutes down the stretch. And now that he’s faced off against the likes of Hall, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom among others, there’s a sense Juulsen will make a valid push for a position on the main roster at the start of next training camp.
We like Juulsen’s chances of breaking through and serving as a third-pairing guy if everyone on the Canadiens’ blue line is healthy to start next season. He’s not a prolific point producer, but he’s a heady player who moves the puck efficiently and has a physical dimension to his game. So long as he continues on the path he’s forged over the past two months, there’s no reason to doubt Noah Juulsen will make it soon.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Nikita Scherbak, RW: The skilled, 22-year-old forward finally put his work boots on and produced more than a point per game at the AHL level before coming up to the Canadiens for the final leg of their season.
The four goals Scherbak’s scored in 24 games with Montreal have made it clear he has elite finishing ability. But we’re more impressed with his attitude and work ethic, which had been questionable over his first two seasons with the organization.
Scherbak was a first-round pick (26th overall) in 2014 for a reason. He’s got all the tools to be an NHL player—size, speed and a great set of hands. If he continues to work on the defensive side of the game and ensures that his effort level is consistent, he’s got a chance of becoming a full-timer next season.
Rinat Valiev, D: Acquired in the Tomas Plekanec trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Valiev has NHL potential. We’re not sure if he’ll realize it by next season, but the 22-year-old is going to have every opportunity to earn a spot when training camp opens in the fall.
He plays a steady, all-around game and nothing too flashy. But Valiev can skate and move the puck, which are important assets for a defenceman in today’s game. That Montreal is short on players who can do those things gives him an opportunity he might not have had with the Maple Leafs.
Unfortunately, Valiev was hurt in his second game with the Canadiens, but he’s on the mend and will get a full summer’s worth of training in before giving it his best at camp next fall.
Jake Evans, F: The all-around forward is suiting up for Notre Dame this week at the Frozen Four and hoping to help the Fighting Irish win a national championship.
There are no guarantees Evans, a senior and a pending unrestricted free agent, will sign with the Canadiens, but he’s made it clear—as recently as in this interview with The Athletic—that he has great relationships with people in the organization and appreciates the chance they took drafting him back in 2014 (seventh round, 207th overall).
Coming off a 42-point run in 38 games with Notre Dame and an impressive mid-season stint with Canada’s National Men’s Team, a chance to play in the NHL as soon as next season might tip the scales Montreal’s way.