BROSSARD, Que. — The goals stated at the beginning of this Montreal Canadiens season appeared to be at odds with each other, but now seem to be perfectly in line: To compete for the playoffs while resetting with youth and building towards the future.
When you look at what’s happened over the last 48 hours – a pivotal win against the Winnipeg Jets to remain within one point of the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, followed by two prospects in Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau forgoing their remaining years of NCAA eligibility to sign their entry-level contracts – you can see the plan coming together. Both the present and the future of the team are cast in a positive light and represent a massive divergence from the direction the organization appeared to be going in just months ago.
It’s no wonder general manager Marc Bergevin’s outlook is of the glass-half-full variety.
“We have 92 points and after [the last] three games we could get to close to a 100 points,” Bergevin said on Monday. “It’s a very good season. It’s certain that missing the playoffs would be something to evaluate but the progress the team has made this year – and we still have a good amount of young players – is impressive, and it’s fun for the fans this week to have three big games and have everything still be possible.”
It’s also fun for the fans to see the simultaneous growth of the team’s prospects; to know that 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi has leapt from third-overall pick at the 2018 NHL Draft in June to third-line centre in October, that 20-year-old Victor Mete transformed into a legitimate top-four defenceman, and that both players developed throughout this season around a positive, constructive, and mostly winning environment. Especially in the wake of a 28th-place finish in the standings one season ago.
There’s more to be encouraged about, too. Nick Suzuki, who came over in the September trade that sent Max Pacioretty away from the Canadiens and to the Vegas Golden Knights, posted his third straight 90-point season in the Ontario Hockey League and emerged as one of the best junior players in the world. Alex Romanov, one of the team’s two picks in the second round of last summer’s draft, turned heads in the Kontinental Hockey League and is currently considered one of the best players outside of the NHL. And then there’s flashy Finnish scorers Joni Ikonen and Jesse Ylonen, who took steps upward in their country’s top league.
A number of other Canadiens prospects are in the midst of completing banner seasons.
“On the whole, I think you can ask a lot of hockey people and they’ll say our group of prospects are among the best in the league,” said Bergevin. “I won’t say they’re the best because time will prove whether or not that’s the case, but the group is among the best. A lot of young kids are coming.”
Gone are former first-rounders Alex Galchenyuk and Nikita Scherbak. Jacob De La Rose, a second-round pick of the Canadiens in 2013, was waived back in September. They were the final members of a prospect pool that needed to be flushed out and replenished.
And now the new kids are coming into a healthy environment, which can only help them grow faster.
Josh Brook was the first. The defenceman, who was chosen by the Canadiens in the second round of the 2017 Draft, was added to Montreal’s American Hockey League affiliate in Laval over the weekend after completing a 75-point season with the Western Hockey League’s Moosejaw Warriors.
Primeau is joining him now after posting a 44-18-6 record, a goals-against average of 2.00 and .932 save percentage in two seasons with Northeastern.
The seventh-rounder, who is a two-time Beanpot champion and MVP and was a standout at the 2018 World Junior Championships and a player twice nominated for the Mike Richter Award, which is given to the top goaltender in the NCAA, couldn’t wait to sign his name on a three-year contract with the Canadiens.
“I had great times at Northeastern but I’m excited for the future,” said Primeau on a joint conference call with Poehling on Monday. “Last year, being a freshman, I was just trying to take everything in and just trying to give my team the best opportunity to win each and every game. And this year I tried to take a bigger role and I wanted to be the reason that my team was winning, so I was trying to make sure that I can steal games and stuff like that and just trying to get better each and every day in practice. I feel like I’m ready for the next step and next jump and just excited to get into Laval and take everything in that I can.”
The organization gets younger and better with this move. As it does with Poehling leaving St. Cloud State prior to his senior year.
The opportunity to sign with the Canadiens — and join them to burn the first year of his three-year contract — was too compelling for the Lakeville, Minn., native to ignore. And though Bergevin qualified the possibility of Poehling playing while the Canadiens remain in the playoff hunt as a slim one, the 20-year-old centre, who scored 29 goals and 75 points in 107 games over three seasons with St. Cloud and put up five goals and eight points as the World Junior MVP, is anything but discouraged.
“I think this is just what’s best for myself, not only learning from the older guys but just having the tools they have is something that I need,” Poehling said. “Getting there earlier –
especially at a time when they’re making a playoff push – just learning from those guys in that type of situation … I think it’ll help myself learn for hopefully the season to come.”
This is where those two pre-season goals converge. That happening only pushes this team forward.
The encouraging thing, as Bergevin noted, is that the Canadiens have already come a long way in a matter of months – owning the 14th-best record in the NHL ahead of their final three games.
“I’m biased, it’s our team, it’s the team we put together,” he said. “I’d like to believe, with a fun season, I think our fans should be proud of the team that performed this year.”
They have to be excited about the future, too.