Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the Montreal Canadiens. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Top Prospect: Nathan Beaulieu, Defence
Born Dec 5 1992 — Strathroy, ONT
Height 6.03 — Weight 191 — Shoots L
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in round 1, #17 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Nathan Beaulieu is the son of Sarnia Sting head coach and general manager Jacques Beaulieu. He has just finished his 4th season with the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL. Beaulieu was drafted by Saint John when his father was the head coach there, however he has proven to be an astute pick, and not just the coach’s kid. In fact when Gerard Gallant (now a Habs assistant coach) took over behind the Sea Dogs bench, we really saw Beaulieu’s game take off. Over the last three years, Beaulieu has been a huge part of the team’s defence and helped them win the 2011 Memorial Cup, and go back to back with the 2011 and 2012 QMJHL championship. With 52 points in 53 games this season, Beaulieu has been a dominant offensive force in from the Saint John blue line. Beaulieu won a bronze medal as a part of Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
Beaulieu’s game is built around his outstanding skating abilities. He has a smooth and graceful stride. Beaulieu has very good top end speed and reaches that level quickly with excellent acceleration. He is agile and uses his edges superbly. His pivots are crisp and this makes him extremely mobile. This really helps all aspects of his game. He is willing and able to rush the puck end to end any time he gets the opportunity. His mobility allows him to create in the offensive end, and at the junior level he takes chances knowing that even if he makes a mistake, he can almost always recover from it.
As stated, Beaulieu is certainly not afraid to rush the puck, and does so often. He has excellent stickhandling and good playmaking abilities and uses these skills to create offence for teammates when doing so. He also has a good wrist shot and a quick release which helps him to put the puck in the back of the net. On the powerplay he is a creative quarterback with very good vision and passing skills. He also has a hard slap shot, and an excellent one-timer.
Beaulieu’s defensive game has come a long way over the last two years. Once a liability in the defensive end, he has become a top defenceman for the Sea Dogs. Beaulieu uses his great mobility and skating ability to almost always keep his body between his opponent and the net and making him difficult to beat off the rush. His ability to quickly close space helps him in throwing his body around, and making devastating hits if a forward miscalculates in an attempt to get by Beaulieu. Beaulieu also battles well on the boards, and in front of the net. He generally has good positioning and reads the play well. He clearly has all the defensive tools necessary to succeed.
However here is the issue with Beaulieu. He has all the tools, and most of the time he uses them in the defensive game. In 95% of his shifts he’ll play textbook defence. He really needs to get rid of the brain cramps though. Approximately once per game, Beaulieu will make a mind numbing defensive error. The most common of these occur when he tries to get started on an offensive rush, he has a tendency to make a bad giveaway in his own end of the ice. Another common error will be over committing to the puck carrier and leaving the man he should cover. Beaulieu will need to work to cut down these errors to a more manageable level if he’s ever going to reach his potential to be a big minute defenceman in the NHL.
Beaulieu should start next season with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL. It will be up to new Dogs coach Sylvain Lefebvre to help get Beaulieu to be more consistent in using his skills defensively. Its certainly something that can be taught to a young defenceman, and the lack of consistency is common with young defenders. In fact, current Habs defenceman PK Subban had similar issues when he left the OHL, so now it will be up to Beaulieu to follow a similar learning curve in the AHL.
Top Prospect #2: Jarred Tinordi
Born Feb 20 1992 — Millersville, MD
Height 6.07 — Weight 212 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in round 1, #22 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Jarred Tinordi is the son of former NHL defenceman Mark Tinordi. Another young prospect who proves the old adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, this young defender has inherited many of his father’s best traits. One area where he’s already surpassed his father is in height. At 6’7″ Tinordi is an absolute giant, and a beast in the defensive end of the ice. A natural leader Tinordi was the captain of the US NTDP and the United States team that won the Gold Medal at the Under-18s in 2010. This past season he was the captain of the London Knights. Forming an outstanding shut down pair with Scott Harrington (a penguins prospect), Tinordi helped to lead the Knights to the OHL Championship. Tinordi and the Knights suffered a heartbreaking loss in overtime of the Memorial Cup to the Shawinigan Cataractes. He also played for team USA at the 2012 World Juniors. Unfortunately the US team had a disappointing tournament and ended up in the relegation round of the tournament. However this was no fault of Tinordi, who was the best defenceman on the U.S. team in the tournament.
Jarred Tinordi is a very good skater for someone his size. But the caveat “for someone his size” is certainly necessary. He has decent top end speed and good mobility but he’s also not a speedster. His long stride does get him around the ice quick enough, and despite the size comparisons, you won’t see the skating style comparisons between Tinordi and former Habs defenceman Hal Gill.
Tinordi’s game is a pure defensive one. He is a big, rugged, and at times nasty defensive defenceman. His positioning is outstanding and he uses his big body and long stick to cut down passing lanes and block shots. He clears the front of the net and battles hard a long to the boards. Tinordi is a very physical player who is always looking for the big hit. He’s also developed a reputation for never backing down from a fight, even if he did reduce the number of fighting majors he took at the request of his London coaches.
Tinordi’s offensive game is virtually non-existent. He has good velocity on his slapshot, but he doesn’t take the chances necessary to get a lot of opportunities. He also lacks the offensive zone instincts, and the ability to walk the line and open up shooting lanes to make it truly effective. He has a good first pass out of his own zone, but in the offensive zone he is lost. He really doesn’t have the composure or take the time necessary to be effective as an offensive defenceman, often trying to move the puck as quickly as possible instead of patiently waiting for his opportunities.
Big defencemen generally take time to develop, and adjusting to the increased speed at every jump up in level will take time for a player like Tinordi. As such I expect that he will need some AHL time before he’s ready to play on the big club. Expect to see him in Hamilton playing important defensive minutes for the Bulldogs for at least 1 full AHL season.
Top Prospect #3 Louis Leblanc Right Wing/Centre
Born Jan 26 1991 — Pointe-Claire, PQ
Height 6.00 — Weight 178 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in round 1 #18 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Louis Leblanc was drafted by the Habs in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft which was held at the Bell Centre. Being a home town boy, drafted right in front of the hometown crowd, in one of the craziest hockey markets in the NHL has certainly added a lot of pressure to Leblanc. Thrust in this difficult situation, Leblanc has carried himself with class and dignity, all while showing on the ice that the Habs got themselves a very good prospect with this pick. Leblanc has played for 4 different teams over the last three seasons with stops in the USHL, NCAA, AHL, and even getting in 42 games with the Montreal Canadiens this past season.
Leblanc’s offensive game is all about his excellent hockey sense. He reads the play exceptionally well, and almost always makes the smart play in the offensive zone. He is able to elude defenders and find the open areas of the ice to get off his good wrist shot and quick release. He is willing to fight hard on the boards and get to the dirty areas of the ice in order to create offense. However Leblanc really needs to get stronger especially in his upper body to make this aspect of his game even more effective. He does have decent vision and good passing ability, however Leblanc’s tools seem to make him more of a goal scorer than a classic playmaker.
Leblanc’s skating stride is extremely unorthodox and limits his speed. His top end speed and acceleration are average at best. He does however have good agility and can be elusive in his offensive game. His balance is good and he has a good, low centre of gravity, however this is another area where upper body strength would make it more difficult to knock him off the puck.
Defensively, Leblanc is very strong for a player his age. He has an excellent positional game, and is willing to block shots. He has good anticipation and creates turnovers. As in the offensive zone, Leblanc is willing to fight tenaciously on the boards, but needs to add bulk to be effective in this aspect of his game.
Drafted as a centre, Leblanc’s game is much more suited to the wing. In fact he played the vast majority of his shifts in both the AHL and NHL last season at right wing. Leblanc lacks the faceoff prowess, and the footspeed to be a top notch centre. Meanwhile his grittiness on the boards and ability to score goals suggest he would be a very effective right wing. I believe that this is where his NHL future lies.
Where Louis Leblanc plays next season will be largely determined by his offseason and training camp. In 2011 Leblanc spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery and he was not able to work at gaining upper body strength during the summer, and was not ready to play for the Canadiens in Camp or Preseason, only getting on the ice with the Bulldogs after the regular season had begun. This off-season he is healthy, and it is extremely important he adds the bulk and upper body strength to be a more effective player. If he can do that and have a good camp, he could earn a fulltime job on the big club in preseason. If he doesn’t, he’ll be starting the season in Hamilton. There is probably one forward spot open for the Habs right now, and Leblanc is the favorite to take that spot, but he is by no means a lock, and will be strongly challenged by our next prospect, among others.
#4 Prospect and Sleeper Pick: Brendan Gallagher, Right Wing
Born May 6 1992 — Delta, BC
Height 5.08 — Weight 170 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in round 5 #147 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Undersized, Brendan Gallagher fell to the 5th round in the 2010 draft despite scoring 41 goals for the Vancouver Giants that year. He’s followed up that season with 2 more 40+ goal campaigns since being drafted and become the all-time leading goal and point scorer in Giants history. Gallagher would play at the 2012 World Junior Championships for Team Canada, and put up 6 points in 6 games. He was one of the key sparkplugs leading the furious 3rd period comeback for Canada in what eventually became a semi final loss for Team Canada.
Gallagher overcomes his small size with his excellent skating ability. He has very good top end speed and acceleration, however his biggest asset is his elusiveness. His excellent agility and edgework give him the ability to get through any opening a defender might leave him. When he gets the opportunity he has an NHL level wrist shot and release. He’s also a talented playmaker. One of the most important players in the WHL these past two seasons, it seemed the Giants’ offence has always flown through Gallagher.
Gallagher also has an absolute non stop motor. He plays the game with a grit and tenacity that is not normally seen in a player who is 5’8″ tall. Gallagher goes to the dirty areas of the ice to create offence. He goes to the net and he goes to the net hard, regularly playing on or over the edge of a goalie interference penalty. He drives opponents nuts by being constantly in the face of their goaltender. He digs hard in the corners and often comes out with the puck. Gallagher is even willing to drop the gloves with bigger and stronger opponents. He just doesn’t back down from any challenge.
Gallagher had an excellent training camp last season, and was one of the Habs last cuts. There was much talk of the team potentially keeping him for a further look in 9 regular season games, but they ultimately decided to send him back to Vancouver. This season Gallagher will again try to crack the Habs lineup, and if he plays as well as he did last year, he might have a shot at it. However it is more likely that Gallagher will be another prospect sent to Hamilton to boost the Bulldogs.
#5 Prospect and Sleeper Pick 2: Morgan Ellis, Defence
Born Apr 30 1992 — Ellerslie, PEI
Height 6.02 — Weight 196 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in round 4, #117 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Given the season that Morgan Ellis had this year, I’ve taken the unusual step of profiling a second sleeper. He was too good and progressed too much to ignore. Ellis had been buried as the best player on a weak Cape Breton club in the QMJHL. At mid-season he was traded to Shawinigan as they loaded up to make their Memorial Cup run. Now in the spotlight Ellis would team with Phoenix prospect Brandon Gormley to reshape the Shawinigan defence, and to help lead the team to a Memorial Cup Championship.
Ellis is an excellent defender. He has very good mobility at the back end, and is extremely fundamentally sound. His positioning is excellent and he has the ability to clear the crease and battle in the corners. A fearless player, Ellis blocks a ton of shots on the blue line, and is not afraid to take a hit to make a play. He makes a strong first pass, and gets the transition game started.
When Ellis was originally drafted it was thought that his upside was as a purely defensive defencemen. However he has also developed his offence over the last two years. Ellis has a hard point shot which he is able to keep low and on net. He also is calm and poised with the puck, acting as a powerplay quarterback, and using his skill as a playmaker from the blueline.
Ellis is also likely headed to Hamilton this year, where he will need to adjust to the increased speed of the pro game. He will need some AHL time, but if he continues to improve in the way he has the last two years, he’ll be in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Last season the Canadiens hit a bit of a lull in their system. With young players like Max Pacioretty, PK Subban, Carey Price, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Alexei Emelin, and others all playing for the big club, and the rest of Montreal’s best prospects still in the CHL or NCAA, the depth in the system was really hurt. The number of NHL level prospects in the AHL was way down, and the Canadiens could not rely on the Bulldogs to provide them with quality depth when injuries hit. I remember one Bulldogs game in particular that I attended late in the season, Leblanc, Palushaj, Engqvist, St. Denis and Geoffrion were all up with the big club, and scouring up and down the Dogs lineup, prospects with NHL potential were few and far between. There are still the longshots like Dumont, Nattinen, and Schultz, but really the level was far below what I have seen most AHL teams ice. This has started to change this year, as the Habs have a number of young players joining the Bulldogs. In addition to those already named, expect to see Michael Bournival, Steve Qualier, Patrick Holland, and Greg Pateryn all make their AHL debuts this season. Add to that an excellent job at the 2012 draft and the Habs have really replenished their prospect pipeline. The team is especially deep in both Defence and at Right Wing. Some holes still remain though. Goaltending is a major cause for concern as their quite simply is not a quality prospect in the system right now. Left wing is also a position of relative weakness, however the drafting of Timothy Bozon, and Charles Hudon should help to alleviate some of that concern. The team’s biggest weakness though, the lack of a high end centre prospect, was addressed when they landed Alex Galchenyuk with this year’s third overall pick. The young Sarnia Sting Centre is expected to become a key part of the Canadiens’ core going forward, and the only question is when.
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