The Habs have a number of interesting prospects this season, from the much-hyped Louis Leblanc to the hopeful sleeper pick of the 2010 draft Brendan Gallagher, here's a few names to keep in mind this coming season. Useful resource for tracking the season stats, the inexhaustible efforts of the Habs Prospects Blog.
1. C Louis Leblanc, Montreal Juniors, QMJHL.
If you follow the news in Montreal, I'm betting you've heard of Louis before. Long story short, he played a year at Harvard winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year with 12 goals and 11 assists in 31 games, on a pretty bad Harvard team he led in scoring (Harvard won 9 of 31 games last season). He signed a pro contract with the Canadiens this summer and came home to Montreal to play for the Montreal Juniors. He is expected to headline a very strong Juniors team that is favoured to contend for the Memorial Cup and to push his development forward by playing a full season in the Q, while also likely suiting up for the 2011 World Junior Championship, after narrowly missing the 2010 team. At 6' and now 185 pounds, Leblanc has good size, great acceleration and is known to battle for his ice. If Leblanc performs to reasonable expectations, one would expect him to join the Hamilton Bulldogs for the 2011-12 season.
2. RW Danny Kristo, University of North Dakota, NCAA.
Danny Kristo is a Gold Medalist from the 2010 World Junior Championships, playing a key role on the American team, scoring 5 goals and 3 assists over 7 games. He would also score 15 goals, 21 assists in 41 games in his rookie season for North Dakota, good enough for 3rd overall on his team in scoring (the two to beat him were senior classmen) and winning Rookie of the Year in his division. Kristo has affirmed his interest to play another season at North Dakota, but likely following this year he'll sign his first pro contract and begin playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL to prepare for his hopeful ascension to the NHL ranks. Standing 6' and about 185 pounds himself, Kristo is known for great speed and very quick hands and is an old teammate of Louis Leblanc when they played together in 2008-09 in the USHL. Potentially, the Bulldogs will have two-thirds of an impact line in their 11-12 season with two potential NHL-bound forwards. It won't be easy to get video footage of his NCAA exploits, but it would be time well spent to keep track of his scoring totals, also useful, he is one of several new prospects to shoot right-handed.
3. RW Alexander Avtsin, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL.
I'm guessing Avtsin will play for the Bulldogs, since he will likely need a season to adapt to the North American ice surface after growing up and learning the game on the big ice surface in his home country of Russia and he is still a bit light at 190 pounds. Avtsin is an intriguing prospect, at 6'3", he has attractive size for the game and is a right-handed shot, something the Montreal Canadiens are short on right now. Russians are often criticized for playing soft or being simply enigmatic players, so it will be important for Avtsin to silence his critics early with a strong AHL campaign. However, there are the other attractive qualities of the Russian players. Simply speaking, they make the puck dance like almost no one trained in North America or anywhere else can do. Avtsin has shown that ability, while also being noted to possess impressive speed, another important quality in the "New NHL". Some would balk at his 9 points in 30 KHL games from last season, but as a rookie, Avtsin was playing about five minutes a night as an 18-year old in what could be considered the 2nd-best professional hockey league in the world. Keep an eye out, chances are he may join the Habs for the 'cup of coffee' during the 10-11 season if he does well in Hamilton.
4. LW Max Pacioretty, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL.
Max Pacioretty, he's been bounced like a basketball since 07-08. Pacioretty had an impressive rookie campaign in NCAA Hockey that season, than signed his first professional contract and joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for the 09-10 season. Now well very talented with good size at 6'2", Pacioretty was still in need of skills development and adding bulk to his frame. Unfortunately, the fates conspired against his interests when a mess of injuries for the Habs in 08-09 resulted in his being called up to the Montreal Canadiens. Initially impressive with a pretty goal scored against the New Jersey Devils in his debut, Pacioretty soon found he was not in the same weight class as much of the NHL. An enthusiastic checker, he was constantly outmuscled and he always seemed to be just missing on scoring chances that fell right to his stick. The season ended rather unremarkably for Pacioretty, he trained harder for the 09-10 campaign and after another disappointing season, was finally returned to Hamilton so he could get back to proper development at the level he should have been playing at over the last two years. Pacioretty has since improved on his size, bulking up to 210 pounds and had a notable, if short impression on the Bulldogs before he was sidelined by injury for the remainder of the 09-10 season in Hamilton. Pacioretty would likely have to have an overwhelming training camp to displace a veteran NHLer and stay with the team, but his staying a full season in Hamilton and fully adapting to a long schedule while working on skills development might be just what he really needed. His development has been rocky, but his enthusiastic efforts and display of talent in the past does seem to indicate he has flashs of what it takes to stay in the NHL.
5. RW Brendan Gallagher, Vancouver Giants, WHL.
Gallagher is not your typical 5'8" forward who weighs 160 pounds. He certainly showed a deft scoring touch with 41 goals and 40 assists in his 2nd WHL season, he also racked up 111 penalty minutes. He is the son of the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Giants and according to reports, takes great advantage of that. A tough player who seems to be without fear on the ice, Gallagher's main critique is he will have to become a better skater to excel at higher levels, but with at least two more seasons to go in the WHL, he has plenty of time to work on that task, his scoring totals are notably similar to that of noted Team Canada WJC hero Jordan Eberle in his 2nd WHL season. Noting Gallagher's ability to survive in the WHL at his size and excel at scoring, he may be a long shot as a 5th round pick but he definitely has the heart of a Hab in him.
6. D Jarred Tinordi, London Knights, OHL
A little unfair to put 2010 top pick Jarred Tinordi at No. 6 behind a sleeper pick? Sort of but honestly, I don't expect to see any great scoring totals from him and game highlights are going to focused on scoring, not solid defensive play like Tinordi is shaping up to be. However, he is still worth tracking for that +/- indicator and his team's win/loss record with him being a part of their defence. He was cut from the WJC camp for the 2011 US team, but they will be holding a second one and provided Tinordi has a solid showing with London, the two-time captain of the US Under-18 team may soon join his country's top junior squad.
7. C Gabriel Dumont, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL
Dumont was a bit of a surprise in what he delivered when he was taken in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. He set the QMJHL on fire in a scoring campaign that had him lead the league in goals with 51 and had him in contention for the league MVP title, while winning the Guy Carbonneau trophy for Top Defensive Forward. Dumont would then score another 11 goals and 10 assists in the playoffs in a mere 14 games. Dumont is not a big man which is partly why he fell to the 5th round, at 5'10", he will not be a dominant power forward but he does seem to have that scoring touch that is elusive and can't be learned, just born with. Dumont will be suiting up for his first crack in professional hockey in Hamilton this season, while nothing too big should be expected, Dumont is credited with being a bit of a scrappy forward like Gallagher (127 PIMs in his final QMJHL season) and if he can adapt his game to the professional level, Dumont may have a future in professional hockey.
8. C Andreas Engqvist, Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL
Engqvist was a signing out of the 2009 development camp, previously undrafted, the 6'4", right-handed shot Swedish forward has now completed 4th season in the Swedish Elite League, he had his best season yet with 14G, 12A in 55 games and then excelled in the post season with 5G and 8A in 16 playoff games. He is credited with being a net presence player, but his average skating is felt to be an area of game that will need to be improved. He had originally indicated he would only leave Sweden to play for the Montreal Canadiens, but he seems to be ready to join the Hamilton Bulldogs to get his foot in the door. With so many center prospects joining the organization since July of 2009, it is not difficult for the big center to see the writing on the wall about being more visible to the organization. Engqvist like Avtsin will have to adjust to the North American ice surface and add some bulk himself, at 6'3" he doesn't currently even hit 200 on the scales. Potentially a lighter version of Franzen or Holmstrom for Montreal, Engqvist again offers an attractive RH shot option for the team and the size the team could use in the future.
9. D Alexei Yemelin, Ak Bars Kazan, KHL.
Yemelin is one of those Russian players Montreal can never quite seem to tempt to come over the pond. Yemelin is perhaps not the biggest blue liner, but he has bulk, at 6'1", he weighs 220 pounds and is reported to have a physical game. An older player at 24, Yemelin is still yet to see any action on North American ice but his talent is still of good interest. He was named the Best Defencemen of the 2010 KHL playoffs as his club won the championship there. Yemelin is currently serving out the final year of his contract with his KHL club and provided the Canadiens can tempt him to join his countryman Andrei Markov, the Canadiens could add a strong punishing body to their lineup with plenty of room to grow in his game. I hope to see him try his hand in the NHL following the end of the 10-11 season, his talents could be put to good use on a team that is somewhat lacking for physical defencemen.
10. D Mac Bennett, University of Michigan, NCAA.
Another potential sleeper, selected in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft, the 6' Bennett has impeccable hockey bloodlines, his grandfather played in the NHL and his father and uncles were all hockey players. Bennett is a skating defencemen with notable offensive ability that could be shaped into a good NHL blue liner with proper development. A member of the All-Rookie team of the USHL, Bennett will be attending Mike Cammalleri's Alma mater and playing for one of the top NCAA hockey programs in the United States. Bennett is likely at least two seasons in the NCAA and another in Hamilton from seeing NHL action, but a few scouts seem certain he has that element to him that makes him a special prospect and potential future NHL blue liner.
This list is not a defining one for who I think is more talented than anyone else, but more ranked on who I think will be more interesting to keep an eye on this season and which are of most interest to me because I believe they fit into the team's long-term plans.