One of the biggest criticisms directed toward the Montreal Canadiens over the years has been the lack of drafting and developing quality players in the early rounds.
They have not done a good job of developing top 60 draft picks for many years and it has been one of the reasons among many other poorly made decisions as to why they have not returned to the Stanley Cup final since 1993.
Their track record in early rounds was not great but they still managed to find productive players in later rounds such as Michael Ryder (8th round in 1998), Tomas Plekanec (Round 3 in 2001), Mark Streit (9th round in 2004), Brendan Gallagher (5th round in 2010) and others. All these players have had serious impacts on the overall success of the team and there may be a set of players selected in the later rounds over the last couple of drafts who may have similar or bigger impacts than the ones mentioned above.
Who Are They?
The Canadiens have added a handful of prospects in later rounds and post-draft free agency over the last few years and some of them possess higher potential than their round suggests.
Jake Evans, C – 7th round pick, 207th overall – 2014
In 2014 they took a chance on Jake Evans in the 7th round, 207th overall. At the moment he was leaving the OJHL for the NCAA as he had committed to the University of Notre Dame. His first year was nothing special only recording 17 points in 41 games. He started to progress in year 2 when he finished with 33 points in 37 games. His final 2 years were his best and he ended up being the team Captain as a senior bringing the Fighting Irish all the way to the NCAA Frozen Four final where they lost 2-1 to the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Fast forward to his AHL debut. Evans needed some time to adapt but when he got his game on he showed he was a valuable player at both ends of the ice and in all situations. He was one of Laval’s best players before getting the call-up to the big club where he played 13 games this year scoring 2 goals, adding an assist, and finishing with a positive +/-. He got his coach’s respect and could be fighting for the 4C spot as of next season.
Now I don’t expect Jake to be more than a 3C who could fill in on the 2nd line but he does have abilities that could make him a valuable player. Every role is important and you need players who can control possession and flow on the ice and he does that well. He also has the skills and traits to lead a penalty kill and could become somewhat similar to Tomas Plekanec when the team was down a man.
More importantly, he understands that there is a learning curve and a process to follow which means he’s got tremendous character and determination. To me, it’s not a matter of if he’ll make the NHL but when.
Cayden Primeau, G – 7th round pick, 199th overall – 2017
Many sons of former NHL players get drafted but there is no guarantee that they will make it to the NHL. When the Canadiens traded back in the 2017 draft to select Vorhees native Cayden Primeau, many were a bit surprised and did not anticipate this move.
After finishing the 2016-2017 season with the Lincoln Stars in the USHL, he was heading to Northeastern of the Hockey East conference where he would play under Montreal native Jim Madigan.
Primeau only played 2 years in the NCAA but he was among the best and one of the youngest. In those 2 seasons, he combined for 34 wins, 18 losses, and 6 ties while taking home multiple awards including the Mike Richter award in 2018 as the best goalie in the whole NCAA, won two Beanpot titles in as many years and took home the 2018-2019 Hockey East title where he was named MVP. He also represented the United States and won the silver medal with the U20 team at the 2018 World Junior Championships.
Now that Primeau is in the AHL he can really work on refining the already top-end skills and traits he possesses. Other than sharing the same initials as current Canadiens starter Carey Price, they both share great technique as well as calmness in the net that very few posses in the world. It would be great if Cayden can learn how to handle pucks like Carey does since it’s a major part of counter-attacking for the team.
In his first year in the AHL, he had a couple of up and down stretches but seemed to find his game when the team got tighter and chemistry was built just before the quarantine hit. The Laval Rocket looked like they were coming together and if things get back to normal next season, Primeau and the team could take another major step and gel in order to make the playoffs which have been rare for the Canadiens affiliate.
Brett Stapley, C – 7th round, 190th overall – 2018
You don’t hear his name often. If I’m being honest with you, I don’t think many fans actually know much about him. The one thing that is certain is that he has particular traits that are important to making it in the NHL and staying there permanently.
He’s much closer to turning into a player to Jake Evans; defensive-minded, puck control and all-around responsibility, than he is to becoming a breakout star but he still has a little bit more development left in the NCAA before he transitions to the pros as an AHL player.
Stapley is a very important player for the Pioneers as he’s relied upon heavily at times on the special teams and as earned that trust of head coach David Carle.
What Stapley brings to each and every practice as well as each game is his continuous dedication to his craft. He’s very consistent, takes care of every detail, and a good powerplay specialist on the right wall. His progression from his first to his second year was felt in every facet of his game. He recorded 11 more points, shot 35 more times, and finished with a better plus/minus differential.
On top of his intangibles, he owns a great skating technique, and good hands and with those two combined he can move the puck well up the ice. He also owns good hands and has made impressive passes over his young career that have made him into a threat at any moment.
Brett could end up being more than a utility/complimentary forward but I’d expect him to end up as a support player with specialization. I think he has the tools to be more than a 4th liner but not enough to produce at a 2nd line level, so maybe an every day 3rd liner which is great value from a 7th round pick. He still needs some time but don’t be surprised with his year 3 progression should he unlock a hidden aspect of his game which we haven’t seen yet.
Rhett Pitlick, LW – 5th round, 131st overall – 2019
I didn’t know much about Rhett Pitlick when the Canadiens selected him in the 5th round in 2019 but I quickly got to know him as I attended Montreal’s development camp in late July.
If I told you he was one of the team’s best players at that camp would you believe me? He impressed me so much that I would invest a lot of time during the next year after his selection looking at his development and scouting most of his games.
When you look at his progression in 2019-2020, you need to cut it into two parts. First is the start of the season where he played for the Omaha Lancers and then the second when he got traded on November 26th, 2019 to the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He played 17 games with Omaha to start the season recording 11 points and playing somewhat below his capabilities. He was not as dynamic and wasn’t relied upon as much as he knew could be. Then he was sent to Muskegon in a massive 5 player trade at the end of the 2019 calendar year.
When Steve Lowe, President of Hockey Operations for Muskegon, was interviewed about the trade, he said “These are the types of players that will help build championships in Muskegon. Pitlick is one of the most dynamic players in the United States Hockey League”. Well Pitlick proved his worth as he ended the season scoring 31 points in 28 games. He was involved in many facets of the game and became one of Muskegon’s pillars on the ice. He took 2 steps forward this past season.
If there was one player who would be a comparable to what Pitlick might become is Paul Byron. Small, quick, good forechecker and owns above average offensive abilities. I don’t think I have to say this but Byron is a very important player to the Canadiens’ success among their middle 6 forwards.
Pitlick is heading to the University of Minnesota where he’ll join a good program and could continue to work on his skills as well as add some experience playing with bigger players. He’ll have all the opportunities to play in an offensive role, one in which he should he could handle if given quality linemates.
The biggest adjustment for Rhett will be playing a more physically demanding game as the players he’ll be competing with and against will be bulkier, quicker and smarter than many of the ones he was used to in the USHL. He’ll have to adjust quickly as the pace will be moving faster than ever.
The sky is the limit when it comes to prospects. You can never rule out kids who haven’t matured and physically developed yet. You can even say that for a young player who is already in the NHL. Some take longer to develop, some need extra repetitions and some need to hit the gym harder but what I can say for the players mentioned above is that they’ll be fully dedicated and ready to do whatever they need to in order to succeed individually and as members of a larger group.
Late round picks are often undervalued and many times thought to be waste of scouting resources by some but for those who fully understand amateur scouting know that you can find gems in all rounds and I believe the Canadiens have done that here.