The Montreal Canadiens’ blue line has sustained a lot of injuries this young season, but the team’s impressive amount of defensive prospects (many of whom are just plain impressive) are making the most of a bad situation.
Already, prospects like Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu have gotten games in with the Habs, despite starting training camp as favourites to end up with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League. Meanwhile, another top prospect, Greg Pateryn, currently finds himself on the big-league roster waiting for his opportunity to dress and hopefully shine.
While the Habs have been scored on an average of just twice per game this season, they’re allowing nearly 32 shots against. So, obviously, there is room for improvement.
Taking into account their respective skill sets, size, current positions on the team’s depth chart and the realistic chances of them making it, here are the team’s top five defensive prospects as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
Morgan Ellis and Dalton Thrower just miss making the cut here. Considering both are projected by hockeysfuture.com as eventual second-pairing defensemen (potentially), the team’s organizational depth at the position is arguably solid, if not downright impressive.
Ellis, drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL entry draft, is currently playing for the Bulldogs. Thrower, drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, is playing out the last of his junior career as captain of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants.
Thrower (5’11”, 200 lbs) misses the cut mainly due to a poor season with the Saskatoon Blades.
His offensive production dropped from 54 points and 18 goals in 66 games in 2011-12 to just six goals and 27 points in 54 contests. Assuming he can rebound with Brendan Gallagher’s alma mater, his physical, offensive game certainly has a spot in the Habs organization.
At 6’1”, 202 pounds, the 21-year-old Ellis has decent size but lacks an effective physical game. He projects as an all-around, two-way defenseman. He misses the cut mainly due to the sheer number of decent defensive prospects in the Canadiens organization.
In contrast to Ellis & Thrower, Pateryn doesn’t project as anything more than a third-pairing defenseman at the NHL level. It still doesn’t change the fact that he’s put himself in a position to be one of the team’s first call-ups on defense should injuries arise. That’s worth something, namely the No. 5 spot on this list.
One of the last cuts out of training camp, Pateryn was even recently called up at the expense of Tinordi, a former first-round pick. It admittedly won’t result in any game action, barring injuries to anyone else on the blue line.
Granted, considering the Habs’ luck so far this year in that regard (injuries to Douglas Murray, Davis Drewiske and Alexei Emelin), he very well may end up seeing time on the first pairing, but that’s a less-than-ideal scenario for everyone else but Pateryn, unfortunately.
Like Tinordi, Pateryn projects as a shutdown defenseman without much offensive ability. Of course, the comparison is not especially apt as Pateryn doesn’t have the same size advantage as Tinordi (6’2”, 222 lbs vs. 6’6”, 227 lbs), meaning he can’t get by on his shutdown ability alone.
To his credit, Pateryn has managed four points (two goals) through his first five games with the Bulldogs. There’s little to suggest he would be able to keep up that pace at the AHL level, let alone in the NHL, but there was also little to suggest Pateryn would make it as far as he has.
He could honestly be seen as the throw-in to the Mikhail Grabovski deal a few years back that saw the Habs also get a second-round pick (which went towards acquiring Robert Lang).
Perhaps that fits, though, seeing as Grabovski has always been underrated himself…admittedly to the point of being bought out of his contract by the Toronto Maple Leafs this past summer, but isn’t that the dream, folks? To get paid by the Leafs all the while getting the chance to make them pay on the scoreboard at the same time?
Pateryn may be an underdog destined for the Bulldogs. By the same token, though, while he is a long shot to earn a lengthy NHL career, stranger things have happened (Grabovski getting bought out so the Leafs could re-sign Tyler Bozak, for example).
Darren Dietz is 6’1”, 205 pounds, which just about says it all. He’s kind of hard to figure out, is what I mean. He’s got average size and that fits his two-way game, it would seem.
Some sources say he could end up in the ECHL, struggling to find ice time on a crowded Hamilton blue line. Meanwhile, he was one of the Habs’ final cuts out of training camp, and that honestly means just a little more.
Dietz seems to do everything adequately, which might seem all nice and good superficially speaking. However, when you’re trying to make a name for yourself you kind of want to stand out as much as possible.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he was the only Western Hockey League defenseman to score over 40 points and record over 100 penalty minutes this past season, according to Dobber Prospects.
Clearly a paradox wrapped up in a riddle, Dietz displayed keen prowess on the power play in junior but just as often ended up in the penalty box.
One of the biggest things Dietz has going for him is that the Habs are high on him. This is his first professional season, so it will go a long way to determining where he fits in as far as the Habs’ long-term plans are concerned.
At the very least, Magnus Nygren projects as a power-play specialist.
That’s not necessarily a guarantee he will make it. Considering he’s following a similar career path as Mark Streit, though, it’s a good sign.
Another overager selected by the Habs in the late rounds of an NHL draft, Nygren is slightly bigger than Streit (6’1”, vs. 5’11”; both are 191 pounds), which bodes even better for him.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, the 23-year-old Nygren was named the Swedish Elite League’s top defenseman last year, making him perhaps not just an overager but an overachiever as well. Needless to say, there are far worse things (and NHL defensive prospects) out there.
Like Streit, Nygren’s not exactly the most capable player in the defensive zone. One would think it would be a deal breaker, him being a defenseman and all. However, Streit’s current four-year, $20.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers proves there’s definitely demand for a player of that specific skill set (or Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren doesn’t know what he’s doing, which is quite possible too).
In addition to his aforementioned natural ability in the offensive zone, Nygren specifically possesses a huge shot. He’s also making huge strides in his defensive game as well.
Currently with the Hamilton Bulldogs in his first season in North America, Nygren was one of the last cuts at training camp this fall for good reason.
Tinordi brings a lot to the table, but that's mainly because he can likely carry a lot at once.
At 6’6”, 227 pounds, Tinordi is a big man with a penchant for doing physical harm to opponents, making him the heir apparent to the one-man hit machine that is Alexei Emelin, while the latter undergoes repairs to his knee.
For this reason and how he made the most of his call-up opportunities last year, Tinordi was able to take advantage of unforeseen injuries to Drewiske and Murray and stick with the Habs out of training camp, albeit temporarily.
He was sent down to the AHL this past Wednesday, evidencing the fact that, in the Habs’ eyes, he could use some more seasoning. While he was held pointless in six games this season, the demotion obviously had more to do with holes in his defensive game.
Tinordi will never be confused for an offensive-minded defenseman. That’s just not where his strength lies. He was drafted 22nd overall in 2010 to limit scoring chances, not create them. Ideally, in a perfect world, yes, Tinordi would score more often, but that’s not what the Habs expect from him.
He was sent down instead for his inconsistent play in his own end and for untimely indiscipline, exemplified by an interference call on Vancouver Canuck Jannik Hansen in the second period of the Habs’ 4-1 road win a few weeks ago.
Of course, that was the penalty that led to the infamous Lars Eller short-handed goal, but chances are good the Habs’ coaching staff would rather he stay out of the penalty box moving forward (excluding fighting majors, of course).
Tinordi’s main strength lies in his, well, strength. While him being sent down can be seen as a negative in regard to his long-term development, the fact of the matter is he needs to properly develop the non-God-given aspects to his game. He just can’t do that effectively getting bottom-pairing minutes in the NHL.
Arguably the team’s top prospect overall, Nathan Beaulieu currently finds himself playing for the Canadiens. An enviable combination of size and skill, the 6’2”, 194-pound Beaulieu admittedly may never outmuscle Tinordi, but he will outscore him.
In fact, he already has with one point in four games this season (compared to Tinordi's zero). And, in the end, while size is important, it’s just a means to an end. Scoring, and ultimately winning, is the actual end game.
While Beaulieu will rarely make huge gaffes in the defensive zone (at least that’s what he’s shown up to this point), he could stand to be more physical in his own zone. That physical immaturity should fade with time, though. It’s his emotional immaturity that is more of a major concern.
Charged with assault last April, Beaulieu has since pleaded guilty and was granted a conditional discharge, meaning he won’t be going to prison. That’s obviously good news for him and the Habs, but the incident is definitely cause enough to worry it may be the start of an underlying behavioral trend.
Beaulieu’s puck-moving and power-play quarterbacking skills are the reason the Habs drafted him 17th overall in 2011. As a rookie in the AHL, Beaulieu scored 31 points in 67 games. Those are admittedly far from elite numbers, but he was still named the Bulldogs’ most valuable player, indicating the presence of intangibles a stat line just can’t properly convey.
It’s obviously not guaranteed that Beaulieu finds the same kind of success in the NHL, but he’s being given a chance to at the moment, which is more than can be said of anyone else on this list. Their time will come. Beaulieu’s could very well be now.