The Montreal Canadiens are in the enviable position of being defending Northeast Division champions after using young players in key situations.
Forwards Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Kyle Chipchura, Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse are all 25 or under, as are goalies Carey Price, 20, and Jaroslav Halak, 23.
It's on defense that the Canadiens are showing a little age. Josh Gorges is 23 and Ryan O'Byrne, who played 33 games last season, is 24. But Roman Hamrlik is 34, and Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault are both 32. Andre Markov is 29. Mike Komisarek is 26, and free-agent swingman Alex Henry is 28.
The good news is the Canadiens have five defensive prospects waiting in the wings with very good chances at becoming NHL players. Ryan McDonagh, Mathieu Carle, David Fischer, P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber all give every appearance that they will be able to suit up in the NHL.
Director of Player Recruitment and Development Trevor Timmins shares his thoughts on the Montreal Canadiens prospects.
Jaroslav Halak -- Halak is a very determined and skilled goalie who made the needed move from his native Slovakia to play in Canadian junior. He played very well for Lewiston in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2004-05, posting a 24-17-4 record with a 2.78 goals-against average. He split the next season between the ECHL and American Hockey League and continued to do well. Halak was leading the AHL in 2006-07 with a 2.00 GAA when he was called up to the Canadiens and went 10-6 with a 2.89 GAA. Halak became the first Canadiens' rookie goalie to win his first eight home games.
Halak returned to the minors last season and went 15-10-2 with a 2.10 GAA before he was called up to the Canadiens to be Price's backup after Cristobal Huet was traded to the Washington Capitals. Halak had a 2-1-1 record and 2.11 GAA. He played two games in the playoffs.
"Halak is slotted as the backup to Carey Price on the Canadiens," Timmins said. "Whenever he played at the AHL level, he has been one of the top goalies in that league the last two seasons. He has shown he can carry our big team. Halak helped us make a strong push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs two years ago. Last year, he showed again he can do it. We look forward to him continuing to push Carey Price."
Ryan McDonagh -- McDonagh has more than a little bit of pressure awaiting him in Montreal, where the fans wanted the team to draft center Angelo Esposito with the No. 12 pick in 2007, but the Canadiens took the Minnesota defenseman instead. McDonagh, voted Minnesota's “Mr. Hockey" after leading Cretin-Derham High School to a state championship, had a fine freshman season at Wisconsin, scoring 5 goals and adding 7 assists in 40 games while going plus-7.
McDonagh was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team. He's a 6-foot-1, 204-pound, left-handed shooter with great skating skills. He has a quick first step and a fast top speed and is well-balanced on his skates. He makes good passes and is tough along the boards. Rushing the puck is one of his strengths.
"Ryan played this past year as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and had a good development season," Timmins said. "He got good coaching from head coach Mike Eaves and his assistant, Mark Osiecki. He played on the power play as a freshman. He'll return to Wisconsin for this coming season and, hopefully, he'll continue where he left off. We're hoping for him to be a top-two guy on their defense and a go-to guy on the team. He's also going to the United States World Junior Team development camp at Lake Placid. We have hopes he'll play on the U.S. World Junior Team in December.
"Development-wise, Ryan is right on schedule. He is physically close to being ready to play in the NHL. He just needs more seasoning and he needs to get more defensive coaching over the next season before having that chance to turn pro."
David Fischer -- There's no question the Canadiens thought more of Fischer than NHL's Central Scouting Service. Fischer was the No. 29-ranked North American skater in 2006. Throw in a couple of European skaters, a couple of goalies from North America and/or Europe, and Fischer figured to go somewhere between Nos. 35-40. Instead, the Canadiens took the 2006 Minnesota “Mr. Hockey" with the No. 20 selection. He hasn't disappointed.
Fischer has continued to grow since his draft day and is now 6-foot-4 and 192 pounds. He's a terrific skater with great passing skills and has a reputation for making teammates better. Since leading Apple Valley High School to the state final, Fischer has played two seasons for Minnesota. He has two goals and 17 assists in 87 Golden Gophers games.
"Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, David was a go-to guy for offense when he was in high school," Timmins said. "His defensive game needed some attention when he got to the University of Minnesota. His defensive game is being better refined. He had some setbacks last year. He had his tonsils removed just before training camp and he lost 15 pounds, which set him back. He wasn't strong out of the blocks in the first half of the season."
"We're looking for him to make the team and make more of a contribution this year. What's interesting about Subban is he produces his best hockey at playoff time. We hope he can continue that trend."
-- Trevor Timmins on P.K. Subban
He helped Belleville reach the Memorial Cup this past spring and became the Bulls' all-time leading scorer in the playoffs among defenseman with 13 goals and 23 assists in 39 games. Subban represented Canada in the World Junior Championship and was held without a point in seven games.
"P.K. has another year of eligibility with Belleville," Timmins said. "He's a key guy on their power play and he's tough to play against. Subban has more than exceeded expectations to date. He was on Belleville's top defensive pairing. He's got a tremendous shot from the point, which they use on their power play.
"He attended the Canadian World Junior Team camp in Ottawa in July. He was a member of the gold-medal team last year as a seventh defenseman. We're looking for him to make the team and make more of a contribution this year. What's interesting about Subban is he produces his best hockey at playoff time. We hope he can continue that trend."
Yannick Weber -- New Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer coached Weber with the Kitchener Rangers and said that he is the best defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League. Weber finished second among OHL defensemen with 20 goals and added 35 assists in 59 games last season. He has 33 goals and 63 assists in 110 OHL games during two seasons.
Weber's 99.2-mph slap shot won the OHL's skills competition and he was named to the Second All-Star Team. He is a power-play threat with good scoring instincts. He still needs work on his defensive responsibilities, but seems to be progressing nicely. He's another Swiss-born player who saw the wisdom in playing Canadian juniors.
"I don't want to toot his horn too much, but Yannick had a great season last year," Timmins said. "He was a big part of why Kitchener went so far, winning the OHL regular-season and playoff championships and playing in the Memorial Cup Final. He was OHL Second Team All-Star and when he was out of the lineup with an ankle injury, you could tell that they missed him. He really helps the transition game, which is important the way hockey is played today. He can really get the puck up to the forwards quickly.
"Yannick is solid defensively. He's a really strong technical skater, which allows him to log a lot of minutes, 30-plus per game. That was especially important when they had a lot of injuries. Yannick definitely made progress last year. He took on more of a leadership role and was a go-to-guy from the back end in Kitchener."
Mathieu Carle -- Carle proved in four seasons that he was a top junior offensive defenseman. In his first 3 1/2 seasons in the QMJHL, Carle was an offensive leader for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. He was then traded to the more defensive-minded team in Rouyn-Noranda for his last 25 junior games. He did well last year in his first AHL season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, posting seven goals and 17 assists in 64 games. He registered 43 penalty minutes and was minus-6.
Carle showed more defensive awareness there, but still has work to do. Scouts say he can be a better defensive player when he focuses. Carle is a good skater who needs to work on first-step quickness. He sees the ice very well and makes good outlet passes. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Carle has terrific lower-body strength and is working on his upper-body development.
"Mathieu has the experience of playing for a year in Hamilton," Timmins said. "He played a half game for us in the preseason and was doing well until he got injured. As a result, he started his AHL season injured. We look forward to his continued development. He has developed a lot in this offseason.
"Mathieu has a solid point shot and his skating has come a long way. We're looking forward to him contributing on offense and being a strong power-play contributor in Hamilton from the beginning of the season. Mathieu sees the ice really well. He's like Weber in that his strength is the transition game, moving the puck up to the forwards."
Ben Maxwell -- The Canadiens signed Maxwell to a three-year deal in March after he posted 160 points (64 goals, 94 assists) in 210 games in five seasons with the WHL's Kootenay Ice. He is an excellent scorer with top-notch defensive skills. He played against the opponent's strongest center in almost every game. On power plays, Maxwell's coach alternated between using him at the point or for the front-of-the-goal scorer.
"He's a smart, play-making center. At every level, coaches have utilized him in every situation. He's a very smart player, a heady player with good vision. His skating is effortless. He looks like he is not working but he actually is."
-- Trevor Timmins on Ben Maxwell
"Ben has had setbacks in each of the past two seasons," Timmins said. "He had elbow surgery two years ago and a charley horse in training camp last year that calcified and he ended up missing most of the season. We're still excited about him. He's a smart, play-making center. At every level, coaches have utilized him in every situation. He's a very smart player, a heady player with good vision. His skating is effortless. He looks like he is not working but he actually is."
Brock Trotter -- Trotter, 21, is an interesting pickup and a player whose size and ability to rebound from serious injury was questioned by teams and scouts when he went undrafted in 2005 and 2006. He was a star for the Dauphin Kings of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and then had a strong 2004-05 season for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. That got him into the University of Denver, where he played only five games his freshman season after severing his Achilles tendon in a game against North Dakota.
Trotter had 16 goals and 40 points in 40 games for Denver as a sophomore and moved into a leadership role last year. But after posting a team-high 13 goals and 31 points in 24 games, he left the Pioneers for reasons never explained. He first tried to return to Lincoln, then signed with Montreal and was assigned to Hamilton, where he had three goals and nine points in 21 games.
"Brock was a free agent who has really come along," Timmins said. "He was one of the most improved players at development camp. He has added some size and strength and has bettered his shot. Like Ben Maxwell, Brock is a smart play-maker. He's also a good person who comes from a good family. Brock was on our draft list and our scout visited his family before the draft. We knew the player and the person. When he indicated he was coming out of college and turning pro, we were Johnny-On-The-Spot."
Max Pacioretty -- Pacioretty had 21 goals and 42 assists and was plus-20 for the Sioux City Musketeers and played in the 2007 USHL All-Star Game as a rookie before the Canadiens took him with the No. 22 selection in 2007. He only enhanced his status this past season when he was voted the CCHA rookie of the year after scoring 15 goals and adding 24 assists in 37 games for Michigan. He was also plus-31 and was voted to the CCHA All-Rookie Team.
Pacioretty continued to grow and is now listed at 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds. He was the last of the Wolverines' freshmen to score, but wound up leading all league rookies in scoring. Pacioretty had a minor knee injury that affected him around the time of the World Juniors and then suffered a shoulder injury when he returned. But he finished very strongly in the regular season and had a good playoff.
"We just signed Max after he had a tremendous season playing on the top line at the University of Michigan," Timmins said. "The only downside was he had an injury that kept him from performing at the top of his game in the World Juniors. Physically, he is definitely ready. He has a tremendous shot and really good size and strength. He likes to play physical. He's very smart, hockey-wise. Put those things together and you have the makings of a prototypical power winger."
Matt D'Agostini -- One scouting report on D'Agostini describes him as a player who doesn't excel in any one area, but is competent in all areas of the game. Another considers him a very good skater and hails his on-ice vision. He's clearly a player who is trying to make a difference. If there is a weakness, it's that he can be a streaky scorer. But he does perform well when the stakes are higher.
D'Agostini is solidly built at 6-foot, 201 pounds and can play a rugged game, as evidenced by his 81 penalty minutes in his final season with the OHL Guelph Storm. D'Agostini led all Hamilton rookies in scoring with 21 goals and 28 assists during the 2006-07 regular season and followed up with four goals and nine assists as the Bulldogs captured the Calder Cup.
He was Hamilton's second-leading scorer last season with 23 goals in 76 games and was called up for one game with the Canadiens, in which he played a little more than eight minutes.
"Two seasons ago, he was a freshman in Hamilton and was a really strong contributor to us winning the Calder Cup," Timmins said. "The support around him was not as strong last season and he didn't have as good a year. We are looking for him to rebound and really lead the Hamilton team this season while pushing for a job in Montreal.
"Matt is a goal scorer. He's a deceptive skater who has a knack for the net. He needs to improve his play without the puck and continue to become more consistent. He's really strong along the wall and down low. Matt protects the puck well. He's not a gritty, hard-nosed winger. He's more of a finesse kind of player."