Skip to content
CMJ: An important tournament for four Habs hopefuls (and for the organization)
So here we are, on the eve of CMJ 2024, always a great time of year for hockey fans!

The Habs, with their many first-round picks in recent years, will once again be well-represented at this event, with four top prospects.

At least three of them will be playing important roles for their respective nations, and the fourth could cause a bit of a shock if he’s ever given the nod…

With all due respect, let’s begin our analysis with the man who ranked 2nd in our latest list of the organization’s most important prospects: Lane Huston.

Lane Huston, D | USA

Since the start of the NCAA campaign, Hutson has continued to terrorize opposing defenses with his uncommon creativity. Displaying unwavering confidence in possession of the puck, the man who will serve as the Americans’ assistant-captain regularly pulls off Houdini-like plays that only a handful of NHL defensemen can dream of, and you know which ones…

Seen from here, Hutson is literally one of the true avant-gardists in his position. Expectations are that he’ll make the tournament’s first all-star team.

However, it’s a little less easy defensively this season at BU on the first pair, when, unlike last year on a second pair, he’s playing more often than not against the opposition’s top players. So, after his impressive +25 differential in 39 games in 2022-2023, Hutson currently finds himself slightly in the negative at -3, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against the big trios of the other countries, as he should be his team’s most-used defenseman.

Defensively, will he be able to show us that his backward skating is no longer a problem? Will he be able to compensate for his modest size with good positioning and exemplary use of his stick? Despite a fine performance overall, this was not always the case at the last senior world championships last spring…

But let’s not forget that for every little mistake Hutson makes, he makes 7-8 excellent plays, like this one in the warm-up match against Sweden. Imagine Slafkovsky in Cutter Gauthier’s place in the right circle…

Without drawing any big conclusions, for the Tricolore, a dazzling competition and a big end to the season from its late 2nd-round pick in 2022 will only strengthen the desire to see him end up in Montreal before the end of the season. And who knows where the Habs will end up in the standings by then… If not, Hutson should still come to Montreal, but that could have some impact on the amount that ends up on his entry-level contract…

While we’re on the subject of the Americans, let’s continue with another of the Flanelle’s top prospects, goaltender Jacob Fowler, 12th on our list.

Jacob Fowler, G | USA

Fowler is simply dominant in his first NCAA season and is already receiving praise from his coach, who is impressed by his exceptional mental strength. Both Fowler and Trey Augustine are expected to see action early in the tournament, and a decision will eventually have to be made as to who gets the net for the medal round. With the Americans seen as favourites to win it all, the pressure will be on…

Fans of this winter classic will also remember the excellent performances of Cayden Primeau, a goaltender who made a major contribution to the Americans’ silver medal win in 2019. However, as we’ve seen with Primeau and many other young goalkeepers over the years, a sparkling performance at the CMJ doesn’t guarantee an exceptional career in the pros, let alone an early start in the NHL.

In short, even if Fowler seems to be “going strong”, impressing everyone with his talent and general attitude, and we can certainly hope realistically that he’ll be the Tricolore’s future starting goaltender in his mid-twenties, we still have to be a little uncomfortable about the value of goaltending performances at CMJ. Similarly, we’d also have to take it with a grain of salt if it were Augustine, a “veteran” of the 2023 edition, who were to get the pole for the USA and Fowler saw virtually no action.

That said, it’s worth noting that because of his age – Fowler is a late bloomer born on November 24 – the Habs prospect won’t be able to return to the tournament next year, as he’ll already be 20.

Filip Mesar, C/A | Slovakia

In terms of individual skills, Filip Mesar is a good, if not excellent, hockey player. He’s just not very advanced in terms of his physical maturity and still needs to progress tactically in a style more suited to North American surfaces. To understand Mesar’s development, think of Arturri Lehkonen or Jesse Ylonen at the same age, who didn’t reach the NHL until they were 22.

After doing very well in the Maritimes last year during the 2023 edition, it will be interesting to see what Mesar looks like when he returns to the big European surfaces in Sweden, where his natural qualities could stand out even more. Slovakia will present a talented and experienced line-up, and Mesar could very well look the part.

An excellent skater with soft hands, a quick, powerful shot and great vision, he should form one of the best “duos” of the tournament in the company of Dalibor Dvorsky. This St. Louis Blues prospect, snubbed until the 10th spot in the last NHL draft, is dominating this season in Sudbury alongside Quentin Musty (selected 26th by the Sharks) and David Goyette (2022, 62nd, Seattle).

Mesar, 14th in our last count, has no guaranteed future with the Tricolore, and no one feels he’s ahead of his time, starting with Jean-François Houle in Laval… This competition doesn’t guarantee anything, but to complement his solid performances in Kitchener, the Slovak has every interest in having a good tournament in order to remain relevant in the minds of management and consolidate, if not improve, his place in the Montreal hierarchy.

While there is a world in which Mesar would be part of the Habs’ line-up, say, somewhere around 2025-2026, there are also a few galaxies in which he’s already been off the radar for some time…

It’s up to him.

Owen Beck, C | Canada

Canada can never be ruled out as a favorite at this tournament, and 2024 will be no exception. But it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get past the Americans. The Hockey News lists the Americans as 2-to-1 favorites and Canada as 4-to-1 runner-up.

The country of the maple leaf will be fielding a fairly young squad, and 19-year-old Owen Beck, the only “veteran” of the victorious 2023 edition, could be of great help in this respect. Note that, at the time of writing, we had still not identified the players who will act as captains and assistant-captains of the squad.

The Ontarian, expected to play as a 4th-row center, won’t necessarily be spearheading Canada’s offense, but he’ll probably be involved in all the perilous and tense situations, whether it’s regularly facing the opposition’s best players, winning a crucial face-off, protecting a lead, playing in a numerical disadvantage, and so on. He’s already looking pretty dominant in the warm-up game, with his two goals against Switzerland.

Here’s his first, where he finds open space in the opponent’s zone:

And his second, at the end of a superb short-handed sequence:

Beck’s contribution, ranked 5th in our in-house countdown of Montreal hopefuls, could be a little like that of Kyle Chipchura in 2006, who also played in a fairly young and more or less talented line-up. Chipchura captained his team, and Canada, who were not the favourites that year, still managed to win gold in Vancouver.

Beck’s negative record (-2) in Peterborough this season should not be overestimated either. After a Memorial Cup appearance – impossible without the Beck deal – the Petes aren’t the same club at all this season, having lost a number of veterans, many of whom were drafted by NHL clubs. One wonders whether Beck won’t once again be traded to the OHL in the coming weeks, asthe Petes are barely playing for .500

An even closer look at Hutson and Beck

While there’s no rush for Mesar and Fowler, the Habs will be keeping a closer eye on Huston and Beck, who are already knocking on the NHL door.

Mike Matheson’s prowess and the low probability of him being traded soon will allow an offensive defenseman like Hutson to gradually make his way to the Tricolore blue line. But the American’s play during this competition and for the rest of his season at BU could help accelerate or consolidate the decisions Hughes and Gorton will have to make regarding their defensive brigade in the coming months.

As for Beck, with Monahan, Evans and Dvorak all with less than 2 years left on their respective contracts – we’re talking a few months for Monahan – a tournament that lived up to expectations, where he clearly showed himself to be one of the most intelligent and complete forwards in the competition, would provide him with some arguments for next fall. That and another successful end to the OHL season…

Enjoy the tournament, everyone!

We’ll be back after the WJC to take stock of the performances of these same hopefuls, and to say a few words about the other youngsters who wowed us along the way!

More Content