Monday, February 6, 2012

What to do with Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist

Entering training camp this September, forwards Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist were considered two of the Montreal Canadiens' most NHL-ready prospects.

Palushaj, 22, was coming off a big AHL season where he scored 57 points in 68 regular season games before adding 19 in 19 playoff contests, and also playing his first 3 NHL games with the Canadiens.

Engqvist, then 23 (turned 24 in December), had just finished his AHL rookie season after four full years in the men's Sweidsh Elite League. His point production was meager, with 25 in the regular season and 9 more in the post-season, but like Palushaj he also got a 3 game NHL audition, mostly for his strong defensive two-way play. He quickly became the Bulldogs' top shutdown center.

And yet, neither blew anyone out of the water in training camp. Palushaj was a mainly one-dimensional scorer whose scoring tough has yet to translate to the NHL level, while Engqvist struggled to use his big frame effectively when playing against top competition. Though there have been multiple opportunities throughout the season for them to outplay others to earn ice time thanks to various injuries, they have failed to take advantage of the chances, meaning they've become frequent flyers between Hamilton and Montreal. In fact, prior to yesterday afternoon's game against the Winnipeg Jets, the pair had combined for 26 NHL games played this season with both still searching for their first NHL point.

Now I have no problem letting young players take their time to develop. All players develop differently and on their own timetable; Palushaj and Engqvist have both shown on various stages that there is talent there which may emerge. The problem, however, is that the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement - barring any changes to these clauses when it is renegotiated this summer - does not provide unlimited time.

Both Palushaj and Engqvist will become restricted free agents on July 1st. This isn't a problem in the sense that neither will have elevated salary demands, remaining unproven quantities. The bigger issue is that both will be waiver eligible in 2012-13. This means that they cannot play for the Hamilton Bulldogs next season without being offered around the league for no return. Thus, sometime between now and then, the Canadiens will need to make calls on both young men. Are they good enough to be on next year's pro roster? If the answer is no, options - different in both cases - must be considered.

For Engqvist, one "concern" is that without having been able to establish himself in the National League, he decides to return to Europe to play in the SEL or KHL. Engqvist, 6'4" and 199 lbs, was signed as a free agent out of Europe, so he was a no-risk, potential reward gamble. All the Canadiens would lose is the salary paid to him over his current contract. However, Engqvist has established himself as a top American League player this season, scoring 15 goals and 27 points in 31 games. With a strong incoming class of young talent to Hamilton next season, Engqvist could be a good "veteran" to help the new kids make the transition to the pro ranks. Thus, I would hope that Engqvist is willing to sign a new two-way deal to remain in the organization. As an unproven fourth liner, he has no trade value around the league, but may at this stage be able to pass through waivers unclaimed - at least it could be worth a shot!

Palushaj is a little different, being two years younger and thus perceived as still having more potential for development. A 2nd round pick in 2007, he was acquired from the St. Louis Blues in return for Matt D'Agostini, and likely still has some trade value (equal to a similar prospect or mid-round selection). Sending him down to Hamilton, then, is not a real option as he would very likely be plucked off waivers to have a shot with another organization. Given that the playoffs are an impossibility for the Habs this season, the best way to handle Palushaj would be to give him a real audition down the stretch. Try him in all situations, give him opportunities to succeed with quality linemates, and see how he performs. The team must evaluate whether he can be trusted with even a "13th forward" role next season. In his most recent current call-up, he delivered a reasonable effort in a loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday, but yesterday played what is likely his best NHL game to date, recording his first career point with an assist on Max Pacioretty's first period tally. His 12:23 of ice time was his second highest this season after a November game against Phoenix, which was the only other time he exceeded 10 minutes in a night. Let Palushaj play. There is nothing at all to lose at this point, and with more ice, you may discover an asset you didn't realize you still had. Still, at 5'11" and 187 lbs, Palushaj is not the answer to making the team bigger up front, and thus it isn't inconceivable that he be packaged for an asset the team sees as a better fit.

If the Canadiens do enter a full seller mode by the deadline as they should, both Engqvist and Palushaj are likely to finish the season in Montreal to fill in for traded bodies. Though their play could still change plans one way or another, it may ironically be the Canadiens trying to convince the lower-potential Engqvist to remain with the organization, while it's the higher-potential Palushaj who has to prove himself to the Habs to remain in the NHL.

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