Montreal Canadiens: Mitchell Stephens Impresses In Habs Debut

MONTREAL, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 25: Mitchell Stephens #13 of the Montreal Canadiens prepares to take a faceoff during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre on September 25, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The New Jersey Devils defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 25: Mitchell Stephens #13 of the Montreal Canadiens prepares to take a faceoff during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre on September 25, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The New Jersey Devils defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of the December portion of the schedule, and Mitchell Stephens made his debut on Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

In most cases, the Canadiens would be fine with four natural centers in the NHL, but another soldier has fallen to the injury bug. With Alex Newhook out for 10-12 weeks with a high ankle sprain, the Habs used a call-up. Stephens is their man, and he assumed the fourth-line centre role, with Evans moving up to the third line.

With the Canadiens wanting to be patient with their top prospects, and Stephens playing well in Laval, it was an easy choice. Rushing Joshua Roy would make little sense, he is learning and adjusting to professional hockey. Stephens is a bit older, but he has some great tools and should fit in nicely.

Who is Mitchell Stephens?

The Canadiens signed the Peterborough, Ont native who was a free agent on July 13, 2022. After scoring 20 goals during his debut season with the Laval Rocket, the Canadiens signed him to an extension. Stephens signed the one-year two-way deal on July 10, 2023, and so far this season, the 26-year-old has been solid for the Rocket.

Stephens has excelled in the faceoff dot especially, and his presence as a guy who is a little bit older meshes well with the younger guys. He was a high pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, in the second round 33rd overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

An AHL all-star in 2018, Stephens had to fight for every minute of ice time he’s earned. After signing his three-year entry-level deal with the Lightning, he joined the Syracuse Crunch in 2017-18.

He then bounced around between Syracuse and Tampa Bay, making his NHL debut on December 9, 2019, against the New York Islanders. Tampa traded him to the Detroit Red Wings on July 30, 2021, in exchange for a 2022 sixth-round pick. Stephens scored six points in 27 games but was sidelined for five months with a lower-body injury.

The Habs swooped in and signed him, and since he has been exactly the kind of player the Rocket could use. His call-up and Habs debut weren’t very surprising, as he has been one of the Rocket’s best players all season. The combination of size and speed is impressive, and the faceoff prowess is welcome on a young Canadiens roster.

Don’t expect him to score any hat tricks, but it’s nice to see all his hard work in the minors earn him an opportunity with the Canadiens.

Habs Debut Against Former Team

As would have it in sports, coincidences seem to have a funny way of occurring. Stephens Habs debut against his former club – the Red Wings – just feels right. He gets to be the fourth-line pivot, and slot in between Joel Armia and Jesse Ylonen.

Sporting number 13, Stephens had a good first shift, he moved his feet well and challenged the Red Wings on the forecheck. My overall impression of his game is a solid one, he made smart plays with the puck and supported his wingers well. Away from the puck, he had far fewer negative plays than positive, which is all you can ask for from your fourth-line centre.

Stephens has all the tools to stay on the Habs, and much like Jayden Struble, he could force the team to keep him in the lineup. Not just to keep the seat warm, he will be the fourth-line centre, much like Struble could assert himself as one of the Canadiens top three left-shot defenders.

Number 13 can be found positioned well, always using his speed to create, disrupt and defend. It appears that some offence could emerge, not elite, but useful alongside linemates who can complement his strengths. Ylonen is certainly a very intriguing linemate for Stephens, simply because the two can blow past defenders, and Stephens is a strong passer, Armia can create space for the line.

Stephens makes simple plays, which is why he is effective, while he is methodical he doesn’t overcomplicate things in the offensive zone. He made a great decision to fire a shot into Ville Husso’s pads. This resulted in an offensive zone faceoff, which Evans won, and the Canadiens retained the puck.

He sent Ylonen in on a partial break, and his play along the boards is a disruptor for the Red Wings breakout. Stephens created a turnover and made a smart, well-placed pass to a wide-open Ylonen. Before that, he made a great decision to throw a hit, in an attempt to sustain offensive zone pressure.

While the Habs could use a goal, or two or three, Stephens is an unlikely source, but that hasn’t deterred him from shooting the puck. Stephens has played strong through the first 40 minutes of the game. Unfortunately for him, the Habs are down by two goals, but he has been a positive presence for the Canadiens.

St. Louis had enough, and swapped some parts around, Stephens found himself with Josh Anderson and Ylonen to start the third period. The trio almost scored, with Anderson running out of space, but they did draw a powerplay. Nick Suzuki potted his seventh goal of the season on the power play, snapping a 10-game goal-scoring drought, and drawing the Habs within one goal of the Red Wings with more than three-quarters of the third to play.

If the Canadiens are focusing on dressing the 12 best forwards every night, Stephens has done a great job against the Red Wings. I like his game, and I can see a fit on the fourth line, with a third-line center upside. He is a smart passer, and his speed makes a difference, losing Newhook hurts, but having Stephens’ quickness in the lineup. He deserves another game.

In front of the net, he is trying to tip pucks, and forcing the goalie to battle for his saves. I can’t find a single negative, and the entire team has battled just like him. Stephens made plenty of positive plays.

In a losing effort, the Canadiens battled back from a three-goal deficit and Stephens played a very imperssive game.

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