Canadiens fans who don’t follow the activities of the Laval Rocket probably didn’t know much about Mitchell Stephens a few weeks ago.
He has already been linked to the organization for a year and a half. However, even though a total of 25 forwards played at least one game with the big club last year and Stephens had a two-way NHL contract, he was never recalled to Montreal.
In relative anonymity, he signed a new contract last July and took part in fall training camp. But with six skaters identified as center players in the Montreal squad, the chances of seeing Stephens in the NHL seemed very slim.
However, life being what it is, the 26-year-old Ontarian has already played 15 games in the blue-white-red jersey this season. And now that we know that Christian Dvorak will no longer skate in 2023-2024, Stephens is virtually guaranteed to play the majority, if not all, of the last 44 games on the schedule. If he remains healthy, of course.
We will recognize that Mitchell Stephens is not the reincarnation of Patrice Bergeron. If, at his age, he played 219 games in the American League compared to only 87 in the NHL, it is no coincidence. But if it was he who was called upon when the center players began to fall one after the other, it was not by chance either.
In Laval, he stood out for his reliability both offensively and defensively. The Rocket mourned their loss at the dawn of the playoffs last spring. In the fall, within a resolutely rejuvenated squad, he was made assistant to Captain Gabriel Bourque.
Jayden Struble, who is playing his first professional season, has worked with Stephens in Laval and then in Montreal since the beginning of October.
“We needed older players to keep things under control,” the defender testified on Friday morning after CH training. He helped me a lot. »
“Guys like him, Alex Belzile or Gabriel Bourque made life easy for the younger guys last year,” added Jesse Ylönen. We could watch them go and be inspired by them. [Stephens], he’s a guy who can do anything. Every team needs players like him. »
The example of Belzile is particularly eloquent, to the extent that Stephens currently plays a role similar to that which the Quebecer fulfilled last season. That of the reliable support center player, called upon to accomplish essentially defensive missions, both at equal strength and shorthanded. The current number 13 of the Habs is also very effective in the faceoff circle, where he has a success rate of 58.6%.
Like Belzile last year, although he does not have a long track record in the NHL, he shows that he has seen others; consequently, it allows its coaches to deploy their energies elsewhere.
“It allows us not to accelerate [the development] of a young person who is not ready,” admitted Martin St-Louis on Friday. Flannel, in fact, is not full of options at the center in its development system. In Laval, Riley Kidney is mainly employed on the wing. It’s hard to think Jan Mysak will get a chance in the NHL in the short to medium term. Owen Beck and Filip Mesar are still in the junior ranks.
Stephens amusingly appears to be the most qualified replacement. Martin St-Louis is enjoying his “competition level and details” so far. “He is very committed physically and mentally,” continued the coach. He shows that he is capable of helping us maintain our rhythm, of taking a chair and playing that role. »
Not very talkative by nature, the main party prefers to approach the situation with a grain of salt. In his responses, we sense the experience of someone who has learned to manage his expectations.
Although his mandate in Montreal is much less focused on attack than in Laval, he believes that his game “doesn’t really change”.
“I play 200 feet and I bring as much energy as possible,” he summarized. My state of mind remains the same. I want to do what I know how to do and use my attributes. »
He knows that sometimes things change very quickly. The returns to play of Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Tanner Pearson, within two to three weeks, could cause a surplus of personnel. Neither plays center, but both are well positioned in the offensive flowchart.
Will Mitchell Stephens pay the price? Maybe. Maybe not. In fact, he doesn’t worry about it. He benefits from every game that adds to his record… and he pockets an NHL salary, which is not the least of the advantages.
He therefore tries to make the work as honest as possible. In silence, without making waves. One day at a time.