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Aaron Palushaj scored his first NHL goal on Saturday night in the first period of the Montreal Canadiens game against the New York Islanders. While it was refreshing to see a player who has tried so hard finally achieve some success at the NHL level it also brought up a question. Is Aaron Palushaj worth keeping around or should the Canadiens part ways with the 4th line winger? He becomes an RFA at the end of the season and it becomes decision time as to whether the organization want to keep him or not. At 22 years of age he still certainly has time to develop. But how much more time should be given to letting him develop? Even if he does develop will he even turn into a top 6 forward or has he become an expendable resource for the Montreal Canadiens?
So should the Canadiens bother keeping Palushaj around? At right wing, and after scoring his first goal on Saturday his NHL totals now lie at 32 games played with 1 goal and 2 assists for 3 points. Consider the fact that Ryan White has 10 points in 59 NHL games, and scoring certainly isn't all that White provides. However, Palushaj has had decent numbers everywhere else. His best season with the University of Michigan saw him score 13 goals and record 50 points in 39 games. In his AHL career, with the Hamilton Bulldogs and Peoria Rivermen, Palushaj has put up solid numbers. Plus those numbers appear to be increasing. When he hasn't been playing with the Canadiens this season he has put up 13 goals and 31 points in 31 AHL games. He can produce, but can he do it at the NHL level?
Part of the problem with Palushaj is that he gets limited ice time therefore his chances of putting up points are limited. If he can manage to get more ice time, and ice time with better teammates than he will have a better opportunity to showcase his ability at this level. The problem is who are the Habs going to sacrifice to allow Palushaj to get that opportunity. It could be injury of course. But injury probably won't happen when the players have nothing left to play for, minus those who are in competition for a contract. So it is more than likely that Palushaj will never see that playing time with higher quality players than the ones he is currently with. He probably won't see an increase in playing time either.
But while he hasn't been getting the playing time he also hasn't done much with the minutes he has been getting. Sadly it is a rare occasion when it appears Palushaj should have a spot on this team over some of the players he is competing with. Ryan White is more physical than Palushaj, and while it isn't his forte he has produced more in his time in the NHL. Louis Leblanc is far more talented than Palushaj at the NHL level and his stats so far have demonstrated that. Meanwhile, the Canadiens have plenty of noteworthy young prospects waiting in the wings. This includes Brendan Gallagher, Danny Kristo and Alexander Avtsin (whose stock has certainly dropped). Currently Palushaj is competing for a job with Gionta (injured), Pacioretty, White and Blunden. With Gallagher and Kristo possibly added into the race it seems difficult to see Palushaj getting a spot on the roster, and is he worth keeping around Hamilton if they have other young players who need AHL development?
When Palushaj has been in the NHL this season he has certainly looked out of place. So far the game seems to move a bit quick for him and he certainly isn't physically dominant. Although it can be said that a summer of hard training can change the physical aspect. Also he isn't the most exciting player. He doesn't have the dynamic or the creativity in his game that a player like Leblanc does. Very few times this season have I found myself at all impressed with a play or anything Palushaj has been able to bring to this team on the ice. However, I haven't found him to be incredibly detrimental to the team either. He works very hard (which he has to considering it is a contract year) and is far more trustworthy on the ice than several other Canadiens players. That might be expected, however, considering his limited playing time.
What are the positives in keeping Palushaj? There are some of those as well. It isn't like he is an expensive player. If the Canadiens try to resign him it will probably be in the $650,000 to $750,000 range at best. Palushaj certainly hasn't proven himself to be worth much more with this team or any other who might want to show him an offer sheet during the off season. Furthermore, like I said above, Palushaj is only 22 and still has time to develop into the top 6 forward that he was at some points projected to be. There are plenty of examples of players like him in the Canadiens system and there have been some definitive hits and misses over the years. In the miss column you look at players like Kyle Chipchura and Ben Maxwell. Montreal may have held on to these players too long and neither of them have gone on to be very productive. Maxwell is the same age as Palushaj and, while playing currently in the Winnipeg Jets system, has the exact same point totals as Palushaj except he has played 10 more NHL games. Maxwell also didn't take the Collegiate route and therefore has had more time to develop himself in the professional system. He also doesn't have near as impressive AHL stats as Palushaj. Meanwhile, Kyle Chipchura, the former Captain of the Hamilton Bulldogs, is currently plying his trade in the Phoenix Coyotes system. At least Chipchura has been able to get some NHL experience at age 25. But while he has played 210 NHL games he has only registered 12 goals and 43 points.
As for the hits? Well how Max Pacioretty. Many forget that the same question was asked about the current Canadiens leading scorer before the 2010-11 NHL season. Pacioretty did have more points at that stage than Palushaj, 22 over two seasons in fact, but he did have the advantage of playing more than twice as many games. The next season, however, Pacioretty answered all his detractors when he scored 14 goals and had 24 points with the Montreal Canadiens before being sidelined by the Chara hit. This season he has built on those totals even more scoring 30 goals and 58 points. Another player who could be put into that same boat is the man who the Habs dealt to acquire Palushaj in the first place, Matt D'Agostini. Before the Canadiens dealt D'Agostini the fringe NHL forward had 26 points with Montreal, again playing more than twice as many games as Palushaj. After the Canadiens dealt him D'Agostini caught fire putting up 46 points and 21 goals with the Blues.
My conclusion is that we need to give Palushaj more time before the Canadiens organization can make a definite move. Signing him for one more year at around $650,000 and then seeing what he can do is a good idea considering the success of some of his predecessors. Will Palushaj turn into a Pacioretty or a Chipchura? Only time will tell. But for now let's not jump to any conclusions before he gets more time to prove himself at the NHL level.