It’s finally here. In what’s been a strange year in hockey, our annual Top 25 Under 25 series gets underway four months later than usual. We kick things off, as is only reasonable, at number 25:
25. Maxime Lajoie (Reader Rank: 25, Last Year: 17)
Max Lajoie just barely hangs onto a spot in our annual countdown, with his handful of impressive NHL games counterbalanced by a pro resume that’s a bit lacklustre overall. Just 20 days ago, Shaan wrote a great piece outlining ways in which Lajoie’s development may have been mishandled. I don’t want to go over the same points, but I think it’s fair to say that Lajoie is nearing a point at which he will either have to really impress, or will have to make it as a pro with another organization.
Lajoie is a 6’1”, 196-lb defenceman, who entered the 2016 draft fairly unheralded. The Sens snagged him with a 5th-round pick, 133rd overall. He was described as a two-way, conservative d-man who was aware of his limitations and played within them. He returned from that draft as an assistant captain to a much-improved Swift Current Broncos team, helping them to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nine years. (They would be the WHL champions the following year without him, Lajoie’s first pro year.) Just a year after being drafted, the longshot turned pro and scored 15 points in 56 AHL games, good enough to only be sent down to the ECHL for one single game in mid-November of that season.
We all know what happened next: Lajoie turned an impressive training camp into a roster spot on opening night, where he notched his first NHL assist and then tallied his first NHL goal in his first period of NHL play. He started the year scorching hot, with seven points in his first six games. This run of play earned him a promotion (???) to being Cody Ceci’s partner, after which his production cratered, dropping to just eight points in his next 50 games, while getting absolutely caved in possession-wise (42.6% of the 5v5 shot attempts, per NaturalStatTrick.com). Probably way too late in the season, he was demoted to the AHL and three games later sustained a season-ending sports hernia injury. This most recent season, he played 48 games in the AHL, scoring 17 points, and went pointless in six NHL games (57% of the 5v5 shot attempts, but, you know, miniscule sample size alert).
The problem isn’t so much that Lajoie’s been bad. He’s been capable in the AHL, and his NHL results suggest he could be good if (a) not paired with a defensive blackhole, and (b) not given shutdown pairing minutes. The problem is that he’s a left-handed defenceman on a team that has Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, and Christian Wolanin all ahead of him on the LHD depth chart, with the newly-drafted Jake Sanderson also likely pencilled in ahead of him. Lajoie has to outperform at least two of those names to even be considered a part of the team’s future NHL plans. At 23, mostly through no fault of his own, he faces a very uphill battle to make the big club.
On the one hand, it’s possible to look at a 5th-round draft pick with 62 NHL games and say he’s already been more successful than anyone could have predicted. After all, the next-best player from the 5th round in 2016 is Nicholas Caamano (who?) of the Dallas Stars, with two points in 12 NHL games. Jesper Bratt (162nd overall) is the only player picked after him with more NHL games. On the other hand, you don’t make it this far in competitive hockey without a competitive streak. There’s no way Lajoie will be content to settle into an AHL journeyman role at age 23. He has the potential to push Mike Reilly for the 7th defenceman spot in the NHL, and a very good season coupled with faltering or an injury by a player ahead of him on the depth chart could see his value rise. It’s just hard to see how he becomes anything more than a 10-NHL-games-per-season player with this team barring an extreme situation. He’s an RFA at the end of this season with no arbitration rights, so either he has a season that lives up to the hype from the first couple weeks of 2018-19, or he’ll probably have to continue his dreams of being an NHL regular with another franchise.