'I'm here to help,' Canadiens' Mitchell Stephens says of latest NHL shot

A second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2015, Stephens brings speed and energy to fourth-line role in Montreal’s lineup.

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Will the third time be the charm for Mitchell Stephens? Will being part of a rebuilding Canadiens’ organization be the missing ingredient that finally earns him regular NHL employment?

“I want to show the guys in this locker room I can help, do what I can to bring energy and help the team win,” Stephens said Saturday morning. He made his Canadiens debut that night against the Detroit Red Wings, one of his former teams, after being recalled from Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Laval and the 26-year-old didn’t embarrass himself in Montreal’s 5-4 overtime loss.

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Other than a third-period minor penalty for high-sticking, Stephens played a solid game on the team’s fourth line, between Jesse Ylönen and Joel Armia. Despite a modest 14 shifts and 8:17 of ice time, the 6-foot, 203-pound centre registered two of the Canadiens’ 30 shots and won five of seven faceoffs.

Bringing speed and energy, Stephens had an opportunity from the slot early in the second period, only to shoot wide. Fourteen minutes into the third, he was on the lip of the crease, but failed to convert or deflect a rebound.

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Stephens did enough to impress head coach Martin St. Louis to warrant a second look, at least, Monday night against the Seattle Kraken at the Bell Centre, again playing between Ylönen and Armia. And with Alex Newhook expected to miss between 10-12 weeks with a high ankle sprain, Stephens might finally receive the opportunity he has craved.

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“When you start looking to the future, you get lost in the present,” said the native of Peterborough, Ont., who learned of his promotion Thursday night, while the Rocket was on a two-game road trip in Abbotsford, B.C. Stephens returned to Montreal on Friday and learned Saturday morning he’d play that night.

“Obviously my goal was to be back in the NHL.”

As a second-round (33rd overall) draft pick of Tampa Bay in 2015, many expected Stephens’s career to turn out differently. He played 45 games with the Lightning over two seasons, producing four goals and seven points. He also dressed for seven playoff games in 2019-20, when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

Traded to Detroit in July 2021, Stephens earned praise from former head coach Jeff Blashill for his skating ability and energy. Projected to play on the fourth line, Stephens missed almost five months with a fractured heel. In 27 games, he was held to six assists.

“I don’t think about that,” Stephens said last week, while still with Laval. “It’s a process. I’m here. I’m committed here. That’s my mindset. I’m ready to win hockey games here. I’m ready to help everyone here.”

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Signed as a free agent by the Canadiens in July 2022, Stephens performed consistently for the Rocket, scoring 20 goals and 41 points in 68 games last season. He had 3-9-12 totals in 16 games this season for the struggling team, relied upon for leadership as much as offence.

“When you have such a young team, you have to make sure you have really good leaders,” Rocket assistant coach Kelly Buchberger said last week. “He’s been up in the NHL. Can he make it again? You never know. It happens. It doesn’t happen a lot; we know that. You never know what happens with injuries. He’s in the conversation.”

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