2017 Top 30 Habs Prospects: #15-#11

Welcome to the fifth installment of the Mitch Brown’s Top 30 Habs Prospects, kicking off the top 15.

This installment begins with a pair of defencemen, one close to the NHL, and one fresh from the draft. Tier #3 begins with a player who could play in the NHL next season, a deft playmaker, and the OHL Goaltender of the Year.

 

Notes:

  1. All the information is “in my opinion.
  2. The ranking likely has limited-to-no value. Think of the ranking as a way to catalogue players, notes, and data in a non-alphabetical way. The information within the profiles is far, far more valuable.
  3. I mentioned I’m not a scout right? If not, I’m not a scout.
  4. I appreciate all questions, comments, and criticism. You can reach me on Twitter (@MitchLBrown) or email (mitchbrown31@gmail.com). You can also tell me I suck. I don’t care.
  5. AHL/CHL/USHL Stats: Prospect-Stats.com | NCAA Stats: CollegeHockeyInc.com | SuperElit Stats: Stats.SweHockey.se | NHL Stats: Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com

Series Navigation:
Top 30 Prospects: Ranking Methodology – Integrating Statistics into Analysis
Top 30 Prospects: #30 – #26 – Success Rates of Swedish Jr. and USHS Defenders
Top 30 Prospects: #25 – #21 – Success Rates of CHL Overage Forwards
Top 30 Prospects: #20 – #16 – Balancing Players with Opposing Skill Sets and Development
Top 30 Prospects: #15 – #11 – Weighing perceived NHL-readiness with NHL Upside
Top 30 Prospects: #10 Will Bitten – Why His Season Was Better Than You Think
Top 30 Prospects: #9 Victor Mete – How Undersized Defenders Can Excel Defensively
Top 30 Prospects: #8 Josh Brook – Improving Shooting Location Through Movement
Top 30 Prospects: #7 Michael McCarron – Do Big Players Really Take Longer to Develop?
Top 30 Prospects: #6 Charlie Lindgren – The Reverse-VH and When Skill Takes Over
Top 30 Prospects: #5 Charles Hudon – A Case Study on the Impact of Aging for NHL Chances
Top 30 Prospects: #4 Joni Ikonen – Multidimensionality in Attack
Top 30 Prospects: #3 Nikita Scherbak – Comparing Scherbak In and Out of Form
Top 30 Prospects: #2 Noah Juulsen – How to Excel at Defending the Blue Line
Top 30 Prospects: #1 Ryan Poehling – Full Breakdown, Importance of Little Details, and More

 

#15) BRETT LERNOUT
Midseason: #15 | 2016: #17 | 2015: #19 | 2014: #23
Acquired: 2014, 3rd round, 73rd overall
Position: RD | Shoots: R
Birthdate: 1995-09-24 | Nationality: Canada
Team: St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
Height: 6’4 (193cm) | Weight: 205lbs (93kg)

Overview: A smooth-skating, hulking defender with a crisp first pass and big shot .. Production hasn’t been there, defence has improved but needs tweaking.

Lernout’s BAR (Bread Above Replacement) scored in the 100th percentile of the entire AHL, a strong indicator that his facial hair is NHL-ready. | Photo: Jeff Parsons, St. John’s IceCaps

GPGAPP1SOGSH%G/GP1A/GPP/GPP1/GP5v5 P1/GPSOG/GPTM.INV%GF.Rel%
743131611953.16%0.040.110.220.150.151.287.40%3.49%

It was a season of great growth for Lernout, particularly in the second half. After losing Mark Barberio, Lernout was thrust into a top-pairing for good, and did fairly well. While his point totals only modestly improved, I felt he was far more involved offensively than last season. This is reflected in his improvement from 0.84 SOG/GP to 1.28.

Lernout has that combination of size and skating ability that teams and fans alike love. A long stride with deep flexion that is half power and half grace gives him a separation gear. Lernout’s four-way mobility enables him to aggressively close the gap on approaching forwards. From here, he typically engages with his stick, then tries to close them off to give a mugging.

I tracked him as the second-worst IceCaps at blue liner at preventing controlled entries, which leads to be believe that while he has the ability to be consistent with his gap control, he’s often too aggressive or too passive. This is reflected in the relatively large amount of times he found himself on the negative side of the highlight reel.

High-octane is the best way to describe Lernout’s on-ice effect, as he had logged the most corsi events that I tracked—and finished negative. But there’s no doubt he improved defensively, particularly with his slot and net protection. The big problem remains: Can he make decision in own zone at a quick enough rate? After this season, I’m inclined to think so. No IceCaps blue liner had a higher success rate with pass exits than Lernout, meaning he was thriving in transition, despite the odd mishap.

Offence isn’t a key component of Lernout’s game, but the tools are there. His head is always up, and he has a legitimately powerful shot (both wrist and slap). He staples himself near the boards of the point—a terrible angle for shooting—but began finding success in late February by using his lateral movement to cut across the top. There’s not much playmaking ability, and he will struggle to catch the odd routine pass.

Sometimes, you have the Lernout who picks up the puck, dangles a forechecker, and goes coast-to-coast. What I wrote last year remains pretty much true: “That’s the problem … It’s always just ‘sometimes.’” At this stage, it’s unreasonable to expect that to become a big part of his game, so his defence must continue to improve.

While the progression has been encouraging, it’s a testament to how far behind the curve Lernout was. There’s a decent amount of upside here, perhaps as a bottom-pairing defender with a crisp breakout pass, defends roughly average, and scores with the odd blistering cannon.

Ranking Explanation: While there’s an old hockey adage that defenceman take longer to develop and peak later than forwards, there’s simply no empirical evidence for this. Money Puck, current amateur scouting consultant for the Florida Panthers and former Canucks Army contributor, found that defencemen peak around 24. For a more direct comparison, The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow found that just 19 of 195 defencemen who played in the AHL between years 2005-06 to 2011-12 at age 21 became top-four NHL defenders. Of the 19, as well as Michael Stone, Adam McQuaid, and Brendan Smith, only three were similarly low-scoring (~0.2 P/GP) blue liners like Lernout at age 21.

So, given these two studies, it’s significantly more likely that the soon-to-be 22-year-old Lernout will bust than not. If he does make the NHL, it’s likely as a bottom pairing defender. Probability isn’t destiny, but I haven’t seen any indications of a defensive stalwart here. So, given the fact that I value upside over replacement level players, Lernout falls behind the tier mostly comprised of players perceived to be further away from the NHL, but of greater upside.

Within Tier 4, Lernout lands right on par with the upside, but he’s the closest to the NHL of all. He’s taken significant steps that the players below him have not, without much loss in terms of upside.

 

#14) CALE FLEURY
Acquired: 2017, 3rd round, 87th overall
Position: RD | Shoots: R
Birthdate: 1998-11-19 | Nationality: Canada
Team: Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Height: 6’1” (185cm) | Weight: 201 (91kg)

Overview: A smooth skating puck-mover with a slick first pass and powerful shot … Strong rush defender and a big-time hitter, but in zone defence needs a dose of patience.

Do you like defencemen who can lead the rush, throw a huge open ice hit, and score some goals? Then Cale Fleury is the prospect for you! | Photo: Chris Pullen, Cranbrook Photo

GPGAPP1G/GP1A/GPP/GPP1/GP5v5 P1/GPTM.INV%GF.Rel%
70112738250.160.20.540.360.2121.97%-0.59%

A quick glance at the stats and the late-birthdate underwhelms, but delve a little deeper and there’s plenty to be excited about. Fleury played on the WHL’s worst team, by far, and was their clear cut number one defender. The captain was just a smidgen below the team’s average GF%, despite playing the most and toughest minutes. Offensively, he was incredibly impressive with 0.21 ES P1/GP, good for third among all first-time draft eligible WHL defenders (0.01 behind Josh Brook), and the second-highest TM INV%.

Fleury spent tons of time in his own zone as a product of his team’s weakness. Fleury chases the puck too often, but it could be a product of wanting to alleviate the pressure rather than poor sense. He’s best defending off the rush, where he utilizes he quick four-way movement to maintain aggressive gap control. An inside-protecting stick, and a desire to lay huge open ice hits makes him tough to beat one-on-one.

In transition is where Fleury seems most comfortable. Fleury is a quick decision-maker with a separation gear stemming from his smooth stride. He rushes the puck up the ice in a diversified manner, using a balance of his skating, passing, and quick hands. He locates passing options quickly, and shows no hesitation jumping up as a fourth forward. All-in-all, a controlled exit and entry machine.

After gaining the offensive zone, Fleury doesn’t peel off like many defenders—he attacks. He has a sneaky shot with an in stride release and power which could enable him to hit 20 goals next season. He can make clever passes, particularly diagonal east-west passes to cut apart defenders.

Once structure is established (or PP), Fleury isn’t quite as noticeable. Like Victor Mete last year, there’s a disconnect between the tools and the execution. Fleury becomes static and upright, limiting his quickness off the hop (but this isn’t an issue otherwise). He’s not a lane creator as a product of this. Instead, he makes necessary passes, but doesn’t display the creativity that he has off the rush.

Kootenay will receive an influx of top young talent, which could bode well for next season. If Kootenay is still a middling team, perhaps Fleury will be traded to a contender. Regardless of what happens, expect a big season from Fleury.

Ranking Explanation: Although I’ve made a big fuss about development curves, there’s a significant gap between Brett Lernout and Cale Fleury in their draft years. Lernout posted 0.31 P/GP, while Fleury was 0.54 P/GP. To control for Fleury’s significantly weaker team, Fleury was involved in a staggering 21.97% of his team’s goals, second amongst all WHL draft eligible defenders. Meanwhile, Lernout was a wholly unimpressive 8.87%. If Fleury improved his production as much as Lernout did in his D+1, Fleury would be 73-point defender, compared to Lernout’s 42.

When you compare their tools, even comparing both at their current level (rather than DY), it’s Fleury who checks off more boxes. Lernout stands at 6’4, but Fleury is no slouch at 6’1 and packs a greater physical punch. Fleury is a better skater thanks to smoother crossovers and quicker acceleration, and his puck handling is far better than Lernout’s. Fleury is such a efficient, effective defender off the rush–something that Lernout battled with throughout junior.

Both Fleury and Lernout had similar defensive deficiencies in the DY, but Fleury’s can partly be explained by his team situation. Fleury played for the weakest team in the WHL, with a defence core in which Fleury was basically untouched in terms of talent. He struggled with positional defence after the rush, but how much of it is a product of trying to make a difference? And that’s the answer I’m really interested in finding out next season.

Therefore, on a list heavily weighing upside, I have a really difficult time rating a player with lesser tools and results, even while considering Lernout’s progression and perceived NHL-readiness.

Fleury wraps up the Tier #4, the largest on the list. This is a tier of potential third line/bottom pairing prospects that split between those who must continue on the path they’re on to reach the NHL, and those who likely require a significant leap forward in one or more areas to make it (think Bourque’s skating or Audette’s decision-making).

 

#13) JACOB DE LA ROSE
Midseason: #11 | 2016: #10 | 2015: #4 | 2014: #4
Acquired: 2013, 2nd round, 34th overall
Position: C/LW | Shoots: L
Birthdate: 1995-05-20 | Nationality: Sweden
Team: St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
Height: 6’2” (187cm) | Weight: 214 (97kg)

Overview: Explosive power centre with a touch of skill across all three zones … Best operating with pace in space … Lacks in key scoring-related skills.

Enjoy this picture. Not only is it the last photo of de la Rose with an IceCaps jersey, it’s possibly his last wearing an AHL jersey. | Photo: Colin Peddle, St. John’s IceCaps

GPGAPP1SOGSH%G/GP1A/GPP/GPP1/GP5v5 P1/GPSOG/GPTM.INV%GF.Rel%
621416301911012.73%0.230.080.480.310.161.7717.05%-2.70%

Jacob de la Rose took a sluggish start for the third year in a row and turned into his best AHL season yet. In the midst of his 21-games without a goal I wrote an article that received a shocking amount of negative feedback titled: It’s Too Early To Give Up on de la Rose. I outlined five reasons why: (1) Age: He’s a year younger than Hudon; (2) Scoring spurts: Against own age group, he scores; (3) Confidence: Stuck in “mistake-free hockey” from playing against men since age 16; (4) Role: Usually used as a complementary piece when scoring, and (5) Coaching paradox: Hasn’t earned a promotion because he isn’t scoring, but won’t score until promoted. Or so I thought.

The second half of the season rolled around, and de la Rose’s 200-foot impact began to show up on the scoresheet. A powerful shot and the ability to set up in dangerous areas enabled him to score 0.43 G/GP and 1.96 SOG/GP in the final 28 GP. While his even-strength goal production was terrible—scoring in the 22nd percentile among U23 AHL forwards—he did score four SHGs. Release speed has quickened, but he’s not a natural finisher by any means.

The odd creative pass turned into extended periods of smart playmaking from de la Rose. He no longer underutilizes his own puckhandling ability, and instead smartly defers to teammates only when he’s running out of space. He’s not a high-skill passer in the offensive zone, but moves the puck quickly. He requires space to operate with the puck, and can be indecisive with his movements and passing/shooting decisions.

De la Rose’s goalscoring was the biggest improvement this season. He jumps into HD areas quickly, where he can utilize his powerful shot. He’s quick on pucks around the net, which is where scores the majority of his goals. However, his release is a tad slow and generally requires time and space to get a quality shot off. This is likely why his SOG/GP rate is roughly average for U23 AHL forwards.

De la Rose’s defensive ability has been long talked about. He’s explosive and quick, enabling him to disrupt on the forecheck and backcheck. He takes smart positioning, but he’s not as aggressive as he should be both in terms of positioning and with his body. Despite his hailed defensive play, he’s a below average GF.Rel% and CF.Rel% (SSS) player. Meaning, the actual results do not echo the tools.

There’s more skill here than what gets talked about. De la Rose has been playing “mistake-free” hockey since the age of 16 to stick in a men’s league. But ultimately, mistakes happen, and if a player isn’t trying to generate offence, they’ll never be able to suffocate mistakes in a fast-paced game featuring 11 other personnel. Therefore, it’s key that de la Rose continues to develop his offensive game, but given his waiver status, that development is likely to be in the NHL.

Ranking Explanation: First, let’s start with why I think he should be higher on my own list. He was fantastic in the second half (0.67 P/GP, 0.43 G/GP, 1.96 SOG/GP in last 28GP), and has a quality toolkit. Big, strong forwards who can skate, play defence, and score some goals are valuable. ES numbers were third-line at best, but he faced the toughest competition with some of the worst teammates (Source: QoC & QoT estimates on Prospect-Stats.com). He looks on the cusp of returning to NHL action, even if the full-season production isn’t there. And on-top of that, his development is finally becoming stable.

But the reality is that the development isn’t going to be stable anymore. He’s waiver-eligible next season. Then I start wondering, how NHL-ready is a forward who averaged just 0.16 ES P1/GP in the AHL? Surely he’s not getting PP time in the NHL yet, so how will he produce in a faster, tighter game when he seems to need the open space to generate offence? There’s also questions of defence. He checks off all the right boxes in a traditional defence manner, but results just aren’t there. He was a below average in GF.Rel% and CF.Rel% (SSS on the latter), while producing at a third-line rate.

While de la Rose’s G/GP and P/GP rate are at a roughly second line pace, at even-strength he’s closer to a fourth liner than a first.

My gut says to place de la Rose higher—I’ve watched him for a long time and have an investment* in him. There really isn’t any history for low-to-mid-scoring three-year AHL forwards becoming NHLers. I’ve seen progression, specifically offensively, but I haven’t seen significant results (Read: Points, GF%, etc.). So in what will likely be the last time de la Rose is eligible for my Top 30 Prospects, this ranking leans cautious rather than optimistic.

*I want a Danault-type explosion from DLR nearly as much as I want to breathe—to give you an idea of how much I want to be wrong.

De la Rose begins Tier 3, the toughest to rank. I had de la Rose ranked from 13th to 7th, from the bottom to the top of the tier. This is a tier of players with roughly mid-third line upside and second pairing upside, with varying degrees of NHL readiness and likelihood of reaching their upside.

 

#12) JAKE EVANS
Midseason: #10 | 2016: #12 | 2015: #24 | 2014: #29
Acquired: 2014, 7th round, 207th overall
Position: C | Shoots: R
Birthdate: 1996-06-02 | Nationality: Canada
Team: University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (HE-NCAA)
Height: 6’0 (183cm) | Weight: 185 (84kg)

Overview: A deft playmaker with patience and seamless puck distribution virtually unrivalled in the prospect pool … Strong defensive centre, but lacks in offensive multidimensionality.

Not only was Evans’s .579 FO% among the best in the NCAA, he had more FO wins than anyone else on his team had attempts. | Photo: Jeff Myers, Notre Dame

GPGAPP1SOGSH%G/GP1A/GPP/GPP1/GP5v5 P1/GPSOG/GPTM.INV%GF.Rel%
401329433311011.80%0.330.51.050.830.62.7526.10%2.00%

Continuing on an upwards trajectory, Evans erased many of the doubts I had. He doubled his SOG, and became among the most consistent players in Hockey East. Evans recorded a point in 75% of his games (up from 56.8 last season), giving him the fourth highest percentage of games with a point, and one point away from second place. He finished fifth in A1/GP with 0.5, a testament to his playmaking ability, and was once again heavily tilted to 5v5 production.

Not a single Hockey East player had more games with point than Jake Evans (30).

It wouldn’t be an Evans profile without gushing about his playmaking ability. So effective at puck distribution, Evans makes high-skill passes look easy. Not the type to create lanes with slippery edge work or hands, instead a deft locater and exploiter. Has that perfect amount of patience to wait for the smallest of lanes to open up, and the skill to fire a bullet tape-to-tape (or space). And he can do this across all three zones, making him a tremendous controlled exit/entry player. He will regularly connect with skillful and unexpected passes from HD shooting locations to turn a HDSC into a sure goal.

Hailed for his 200-foot game that thrusted him into number one centre duties a season ago, Evans is truly a versatile centre. Methodical and relaxed are the best ways to describe his defensive game. The strength he added last offseason made a noticeable difference, but winning battles is best left for his wingers. He collapses low quickly, supports his defenders, and seamlessly takes the turnovers he creates in dangerous rushes the other way.

Save for Anders Bjork, everyone was either better with Evans than without or Evans was better apart. Simply put, the effect that Evans had a thin Notre Dame forward core is overwhelmingly positive.

A smooth stickhandler and skater who prefers to keep it simple. He makes the odd nice move in stride to split defenders, but rarely attempts one-on-one dekes. Evans has added an extra hop to his step, giving him a little more separation ability, but is far from explosive.

Evans is not a natural goalscorer, as he lacks sniper’s tools, like an ability to find pockets for a medium-to-long-range shot, notable power, or an angle change in his release. He took the important step of becoming a more multidimensional threat by doubling his SOG count, and showcased an above-average shot. Despite his slender frame, he generates the majority of shots from high-danger areas.

Evans is one of those players who keeps you wanting more because of his seamless execution, but lack of true flash. He’s effective in the NCAA, but I do wonder how his methodical game will translate to the NHL. He will return to Notre Dame to finish up his degree and also prove that he can be the top forward on the team.

Ranking Explanation: I will concede, it may seem a bit perplexing to have Evans above de la Rose. De la Rose has played at a higher level for long time, is a better skater and bigger and stronger, and de la Rose is only a year older.

However, there’s a decently large discrepancy between their skill levels. Evans is more offensively talented in virtually every category, although de la Rose has a more powerful shot. Evans’s playmaking is the best element that either player owns, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.

They are roughly on par defensively when controlling for their levels (I voiced my reservations about de la Rose’s defensive game in his ranking explanation). However, I expect that Evans could reach a higher level defensively, as a product of much more engaged he is with the puck. Evans is stronger in transition. And, considering de la Rose’s age, expecting a full turnaround (or significant development) in his puck skills and style is unfair.

Here’s an interesting age-related tidbit: Although Evans is headed into his senior year, he’s around the age of the average sophomore turning junior because he headed to University as a true freshman. Couple this with his June birthday, and it means he will be a rare four-year NCAA graduate who plays his first entire professional season at the age of just 22. Essentially, this buys him extra developmental time in the professional ranks.

 

#11) MICHAEL MCNIVEN
Midseason: #13 | 2016: #20 | 2015: Unranked
Acquired: 2015 Signing
Position: G | Shoots: L
Birthdate: 1997-07-09 | Nationality: Canada
Team: Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Height: 6’1” (185cm) | Weight: 216 (98kg)

Overview: Stocky goaltender with explosive lateral movement, top-notch glove, and excellent puckhandling … Ran out of steam late in the season, flaws are technique-related.

| Photo: Bob Tymczyszyn, QMI Agency

GPWLOTLSOMinsSV%GAAadj.GSAAHD SV%MD SV%LD SV%
544194631840.9152.322.590.8060.8460.956

There wasn’t a single prospect in the organization that I was more impressed by this season than Michael McNiven. The 19-year-old McNiven was the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year. He was also the runner-up for Most Outstanding Player, and could’ve been arguably the League’s Most Valuable Player (if there was an award for that). McNiven didn’t hit double digits in regular losses, and went on a crazy 27-2-1-2 run in the second half of the regular season.

Entering the OHL, McNiven was behind the curve with is technical game, but his skill level was more than enough to intrigue the Canadiens to sign to an ELC just months after he was passed through the draft. As McNiven exits the OHL, his technical game has improved leaps and bounds.

The improvements are immediately noticeable in his positioning. McNiven aggressively comes out to challenge shooters, more so than your typical goaltender. He explodes off the post, which when combined with his quick footwork and stocky frame, greatly limits the net seen behind him.

McNiven’s posterized countless players with his lightning-quick glove hand and confidence to “flash the leather” every possible chance. His footwork once again enables him to shine here, as he often explodes across the crease to turn a pretty chance into a prettier save. However, his blocker side is noticeably weaker than his glove.

While he may not have the ability to achieve the deep position in the splits, there aren’t many goaltending prospects better than McNiven down low. Explosive is the word that comes to mind, but he’s also strong. McNiven won’t get outmuscled around the net thanks to his leg strength. He drops into the butterfly quickly and precisely, rarely exposed five-hole.

The most underrated aspect about McNiven’s game is his puckhandling. He’s a smooth skater with shocking amount of hand-eye coordination. It was a regular occurrence of McNiven to race out behind the net and whack a puck of midair to thwart an uncontrolled entry. When his team is on the man-advantage, McNiven actively seeks out possession to send a bullet saucer pass up ice.

There are still noticeable faults in McNiven’s game, that were particularly apparent when he ran out of steam late in the season. His movements are not as economical as they could be. His fast-twitch muscle fibre can only do so much–his glove started to sit lower late in the season. Additionally, he can be a tad slow getting up from the butterfly. Perhaps these are fixable with improved conditioning.

McNiven has reached such a high level at a young age. He will join the professional ranks next season, where goaltending shuffle could mean starting in the ECHL.

Ranking Explanation: The quality of team is important consideration. McNiven’s Owen Sound gave up the fewest HD SA in the entire OHL, and McNiven’s HD SV% was only slightly-above average for OHL starters. Although he won games like crazy, his SV% was sixth among OHL starters. With said that, McNiven flat out stole games for Owen Sound against top teams.

So it’s important to balance what he did as an individual, and what is a product of the quality of his team. There’s also the fact goaltending is so volatile, and I concede that I’m less comfortable evaluating them than skaters. As a result, I feel it’s necessary to err on the side of caution with McNiven until his professional season wraps up.

The reason for ranking McNiven over Evans and de la Rose is mostly based on weighing upside and risk. All players in the tier likely have lower upside than McNiven (I think McNiven has starting upside), including de la Rose and Evans. I see de la Rose as having likely the lowest upside of prospects in this tier, while I still have projection concerns regarding Evans’s projection. So, I leaned McNiven just on the outside of the top-10, but he definitely has top-10, if not top-5 talent in the prospect pool.

 

The list so far…

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