This season has seen many tremendous and surprising performances from various Habs prospects, including: The incredible rise to the NHL by Michael McCarron, Daniel Carr’s excellent play in the big league, Martin Reway’s move to the NLA while leading his Czech Extraliga team in scoring, the emergence of Michael McNiven, and Jake Evans’ incredible development curve. This article will provide a quick (okay, maybe not quick) in-season update of the Montreal Canadiens’ top 15 prospects.
Just like the summer rankings, it’s important to keep these in mind:
Refer to 2015 Top 30 Habs Prospects: Ranking Methodology & Honourable Mentions for expanded profiles from the summer and more on how I create these rankings.
Players under the age of 25 years old and with less than half a season’s worth of NHL experience in a single season.
Once again, Nikita Scherbak reigns supreme in my prospect rankings. Scherbak’s combination of explosive skating, high-end skills, sense, and size makes him a tremendous prospect with the upside to be a dynamic scorer in the NHL. While his totals in the AHL are far from impressive this year, it’s important to take into account that he’s playing center, dealt with injuries, and transitioning to a tougher league. Scherbak’s dazzling zone exit/entry ability makes him invaluable to his prospective NHL club. With a little more strength and confidence, Scherbak could begin torching the AHL. Simply put, I believe that Scherbak is the most skilled prospect in the pool, and his long-term upside eclipses everyone else’s.
The towering two-way center Michael McCarron slides into second place. He has continued his incredible rise, and has now locked up an NHL roster spot for the remainder of the year. McCarron has proven to be a solid scorer at the AHL, particularly around the net. While he hasn’t utilized his heavy shot consistently, his playmaking continues to improve. The big man’s top-end speed is impressive but his acceleration must get quicker. There are legitimate questions about his offensive upside but I believe that his two-way ability and upward development curve will continue to erase doubts.
Closing out the top three is Charles Hudon. Despite my confidence in Hudon’s NHL-readiness, he appears to be behind many in the depth chart. Hudon’s skating has really improved this year, which has made him a bigger threat off the rush. Defensively, he has become more assertive and willing to apply pressure on the puck carrier. Hockey sense is Hudon’s best tool but his shot and vision are particularly impressive, too. While he’s not the biggest player, he engages consistently and utilizes his skill level to create space. My biggest concern with Hudon is his NHL upside as a scorer. While he has smarts and skill, he lacks the dynamic upside of Scherbak and the two-way upside of McCarron.
There’s a case to be made for Artturi Lehkonen at first place. The Finn is 15th in SHL even-strength scoring (second on Frolunda) but was holding the third position for a lengthy period of time. Furthermore, his 25 even-strength points eclipse his entire production from last season by nine points. The biggest change from last season to this has been Lehkonen’s confidence. He consistently makes tremendous plays across the ice, both offensively and defensively. He drives the net hard and demonstrates underrated playmaking ability. The release on his shot might very well be the best in the prospect pool. My assertion that Lehkonen lacks dynamic scoring upside is beginning to become outdated.
I believe there’s a legitimate case to be make for Scherbak, McCarron, Hudon, and Lehkonen all as the organization’s top prospect. They essentially occupy what I see as the first tier of prospects.
Noah Juulsen claims the fifth spot. His point totals have slipped but it’s not a major concern considering the lack of production on the team. Juulsen is the number one defender on the WHL’s best defence. Juulsen routinely matches up against the WHL’s best and shuts them down. Offensively, Juulsen continues to show excellent puck-moving ability and a hard shot. Defensively, Juulsen’s combination of smarts, physicality and mobility make him incredibly tough to beat. I want a little more consistency on the offensive side of things whether that be finding open shooting lanes or timing his rushes better. I would argue that Juulsen didn’t slip in my rankings because of his production but rather because of the emergence of other prospects.
Jacob de la Rose, Daniel Carr, and Sven Andrighetto have all shown the ability to play at the NHL level. While de la Rose’s AHL totals aren’t impressive, he hasn’t really be in able to get in the groove. Before both call-ups he was showing scoring upside (typically with smart offensive zone passes, good positioning, and a backhand shot that I never knew he had) but was called up immediately after stringing a few good games together. Daniel Carr was the best of the three at the NHL level before going down with injury but remains considerably older than the two others. Andrighetto’s combination of skill and speed are great but his hockey sense is hit-or-miss. With that said, he’s a more dynamic player than Carr, so I gave Andrighetto a higher placing. As for de la Rose, he’s just 20 years old, and I’m holding out hope that the offensive flashes become more consistent.
Lukas Vejdemo takes the ninth spot thanks to his impressive season in the SHL. Vejdemo’s relentless motor, puck possession ability and crafty playmaking have made him a mainstay with Djurgarden, a mid-table team.
Since switching from the Czech Extraliga to NLA, I haven’t had the opportunity to watch Martin Reway (Note: I’m marginally bitter about the lack of NLA streams), explaining why he’s basically ranked the same. His 21 points in 19 NLA games are extremely impressive, especially considering the majority are primary (goals + first assists). In the Czech Extraliga this year, Reway improved his even-strength play but was still a non-factor far too often. His stickhandling ability and vision are fantastic but most other areas leave quite a bit to be desired.
Philip Danault, acquired in the Dale Weise trade, has been decent with the Canadiens thus far. He looks to be a sure graduate by the end of the year. While his offensive skills are merely average, he plays an up-tempo two-way game that benefits whomever he plays with.
Meanwhile, Jake Evans has skyrocked up the rankings. Since switching to center this year, Evans has emerged as Notre Dame’s leading scorer and top shutdown center. What’s even more impressive is that he co-lead ND in scoring as a 19-year-old sophomore while spending many games with Dylan Malmquist and Andrew Oglevie (the pair combined for just 26 points). Evans needs get stronger and faster but his vision, smarts, and hands are all very impressive.
The tier of Vejdemo, Reway, Danault, and Evans is quite impressive. There are legitimate cases to be made for all four ahead of the others: Vejdemo because of his age and untapped potential, Danault because of his NHL-readiness, Reway because of his dynamic skill, and Evans because of his exponential development curve. My best guess says that Vejdemo will be the best of the four, which leads me to place them in that order. But if Evans takes yet another step next year, watch out.
Morgan Ellis took a demotion to the ECHL and turned into an NHL debut within a year. Ellis’ offensive confidence has returned, and his 100+ mph shot has been consistently on display all year. He takes too long to make decisions with the puck in his own zone but his gap control and stickwork are great. There’s legitimate NHL upside here.
Zach Fucale‘s nightmare 2014-2015 season has since become a surprisingly good AHL rookie season. While he still lacks consistency, and I have questions about ability up high, there’s no denying his athleticism and mental game.
Lucas Lessio closes out the top 15. Lessio has shown decent ability in his four games with the Habs. He’s certainly an incredibly fast skater with decent hands but he lacks finish and hockey sense. While he’s a decent scorer from the mid-slot at the AHL level, I have my doubts about his ability to consistently get shots from that area.
This year has been quite disappointing for Daniel Audette. He’s a highly skilled player, although my viewings are becoming less flattering. He’s fast skater, with quick hands and quality vision but his goalscoring ability from last year has disappeared. Furthermore, his above-average defensive game that he showcased at the beginning of the year has regressed. A non-factor in my viewings since New Year’s.
At face value, Simon Bourque‘s totals of 44 points in 61 games are extremely impressive for a low-scoring team. However, just 12 of these points are even-strength, and half of those are primary even-strength points. This makes me question the sustainability of his production. With that said, he’s a solid two-way defender. He could stand to be more active with his stick and read odd-man rushes better but his overall defensive ability is great.
Darren Dietz has yet to consistently shine offensively. While he plays a solid defensive game that has really been noticeable since the recall of Mark Barberio, he tends to be indecisive while in possession. His first few steps aren’t pretty but his acceleration has improved. Given more confidence, he could be a big riser.
Not finding a place for Jeremy Gregoire in top-15 was extremely hard. His play this season has been better than what the totals indicate. I’ve been particularly frustrated with usage, as other players are often promoted in the lineup before him despite Gregoire having a better scoring portfolio. His skating has improved but he simply isn’t getting enough pucks on goal.
Another player that I really wanted to put in the top-15 was Brett Lernout. Lernout’s raw tools are better than what any other non-Juulsen defender in the pool possesses. He’s a hulking defender with a tremendous skating stride, a (heavily under-utilized) powerful shot, and an aggressive nature. While he always has his head up, his decision-making gets him into trouble. He has a tendency to turn the puck over along the boards with ill-advised passes. The raw tools are great but the decision-making is a major concern.
If this list went to 16, Stefan Matteau would be placed there. There’s an argument to be made much higher for him, considering his toolkit. A strong, bullish forward with good feet and decent hands; however, I find he lacks consistency, discipline, and hockey sense. As a result, I don’t feel there is meaningful offensive upside at the NHL level. There’s no doubt that Matteau improved last year in the AHL but his waiver situation prevented him from spending a third year in the minors. Considering his skill set, I really hope I’m wrong.
Michael McNiven has enjoyed an excellent year with the Owen Sound Attack. Despite playing in a division with three juggernauts in Kitchener, Guelph, and London, he sits tenth in OHL save percentage. His athleticism, puckhandling, and glove hand are tremendous (and among the best in the OHL) but his technique needs serious refining. A long-term project with high potential.
Last year’s NCAA free agent signing, Ryan Johnston, is a definite sleeper. Although undersized and easily out-muscled, he’s quite solid defensively. He’s a smooth skater but lacks an explosive gear. Since joining the IceCaps lineup, he has been the master of controlled zone exits/entrances. Johnston has steadily improved but still needs to make better decisions. Since I haven’t watched him at any previous level, I’m not quite comfortable ranking him but there’s clearly some room to grow. A player to keep an eye on.
This started out as a small project to give a quick update on some of the best Habs prospects but grew into something much more. If you actually read all 2000 words of my rambling/procrastination, I’m quite impressed.
Feel free to disagree or state that my opinions suck in the comments or on Twitter. I’ll be wrong many, many times with this list but that’s the fun of it.
Thank you all for reading and providing support!
On to the term papers…