We’ve reached the top five in our 2015 Prospect Rankings series. Last year’s top prospect, Nathan Beaulieu, is no longer one so we have a new #1 this season. Which player has earned the top spot?
As we’ve done the last couple of years, the top-10 have been voted on by members of our HW writing staff while the remainder of the rankings were done by yours truly. Here are the criteria that each player had to meet to be eligible to be in these rankings:
1) The player must be 24 years old or younger as of October 1, 2015
2) The player must have no greater than 50 games of NHL experience (including regular season and playoffs)
3) The player cannot be signed to an AHL contract
Here are the departures from last year’s list (in alphabetical order):
Graduated: Nathan Beaulieu (NHL GP), Mike Condon (age), Magnus Nygren (age), Greg Pateryn (age), Maxim Trunev (age)
Released: Josiah Didier – he signed an AHL deal but Montreal has relinquished his NHL rights
Traded: Patrick Holland, Jack Nevins, Jiri Sekac
Included with each ranking is an estimate of each prospects’ NHL readiness date. For some players, the estimate is a specific season while others whose projected development paths are harder to determine will be in a range.
#5) Charles Hudon
Left Wing/Centre, Hamilton (AHL)
5th round pick (122nd overall) in 2013
It takes some rookies a while to adjust to playing the pro game. Hudon wasn’t one of those as he came out of the gate flying last year, putting up better than a point per game through the first two months of the season. He also did so while changing to a new position as he became Hamilton’s top centre before too long. As he faced tighter checking, his production dropped a bit but he remained a dangerous threat night in, night out and wound up second on the Bulldogs in scoring.
Despite how well he played, he never got a sniff with the big club although as we later learned, that was by design as management wanted him to have a full season in the minors without dealing with the pressures of trying to earn a call-up, something we’ve seen before. That shouldn’t be the case this time around as Hudon should be among the first forwards recalled if injuries arise, if not the first player up.
Despite his offensive exploits in the minors, Hudon profiles more as a smart two-way type of player than a top six forward. The fact that he has successfully converted to the middle gives him the positional flexibility to move around the lineup which will work in his favour. I think Hudon will be one of those players who has more value than his eventual numbers will suggest.
2014-15 Stats: 75 GP, 19-38-57, +5 rating, 68 PIMS, 165 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 10th
HW Fan Vote Ranking: 4th
NHL ETA: 2016-17/2017-18 – If Hudon’s sophomore season resembles his rookie campaign, the Habs will have a hard time holding him off the roster come next year unless his waiver exemption winds up working against him. He should see some time with the big club in 2015-16 as an injury recall but unless Montreal is hammered with injuries, I can’t see Hudon forcing himself into a regular role this year.
#4) Noah Juulsen
Defenceman, Everett (WHL)
1st round pick (26th overall) in 2015
Juulsen rocketed onto the radar in 2014-15 after picking up more than five times as many points as he did in his rookie campaign while logging a ton of minutes in all situations. With Montreal lacking in quality blueline depth in their prospect pool, they were quite happy to snap him up at the back of the first round in June.
He profiles as a two-way player despite his offensive explosion last year. Juulsen is a strong skater with a good shot while his isn’t afraid to play physically in his own end. He’s one of those ‘good at most, but master of nothing’ type of players but unlike most of those types, his skill set is good enough that he should be a strong NHL’er.
Now recovered from his offseason concussion, Juulsen heads into this year as Everett’s top blueliner and should make a strong push for a spot on Canada’s World Junior entry in December. Expect a big season from him.
2014-15 Stats: 68 GP, 9-43-52, +22 rating, 42 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
HW Fan Vote Ranking: 5th
NHL ETA: 2019-20/2020-21 – Some first round picks make their marks early in the NHL but Juulsen won’t be one of them. He’ll have two more full junior seasons ahead of him before turning pro and with Montreal’s depth on the right side (Subban and Petry signed long-term and Pateryn, Dietz, and Lernout as options for the 3rd spot), Juulsen should have every opportunity to adapt to the pro game at a slow and steady pace.
#3) Michael McCarron
Centre/Right Wing, London/Oshawa (OHL)
1st round pick (25th overall) in 2013
Easily the most polarizing forward prospect in the organization, McCarron won back the support of a lot of fans after a much-improved second OHL season. He became much more of an offensive weapon with London, scoring at nearly a goal-per-game clip before a surprise trade to Oshawa. With the Generals, he wasn’t as big of a scorer but his all-around game improved considerably.
After dabbling with the position in 2013-14, McCarron also successfully made the full-time conversion to centre, becoming a particularly strong faceoff threat as well. That plus an NHL-ready frame has some wanting to see him in the NHL in the immediate future and while McCarron could probably handle a fourth line role before long, the organization clearly has higher hopes for him.
How high those hopes should be is a source of contention. Some feel his offensive breakthrough last year was more a mirage than anything, especially given that his two linemates in London were both offensive dynamos. Those people have his ceiling no higher than a third liner. Others think it’s a sign of things to come and that he has legitimate top six potential. Personally, I think he’s more of a third liner at even strength down the road but his size will make him a PP threat, meaning he should put up more points than a typical third liner would.
2014-15 Stats: 56 GP, 28-40-68, +25 rating, 128 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 9th
HW Fan Vote Ranking: 2nd
NHL ETA: 2017-18 – While some will want to see him quickly, patience will be a virtue with McCarron. Even though he has an NHL-ready frame, the rest of his game isn’t there yet. The more time he gets to hone his offensive skills in the minors, the better chance he becomes more than a physical checker in the NHL. Trevor Timmins called McCarron a four year guy when they picked him. This is year three and that timeline seems to be on the right track. He’ll have his ups and downs with St. John’s this season and next year should be one where he becomes a consistent offensive threat that really gets him on the impact NHL radar.
#2) Jacob de la Rose
Left Wing/Centre, Hamilton (AHL)/Montreal (NHL)
2nd round pick (34th overall) in 2013
The Swedish forward had a very busy first full season in North America and became a go-to player in the defensive end almost immediately. However, De la Rose never really found his offensive game with Hamilton (aside from a few games after the World Juniors where he played well at the offensive end) and was deployed solely as a checker with Montreal.
His offensive success against his own age group can’t entirely be overlooked though and provides some hope that there is room for improvement in that area. Even if it doesn’t, his defensive play should be enough to make him an important NHL’er which is what has him slotted this high from our writers.
The Habs clearly liked what they saw from de la Rose last year as they opted to burn the first year of his entry-level deal as well as an accrued season towards unrestricted free agency. His overall upside isn’t as high as others behind him but there is no safer bet in the organization than de la Rose. The question isn’t if he’ll make it as a full-timer but rather when.
2014-15 Stats (AHL): 37 GP, 6-5-11, -15 rating, 12 PIMS, 49 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 3rd
HW Fan Vote Ranking: 3rd
NHL ETA: 2015-16/2016-17 – Don’t interpret de la Rose not making the team out of camp despite playing regularly in the playoffs as a negative. It’s better for him to be playing regularly in St. John’s over being the 13th forward with the big club. He’ll be back at some point this year and I suspect he’ll be a regular next season if not before then.
#1) Nikita Scherbak
Right Wing, Everett (WHL)
1st round pick (26th overall) in 2014
Was his second WHL season a success? You can make a case for both yes and no. On the positive side, Scherbak didn’t take a step back offensively despite being on a deeper team while he made strides in his own end. On the negative side, his offensive game didn’t really improve either and his consistency, an issue in his rookie WHL season, was a concern at times in his sophomore campaign as well.
Regardless of what side of the coin you’re on there, many would agree that he is one of the most skilled prospects in the organization, if not the most skilled. (For my money, Martin Reway is the only one that might have similar offensive upside.) Scherbak is the closest to a top line prospect in the system and was a near unanimous selection from our writers as Montreal’s top prospect.
Despite being 19, Scherbak is eligible to play in the AHL as he’ll turn 20 by the end of the calendar year. While his potential will have people expecting a lot from him right away, don’t be surprised if Scherbak doesn’t put up the numbers you might expect. He’s one of the youngest players in the league and the AHL is rarely dominated by rookies, especially those that qualify as underagers. Don’t get discouraged if he doesn’t light it up.
2014-15 Stats (AHL): 65 GP, 27-55-82, +33 rating, 60 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 1st
HW Fan Vote Ranking: 1st
NHL ETA: 2017-18/2018-19 – With this being an underage season, I’m inclined to think of anything Scherbak does as a bonus. He’s going to need a couple of full seasons before he’s ready and that could easily creep into a third year (which would be the second of his entry-level deal*) if this first year goes slowly (and I wouldn’t be shocked if he struggles this season). Patience will be required here but if all goes well, Scherbak should be a quality top six forward down the road.
* – Although Scherbak will be 20 by the end of the calendar year, he was 19 as of the cut-off date that, among other things, the NHL uses for contract slides, which is September 15th. Thus, if Scherbak plays in nine or fewer NHL games this season, his contract is eligible to slide one more year and commence in 2016-17. (The last time this happened with a Montreal prospect was Robert Mayer.)