The next group in our 2016 Prospect Rankings series features several players who garnered serious top-10 consideration. It also features the player with the biggest jump in ranking this year.
As we’ve done the last few 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, 2016
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 (previous ranking and reasoning in parentheses):
Graduated: Jacob de la Rose (2nd, NHL GP), Sven Andrighetto (8th, NHL GP), Joel Hanley (29th, age), Joonas Nattinen (34th, age)
Released: Darren Dietz (17th), Mac Bennett (20th), Gabriel Dumont (30th), Morgan Ellis (33rd)
Traded: Jarred Tinordi (7th), Christian Thomas (16th), Stefan Fournier (35th)
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.
#15) Victor Mete
Defenceman, London (OHL)
4th round pick (100th overall) in 2016
It’s not often that fourth round picks crack the top-15 the first year after being picked but Mete isn’t a typical fourth round pick. He’s a solid two-way defender with blazing speed…that just happens to be a lot smaller than most teams would care to have in a blueliner.
Given his smaller stature, puck battles aren’t a strength and probably won’t be moving forward but he’s adept at mitigating that with good positioning and the ability to skate himself out of trouble. His offensive game will need to improve for him to be two-way threat in the pros (which is how he’ll make it as skating alone won’t be enough) but he still has a couple of years left in junior to take that next step.
2015-16 Stats: 68 GP, 8-30-38, 18 PIMS, +53 rating, 107 shots
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2020-21/2021-22 – At the very least, he’ll need his two years of junior eligibility and a couple of years in the minors to adapt to the professional game. If the league continues to transition towards more and more mobility though, he could move up quicker than a typical defenceman his age would, assuming he continues to progress over the next few years. (So far, so good this season…)
#14) Jake Evans
Centre, Notre Dame (NCAA)
7th round pick (207th overall) in 2014
While it would appear that a lot of Montreal’s ‘draft-and-stash’ picks aren’t panning out too well, Evans is a major exception. After what was a decent freshman season, Evans took a major leap forward in his sophomore year, becoming one of the top two-way threats on the team. Accordingly, he was the biggest riser in our rankings this season.
Despite all of this, Evans still needs to work on a few things. He still has a slender build which is okay in college but can be exploited in the AHL while his shot isn’t particularly strong; he’s more of a playmaker at this stage. If he has another big season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Habs try to sign him early. He has taken summer classes which some players with eyes on signing early have done in the past.
2015-16 Stats: 37 GP, 8-25-33, 29 PIMS, +15 rating, 55 shots, 347/610 faceoffs (56.9%), 26 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 31st
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – Assuming he stays the full four years, Evans will likely need a couple of seasons at the minor league level to work his way up the lineup (the ideal development path for Mark MacMillan, a similar player who appears to have stagnated). Despite the high point totals, he doesn’t exactly profile as a top six forward and will need to have a solid defensive game if he wants to make it to the next level.
#13) Lukas Vejdemo
Centre/Left Wing, Djurgarden (SHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2015
Vejdemo’s selection in the third round last year after going unpicked the year before caught many by surprise but he played well enough last season to show what the Habs were thinking. He moved up full-time to Sweden’s top tier last year as a teenager and played well enough to hold down a regular spot in the lineup inside the bottom six.
This season, the key for Vejdemo is simply to build off of last year. In particular, earn more ice time (into more of a consistent middle six role) and work on his offensive game which isn’t a big strength of his right now. His defensive game is solid and that’s likely what he’ll need to hang his hat on once he comes to North America (which should be as soon as next season).
2015-16 Stats: 52 GP, 5-12-17, 12 PIMS, +10 rating, 63 shots, 20 hits, 17 blocks, 12:27 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 15th
NHL ETA: 2018-19/2019-20 – Assuming he crosses the pond next year, he will join Laval as a rookie with a lot more experience and polish than a typical rookie. That would seem to set him up for a bigger role early on and considering he profiles as a checker, he could be someone that garners a look pretty quickly if he transitions well to playing on the smaller surface.
#12) Brett Lernout
Defenceman, St. John’s (AHL)
3rd round pick (73rd overall) in 2014
In what basically amounts to a ‘bonus year’, Lernout played a regular role with the IceCaps last year despite his contract not officially kicking in until this season. He started out as a bottom pairing defender but as injuries and recalls decimated their back end, he moved into a top four spot and held his own.
Lernout is basically the prototypical third pairing defenceman (at least of a few years ago). He’s big, physical, and is more of a stay-at-home type of player. His offensive game was non-existent last year but that’s typically for a lot of rookies on the blueline. Lernout should remain a top four player for the IceCaps this season and if he handles it well, he could be fairly high on the depth chart for recalls before too long.
2015-16 Stats: 69 GP, 2-10-12, 73 PIMS, -4 rating, 58 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 13th
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – The ideal progression for him this year will be to maintain that top four role and become a dependable shutdown option for the IceCaps. Next season will be the one where progression in his offensive game should be expected which should be the last step towards him making that push for a spot towards the back of Montreal’s blueline.
#11) Will Bitten
Centre/Right Wing, Flint (OHL)
3rd round pick (70th overall) in 2016
From the sounds of things, the Habs would have likely drafted Bitten with one of their second rounders had they not dealt them for Andrew Shaw and accordingly, they were delighted to still get him in the third round. He made the best of a bad situation last season, leading Flint in scoring while being their best all-around player despite all the turmoil although his lack of size likely caused him to drop in the draft.
At the next level, Bitten is probably more of a third liner than a second line option but his speed and relentlessness should make him a successful player in the pros. It will be interesting to see how he fares with Hamilton away from the controversy and on a team with better depth. Can he improve on his play from last season despite a lesser role? If so, he’s a good bet to crack the top-10 next year.
2015-16 Stats: 67 GP, 30-35-65, 32 PIMS, -29 rating, 146 shots, 173/431 faceoffs (40.1%)
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – If he has a couple of big seasons to wrap up his junior career, I could see this getting pushed up by a year as he’s the type of energy player that can make an impact sooner than later. For now though, he’s more likely to need a couple of years in the AHL before being NHL ready.
As part of our series, we’d like to hear who you think Montreal’s top prospects are. If you haven’t already, please fill out our Top-10 Prospects ballot. The results will be published later on this month.