After a bit of a delay, we’ve reached the top-ten in our annual prospect rankings series. This group is highlighted by a first-rounder who may be nearing the end of his rope plus a mid-round selection who has vastly exceeded expectations.
As we’ve done the last few years, the top-10 have been voted on by members of HabsWorld’s writing staff while I ranked the players from 11 through 33. Voting was done prior to the beginning of training camp. 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, 2017
2) The player must have no greater than 55 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 in parentheses):
Graduated: Artturi Lehkonen (2nd), Daniel Carr (6th)
Released: Matt Bradley (23rd), Ryan Johnston (26th), Mark MacMillan (27th), Connor Crisp (32nd), Dalton Thrower (33rd), Colin Sullivan (34th)
Traded: Mikhail Sergachev (1st), Tim Bozon (21st)
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.
10) Jake Evans
Centre, Notre Dame (NCAA)
7th round pick (207th overall) in 2014
After taking a big jump forward in his sophomore season, Evans found another level last season. He was more aggressive with his shot which resulted in a jump in goals while he was still one of the more prominent playmakers in Division I.
This season, he has taken it to a whole new level and has been the top scorer in college hockey for a big chunk of the year. Evans continues to improve his all-around game (although I’d still like to see him shoot a bit more) and now finds himself on the radar for the upcoming Olympics.
If there is a downside to the way Evans has played, it’s the fact that he can go the Jimmy Vesey/Will Butcher (etc) route and opt to become an unrestricted free agent in mid-August. He has been complimentary of Montreal in his interviews publicly but when you’re that close to testing the open market, it can be awfully tempting.
2016-17 Stats: 40 GP, 13-19-32, +11 rating, 47 PIMS, 110 shots, 57.9% faceoffs, 27 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 14th
NHL ETA: 2017-18/2019-20 – The one thing Montreal can offer Evans that other teams can’t is the chance to burn the first year of his entry-level deal this year. In doing so, they’ll probably play him a game or two if he accepts. Realistically, he could use a season in the minors before looking to make a full-time jump as there will be an inevitable adjustment period to playing the pro game and dealing with a much heavier schedule.
9) Michael McNiven
Goalie, Owen Sound (OHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2015
After being one of the better goalies in the OHL in 2015-16, McNiven followed that up by being the top goalie last year in not only the OHL but the entire CHL after garnering Goalie of the Year honours. Not surprisingly, Montreal decided that they didn’t need to keep him in junior for his overage season.
McNiven isn’t one of the taller goalie prospects around the league but he makes up for it in other areas. He rarely gives up on a play (which results in some highlight reel saves) and isn’t afraid to handle the puck either.
The challenge the Habs face now is finding him consistent playing time. They decided to start him with ECHL Brampton but he now finds himself as the backup in Laval but is not seeing much action. That needs to change soon even if it means he has to drop down a level as sitting on the bench doesn’t do much for development.
2016-17 Stats: 54 GP, 41-9-2 record, 2.30 GAA, .915 SV%, 6 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 18th
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – With Charlie Lindgren ahead of him, there isn’t going to be an opening to play behind Carey Price anytime soon. Accordingly, they can take their time with his development instead of hoping he can make the jump in the next year or two. Most goalies need several years before they’re NHL ready and McNiven will fall into that category as well.
8) Victor Mete
Defenceman, London (OHL)
4th round pick (100th overall) in 2016
For those of you who skipped over the Overview, I’ll note again that voting for these rankings came during the preseason. It’s pretty safe to suggest that if we were doing a re-vote now, he’d rank a few spots higher at the very least.
Mete had a great year with London last season and was arguably their top defender even with a lottery pick in Olli Juolevi on his team. He flirted with the point-per-game mark and used his speed to generate a lot of zone clearings and was more than willing to jump into the attack. His poise and speed helped land him a roster spot with Montreal out of training camp.
Although he’s still just 19, I think it’s fair to suggest that Mete won’t be a big point producer in the NHL as he lacks a threatening shot and passing and speed only get you so far at that end. There’s no denying that he can still be effective though as we’ve seen already especially since he thinks the game quite well. He probably won’t be an ideal top pairing player long-term but he has played himself into the long-term outlook for the Habs.
2016-17 Stats: 50 GP, 15-30-45, +37 rating, 14 PIMS, 111 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 15th
NHL ETA: 2017-18 – He made the team out of camp and lasted at least two months with the possibility of more to come. This really doesn’t need to be analyzed more than that.
7) Joni Ikonen
Centre/Right Wing, Frolunda Jr (SuperElit)
2nd round pick (58th overall) in 2017
There’s no denying that Ikonen has quality offensive upside after a strong season at the Swedish junior ranks. He’s a deft stickhandler with an above average shot. However, the rest of his overall game needs some work and it wouldn’t be surprising if that played a role in his decision to go back to Finland to play in their top division this season over staying at the junior level in Sweden (where he likely would have spent a lot of time even if he got into a few games with Frolunda’s top club).
The returns haven’t been overly positive in the early going as his offensive game hasn’t been there for the most part while his playing time has been erratic at times. He has spent a decent chunk of the season at centre at least although he has been on the wing as well. Junior-aged players don’t always fare well at their first crack at the pro game so his sluggish start isn’t too much of a concern yet.
2016-17 Stats: 40 GP, 22-19-41, +8 rating, 42 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2020-21/2021-22 – We know Ikonen won’t cross the pond next season as he recently signed a one-year extension with KalPa. Realistically, he’d benefit from another year or two out there where he can gradually move into a bigger role and more ice time, not unlike Artturi Lehkonen’s development a few years ago. He’s one of Montreal’s more gifted offensive prospects but he’s a long-term project in terms of reaching that potential.
6) Michael McCarron
Centre, St. John’s (AHL)
1st round pick (25th overall) in 2013
After a decent first pro season, there were some hopes that McCarron may have some upside beyond being a physical depth player. After his 2016-17 campaign, those hopes aren’t so high anymore.
With the IceCaps, McCarron was a decent secondary producer. Unfortunately, he was often in a top line role so he underperformed relative to his spot in the lineup. He also continued to have penalty trouble (something that has carried over to this year as well).
Meanwhile, in Montreal, McCarron was basically asked to do two things, hit people and win faceoffs. He was fine at the first part but struggled at the dot, winning just 43.4% of his draws. He was a complete non-factor at the offensive end which went a long way to cement the thought that he’s a fourth liner long-term in the NHL. His speed has improved a bit the last couple of years but he needs to take another leap forward there to really have a shot at making more of an impact.
2016-17 Stats: 32 GP, 7-12-19, -7 rating, 66 PIMS, 73 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 4th
NHL ETA: 2017-18/2018-19 – He has already been up for a bit this season but realistically, if he has any shot of being an offensive threat in the NHL, he needs to stay with Laval for the rest of the year. His size and physicality make him pretty much a sure thing to be in Montreal full-time next season but if there is any real upside left in his game, he needs to show it now and his best bet to do so is to play with the Rocket.