Montreal’s concerted effort to add more defencemen to the organization is evident in our third group of players in this year’s prospect rankings.
As we’ve done the last few years, the top-10 have been voted on by members of HabsWorld’s writing staff at the beginning of the regular season while I ranked the players from 11 through 38. 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, 2018
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
* – One exception to this rule is Victor Mete. While he technically still qualified (he was at 49 NHL games heading into the season), it’s clear that he has established himself as an NHL regular and the only reason he didn’t get that extra game was his injury. Accordingly, we’re classifying him as a graduated prospect.
Here are the departures from last year’s list (previous ranking in parentheses):
Graduated: Charles Hudon (2), Michael McCarron (6), Victor Mete (8), Max Friberg (31)
Released: Martin Reway (20), Zach Fucale (24), Markus Eisenschmid (25), Jeremy Gregoire (26), Casey Staum (29), Tom Parisi (32)
Traded: Will Bitten (13), Simon Bourque (16), Hayden Hawkey (17)
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.
25) Scott Walford
Defenceman, Victoria (WHL)
3rd round pick (68th overall) in 2017
Walford looked like a player on the rise after a strong finish offensively to his 2016-17 season. However, that wasn’t really the case as he actually took a small step back in that regard last year. To be fair, he was still a dependable player in his own end but now his prospect profile has changed from a potential two-way player to more of a stay-at-home type.
It’s usually a pretty safe bet that third rounders get signed but I’m not sure that’s an automatic here. Montreal’s recent foray into the UDFA market (five signings in roughly the last six months) may force them to cut bait with some of their drafted prospects and Walford is on that bubble. He can certainly change that with a better showing this season but he’s not off to a great start in 2018-19. There’s a lot riding on these next few months.
2017-18 Stats: 69 GP, 2-30-32, +2 rating, 52 PIMS, 111 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 14th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – Last year, I thought Walford could be someone who moved up fairly quickly but after basically stagnating last season, I don’t think that’s going to be the case. If he signs, he could be someone that will need time at the ECHL level if they want him to be more than a third pairing player in the minors.
24) Brett Lernout
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
3rd round pick (73rd overall) in 2014
The fact that Lernout was more or less a non-factor for most of the year in Laval really hurts his ranking. He should have been a top defender by this stage of his career and instead, he was often behind players on minor league contracts. (Not all of that is Sylvain Lefebvre’s fault either.)
However, what stopped me from going even lower with this ranking was his NHL play last season. He held his own for the most part in his 18 games with the Habs and while those were all pretty much meaningless games at that time, it should give the Canadiens some confidence to use him if need be. This is pretty much his upside (injury recall) now but there is still a bit of value in that, especially since he’s still on his entry-level deal.
A dearth of right-shot defenders in Laval has resulted in Lernout spending a lot of time on the top pairing in the early going this season (despite being a recent healthy scratch in one game). If he can stay there and improve his skill game, there’s still a small chance that he could get back onto the radar.
2017-18 Stats: 56 GP, 1-7-8, -16 rating, 33 PIMS, 78 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 11th
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – I don’t think there’s a whole lot of development left when it comes to Lernout. This is his fourth professional season and he is who he is, a physical defender with some deficiencies when it comes to his all-around game and skating (though that has improved a bit over the years). There’s a decent chance he’ll see some action with the Canadiens again this year.
23) Jack Gorniak
Left Wing, West Salem High (USHS)
4th round pick (123rd overall) in 2018
Gorniak has shown that he can score at the high school level (88 points in 45 games across two levels last season) and that he can skate like the wind. The rest of his game, however, is still very much a work in progress.
He is a long-term project even though he made the jump right to college without spending a year in the USHL first (which might have been better for his long-term development). Gorniak is going to have a limited role with the University of Wisconsin this season so his output isn’t going to be anywhere near prolific as it was. The key for him will be to work his way up the lineup and be a go-to threat by his junior year.
2017-18 Stats: 24 GP, 28-28-56, 31 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – It’s a safe bet that Gorniak will need his full four years at college at the very least. Unless he is a high-end producer by that time, he’ll probably need a year or two in the minors as well. The Habs will be waiting quite a while for this pick to make an impact.
22) Michal Moravcik
Defenceman, HC Plzen (Czech Extraliga)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2018
The older and more experienced of the two Czech defenders the Habs signed, Moravcik plays a much different game than David Sklenicka. He’s a decent skater for his size but doesn’t get involved in the play anywhere near as much as Sklenicka does; Moravcik is more of a safer player in his own end.
Of the two, Sklenicka has the better overall upside but Moravcik is a lot closer to making an NHL impact as there isn’t much more development coming for him. He’s a third pairing type of player and skates fairly well for his size so within the next year or so, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in the mix for an NHL injury recall if all goes well. He’s battling for playing time in Laval which is a bit disappointing considering players on minor league deals are sometimes playing ahead of him but that should change as the season progresses.
2017-18 Stats: 52 GP, 5-11-16, +17 rating, 22 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – Unlike Gorniak, Moravcik’s NHL timeline is much shorter. By the end of his entry-level contract (in June of 2020), he and the Habs will want to know if he’s part of the NHL future or not. If so, he’ll be re-signed and if not, he’ll probably head back overseas as he’ll be 25 at that time and won’t want to stick around in the AHL if that’s his ceiling.
21) Jarret Tyszka
Defenceman, Seattle (WHL)
5th round pick (149th overall) in 2017
While Walford’s post-draft year was a bit of a downer, Tyszka took some steps forward on both sides of the ice. He was more involved offensively while he was more reliable in his own end after being someone who would often take himself out of position to make a riskier play. He was still guilty of that at times (most junior players are) but the frequency was much less.
This was supposed to be a key season for him as he works to land an entry-level deal. However, Tyszka suffered a concussion in Montreal’s rookie tournament and has yet to play since and a return doesn’t appear to be imminent. When he does return, he’ll have to pick up where he left off if he wants a shot at getting signed.
2017-18 Stats: 70 GP, 8-32-40, -11 rating, 69 PIMS, 137 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 21st
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – If Tyszka lands a contract from the Habs, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll need all three years in the minors to work his way into NHL consideration. With the number of blueliners expected to be there next season, time in the ECHL is certainly a possibility as well.