We’ve now reached the top five in our prospect rankings series. There aren’t too many surprises in this group as our writers felt Montreal’s top group was pretty well established heading into the season.
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.
5) Josh Brook
Defenceman, Moose Jaw (WHL)
2nd round pick (56th overall) in 2017
Last season didn’t get off to a good start for Brook as wrist surgery cost him more than two months and there was certainly an adjustment period when he returned. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t shooting a lot at the beginning and overall, his goal total dipped from his draft year.
However, Brook was near-dominant at times, especially as the season went on. His skating ability allows him to skate his way out of trouble and not get beat very often, allowing him to thrive in a number one role, something that has carried over into this season and helped him earn a spot at the World Juniors.
Brook was the second-biggest riser in this year’s rankings and it’s certainly possible that he’ll go up again next season. He is now one of the premier defenders in the WHL and a trendy pick to make a push for a roster spot with the Habs in 2019-20 although I think that may be a bit premature. Nonetheless, he looks like he’s going to outperform his initial selection.
2017-18 Stats: 45 GP, 3-29-32, +48 rating, 36 PIMS, 106 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 12th
Fan Vote: 5th
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – It’s rare for defencemen to make the jump to the NHL straight out of junior. The elite ones do but Brook isn’t at that level. He could certainly benefit from top minutes in the minors over being thrust into a third pairing role in the NHL so expect the Habs to exercise caution with him.
4) Noah Juulsen
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
1st round pick (26th overall) in 2015
Another player whose season was cut short with injury issues, Juulsen certainly didn’t look out of place with Montreal after faring well in his stint with Laval. He wasn’t flashy but he didn’t need to be. Instead, he was largely steady which was certainly an impressive feat for a rookie at the professional level.
Unsurprisingly, he made the Habs out of training camp and things were looking up until he was hit in the face by a puck twice in a period. That sent him to injured reserve and eventually to the minors upon his return where he wound up back on injured reserve. As a result, this is another season that is going to wind up being cut short by injury issues, even if he makes it back late in the year.
From what he has shown at the professional level, Juulsen’s upside is somewhat limited. He’s not going to be a big point producer and he isn’t the type of player who is going to log 22+ minutes a night. However, unless this vision issue winds up causing some long-term damage, he’s a very safe bet to be a capable fourth defender for a long time. Considering how hard it is to add core blueliners, that’s a very strong asset to have.
2017-18 Stats: 31 GP, 1-5-6, -9 rating, 8 PIMS, 106 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 1st
Fan Vote: 4th
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – Had it not been for the facial fracture, Juulsen was well on his way to solidifying a full-time roster spot with the Habs. This will set things back but assuming he’s able to recover, he’ll be back in Montreal before too long.
3) Ryan Poehling
Centre, St. Cloud (NCAA)
1st round pick (25th overall) in 2017
After an understandably quiet freshman season (as the youngest player on the college circuit), plenty of eyes were on Poehling to see if his numbers would improve in his second season. Mission accomplished. He was on their top line before too long and hovered near the point per game mark until close to the end of the season.
That had expectations even higher heading into this season and perhaps those were set too high. Poehling’s calling card isn’t necessarily his offence but rather his ability and willingness to play an all-around game. He also isn’t an aggressive shooter which doesn’t lend itself well towards a high goal total. His current season resembles last year and while some may think the lack of progression in points is a disappointment, he’s still having a solid season.
The big question surrounding Poehling is how much offensive upside he has. Can he produce at a level equivalent to that of a top six centre? I’m not certain on that. I think he fits in best as a high-end third liner that is capable of moving up when injuries strike. A team that has him on the third line would have to have really strong centre depth and that would be a really nice spot for the Habs to be in.
2017-18 Stats: 36 GP, 14-17-31, +4 rating, 30 PIMS, 69 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 3rd
Fan Vote: 3rd
NHL ETA: 2019-20/2020-21 – I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him getting a handful of games with the Habs this season but he’s not ready for full-time NHL duty yet. It’s possible that he could be a fourth liner next season but if that’s all the ice time he’s going to get, it’d be much better to have him start in Laval. (But first, he has to be convinced to forego his senior season.)
2) Nick Suzuki
Centre/Right Wing, Owen Sound (AHL)
Acquired in trade from Vegas in 2018
Suzuki has been one of the most consistent point producers in the OHL over the last few years to the point where I think it’s starting to work against him. At some point, the elite superstars find a way to build on top numbers but plenty of times, there is some stagnation in that regard from some high-quality prospects. Suzuki’s numbers are stagnating but there’s no denying he’s a top-notch prospect.
We’ve seen some much better playmaking from the Habs this season and that’s where Suzuki will really be able to fit in. He’s one of the top passers in the organization without even being in the NHL yet and he shoots enough to keep teams honest and not overplay the pass. It’s also nice seeing him be able to play centre and the right wing; that versatility will certainly be helpful.
Does Suzuki have front line upside? That could be debatable but he’s a pretty safe bet to at least be a second liner in the NHL before too long. In terms of raw offensive upside, the Habs haven’t had many prospects like him in recent years.
2017-18 Stats: 64 GP, 42-58-100, +30 rating, 18 PIMS, 282 shots, 52.6% faceoffs
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
Fan Vote: 2nd
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – Although he has enough skill to step into the lineup next season, it would make a lot more sense for Suzuki to spend a year in the minors where he could play a top role right away. (He could be a front liner now with what’s currently there…) He’s not a raw project like some juniors are but some patience will be required here.
1) Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Centre, Assat Pori (SM-liiga)
1st round pick (3rd overall) in 2018
The write-up for this a few months ago (remember, the rankings were done in the preseason) was a lot different than it is now. Coming into the season, Kotkaniemi looked like a project player that was at least a year away from making the NHL with questions about his overall upside. Now, he has already established himself as an NHL player with the question now being whether or not he can become the number one centre the team has been lacking for a very long time.
We’re still probably a few years from figuring out the answer to that question, however. Kotkaniemi will need to gain considerable strength and as he does so, he’ll probably get more engaged in battles in tight corners where his passing ability could become that much more dangerous. He has a lot of upside left but a long way to go. That said, the optimism around this pick is a whole lot higher now than it was six months ago.
2017-18 Stats: 57 GP, 10-19-29, -1 rating, 20 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
Fan Vote: 1st
NHL ETA: 2018-19 – I wouldn’t have guessed he’d have made the team out of camp but he has proven me and plenty of others wrong and has become an important part of the Habs quite quickly.