Our third group of prospects in our 2019-20 rankings features a pair of players who have been in the organization for a while now and are running out of time to make their mark.
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, 2019
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 in parentheses):
Graduated: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (1), Charlie Lindgren (6)
Released: Jarret Tyszka (21), Michal Moravcik (22), Brett Lernout (24), Scott Walford (25), Jeremiah Addison (28), Hunter Shinkaruk (31), Daniel Audette (34), Nikolas Koberstein (37)
Traded: Nikita Scherbak (15 – lost via waivers last season)
Included with each ranking is an estimate of the NHL readiness date for each prospect. 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) Lukas Vejdemo
Centre, Laval (AHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2015
As someone that was older than most AHL rookies and coming off playing a regular role in the SHL, expectations were fairly high for Vejdemo heading into the season. The thought was that he’d be able to play an important role right away and potentially play himself into a recall with Montreal fairly quickly as a result.
That didn’t exactly happen. He spent a lot of time on the fourth line early on and while it’s understandable that some sort of transition period was needed, it was longer than it should have been. As injuries struck though, Vejdemo got a chance in the top six (until he got hurt) and he showed considerable signs of improvement offensively to end his season on somewhat of a higher note.
Heading into the season as a 23-year-old in the final year of his entry-level contract, Vejdemo is at somewhat of a crossroads. He’s at the point where if he doesn’t take another step or two forward, there’s a chance he could be non-tendered in June (or be encouraged to sign overseas). He is playing a little better so far but he may still have to find another gear in the second half.
2018-19 Stats: 66 GP, 13-16-29, +5 rating, 18 PIMS, 97 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 16th
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – By the time next season rolls around, he’ll likely either be a part of Montreal’s fourth line or playing somewhere else. I actually think Vejdemo could be a useful player on the Habs in the right limited role but his overall upside at this point is somewhat limited which is why he drops down this far.
24) Michael McNiven
Goalie, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2015
After a quiet rookie season with the Rocket, McNiven was expected to play more of a regular role in Laval. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t really happen. Charlie Lindgren got a lot of work early on and when Connor LaCouvee got signed, he went on an impressive run and earned himself a lot of playing time as well. As a result, McNiven fell shy of getting into half of the games which isn’t great for a young goalie in his second pro campaign.
To his credit, McNiven’s season was a lot better than his rookie campaign although his tendency to get beaten by soft, untimely goals is one of the reasons that Joel Bouchard never really demonstrated that he had a lot of confidence in him.
Was it a lost season? No, but it wasn’t a great one development-wise either. He’s more on the bubble than he ever has been and with Cayden Primeau turning pro, McNiven finds himself fighting for minutes at the ECHL level (and he has already been loaned out once to try to get more playing time). He could still be part of the future between the pipes but that looks a lot less likely now than it did a year or two ago.
2018-19 Stats: 30 GP, 11-15-3 record, 2.52 GAA, .902 SV%, 2 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 19th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – McNiven only has one year of waiver exemption left after this one but given his limited playing time this year, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be NHL-ready after next season. Goalies can often be long-term projects but he’s going to be a longer-term one than originally expected.
23) Brett Stapley
Centre, Denver (NCAA)
7th round pick (190th overall in 2018)
This was not a pick that I was a fan of at the time. A re-entry player that didn’t exactly light up the BCHL didn’t scream must-draft. But after adapting quite well to the NCAA game, the Habs may have something here.
Stapley hovered near the point per game mark through the first couple of months of the season and while he tailed off after that, securing a legitimate spot in the top six quickly is still impressive for a freshman without a lot of pedigree. All in all, he was fifth on the Pioneers in scoring by a forward which isn’t half bad.
The big question that remains here is what type of upside he has. Stapley is a strong playmaker but his other offensive skills aren’t quite good enough yet. He’s still a long-term project but there is some upside on the horizon which gives him a big boost from last year’s ranking.
2018-19 Stats: 32 GP, 5-14-19, +9 rating, 35 PIMS, 52 shots, 192/381 faceoffs (50.4%)
Previous HW Ranking: 35th
NHL ETA: 2023-24/2024-25 – It certainly looks like Stapley is going to be a four-year college player and a lot of those players need at least a full season in the minors after that. Stapley could buck that trend but the safer bet is that he won’t.
22) Jacob LeGuerrier
Defenceman, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
5th round pick (126th overall in 2019)
Back on draft day, this pick felt like overkill as for the better part of day two of the draft, the Habs were seemingly just taking left-shot defencemen. But after taking a couple of picks that could be classified as gambles, LeGuerrier was a much safer selection.
Although his offensive numbers don’t pop off the charts, he has a decent feel for that side of the game but, like many of Montreal’s draftees on the back end, his skating is strong. He can skate his way out of trouble effectively and doesn’t get beat too often by opposing forwards.
If that sounds pretty vanilla, that’s about what LeGuerrier is. He’s not going to wow anyone but he’s effective. His ceiling isn’t anywhere near as high as others in this system are but his odds of reaching it are a lot better (which made ranking him a bit tricky). If it wasn’t for the fact that the Habs have plenty of left-shot defenders ahead of him in the system, I might feel a bit more optimistic about this pick.
2018-19 Stats: 68 GP, 6-10-16, +33 rating, 52 PIMS, 80 shots
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2022-23/2023-24 – With his upside basically being as a third pairing player, it’s possible that he doesn’t need as much seasoning in the minors as some other prospects will. It’s also worth noting that Claude Julien hasn’t shied away from playing young blueliners in limited roles which would bode well for LeGuerrier if he can get his entry-level deal.
21) Cole Fonstad
Left Wing, Prince Albert (WHL)
5th round pick (128th overall in 2018)
The raw offensive upside isn’t in question with Fonstad. He’s a quality playmaker with a good enough shot to not just be a one-dimensional player. However, he didn’t take much of a jump – or any jump, really – last season. He was a solid top-six forward which isn’t entirely bad but he was already that in his draft year. He also didn’t drastically improve in any areas where one could point to that and call it progress.
While he can play centre, he has been primarily deployed on the left wing and that’s where he’s likely to stay. Considering Montreal’s sudden depth down the middle and limited depth on the wings, that might actually work in his favour.
For Fonstad to have a shot at getting signed by June 1st, he needs to have a dominant season. Not good, not above average, but one where he stands out as being too good for the level. If he can’t do that, he’s going to have a hard time convincing management that he can be anything more than a complementary piece in the minors. He has the talent in him to do that but he’ll need to demonstrate that more often than he has so far.
2018-19 Stats: 67 GP, 29-44-73, +32 rating, 12 PIMS, 167 shots, 64/196 faceoffs (32.7%)
Previous HW Ranking: 18th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – If Fonstad can earn a contract (and that’s a big if), he’s someone that’s going to have a sizable learning curve in the minors. He won’t be good enough to play in the top six right away in the AHL so some ECHL time would likely be needed.