Our third group of prospects in our annual rankings series features a pair of players who actually suited up for the Habs last year plus a pair of 2020 draft picks off to good starts to their seasons.
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, 2020
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: Nick Suzuki (2)
Released: Allan McShane (20), Cole Fonstad (21), Alexandre Alain (29), Samuel Houde (32), David Sklenicka (34), Antoine Waked (36)
Lost via Waivers: Noah Juulsen (9)
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.
I also want to take a second to address the delay in running these this year. Given the uncertainty surrounding this season all the way through December, these were saved in case the schedule was further delayed. The hope was also that by now, the junior leagues would be up and running, providing an opportunity for some fresher analysis which hasn’t quite happened for some prospects. Because some players have played though, players from the 2020 draft class aren’t slotted in the order they were picked as they often are as some have bolstered their value already.
25) Rhett Pitlick
Left Wing, Muskegon (USHL)
5th round pick (131st overall) in 2019
He got off to a slow start to his year with Omaha but a midseason trade to Muskegon seemed to get him going. This season, the same thing happened – a slow start, a trade request, and an improvement with his new team as he’s now with Tri-City.
Not a whole lot has changed for Pitlick since he was drafted. He can fly on his feet and there are enough offensive tools to make him an intriguing project. Since moving to the USHL, he has become more of a pure playmaker but with enough time and space, he can still do some damage with his shot. I’d like to see him shoot a bit more, quite frankly. I’m not sure it’ll result in many more goals but if it opens up extra passing lanes, that could help lead to more points.
Pitlick is committed to the University of Minnesota for next season and it’s probably going to take him some time to work his way up the lineup. While he hasn’t been receptive of a lesser role in the USHL, he’s going to need to be in college. Considering he’s starting two years after his draft though, he should have the potential to move up quicker than most freshmen.
2019-20 Stats: 45 GP, 17-25-42, +8 rating, 18 PIMS, 85 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 26th
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – If Pitlick winds up only going through three years of college, this could be accelerated a little bit but I think he’s going to need a couple of years to get into a top-line role which means he could be a four-year player. If that’s the case, he’ll be turning pro at 24 and by then, he won’t have much of an opportunity for minor league development time, even if he needs it.
24) Blake Biondi
Centre, Hermantown (USHS)
4th round pick (109th overall) in 2020
The 2020 Mr. Hockey Award recipient was nothing short of dominant at the high school level, notching just over three points per game in both the regular season and the playoffs. He didn’t fare anywhere near as well in his limited USHL action though which probably hurt his draft stock a little bit.
Unlike several of Montreal’s project picks in recent years, Biondi isn’t a speedster. And don’t let the gaudy numbers fool you, he’s effective in all three zones. But he’s raw as a prospect and even that feels like a bit of an understatement.
I generally don’t like the development path of players that wait a year or two after being drafted to go to college. While it can extend the amount of time a team has to sign them, they’re often approaching being too old to be classified as a prospect by the time they do. But part of me wonders if that would have made more sense for Biondi as he could have gotten more experience before making the jump.
Instead, he went straight to Minnesota-Duluth and as a true freshman, he has held his own in a limited role so far so I’ve given him a small boost from where he otherwise would have been slotted. It’s a quiet start but a good one.
2019-20 Stats: 25 GP, 37-39-76, 42 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26/2026-27 – At this point, I’d be surprised if Biondi turned pro before maxing out his college eligibility and as is often the case with college project players like him, he’s not making the jump right away. I think he has a chance to gradually work his way up this list but the Habs will be waiting a while for him.
23) Lukas Vejdemo
Centre, Laval (AHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2015
This was one of the harder ones for me to pick. From an upside standpoint, there really isn’t much. He’s now 25 (he was 24 at the eligibility cut-off point) and there isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement left. On the other hand, he held his own with the Habs last season and is probably on the recall radar this year so it can’t be all bad either.
I was largely disappointed with Vejdemo’s showing in Laval last season. It’s not that he played particularly poorly but rather that there were no improvements of consequence. He was a checker with limited offensive skills and after a year under Joel Bouchard, he was still a checker with limited offensive skills. Heading into this season, you can probably guess where my assessment of him is.
But while the NHL ceiling is fourth line at best, he probably isn’t that far from it either as he should be among the first few recalls if the injury bug strikes hard in Montreal. (Signing for the league minimum certainly helps on that front.) If enough people get hurt, they know they can trust him for eight minutes a night if they need to. That’s not an exciting prospect profile but it’s still valuable to have a player or two like that around in the organization. That’s why he’s slotted higher than prospects that have considerably higher upside but also a less likely chance of making it.
2019-20 Stats: 47 GP, 9-10-19, -8 rating, 20 PIMS, 81 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 25th
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – While he has already seen NHL action and may play a handful of games this season, Vejdemo is far from being a regular. If he’s brought back for another season (or signed by someone else), he’ll be waiver-eligible and that will be the benchmark to see if he can be an NHL regular as a 12th-14th forward or a depth player that just bounces back and forth.
22) Jakub Dobes
Goaltender, Omaha (USHL)
5th round pick (136th overall) in 2020
Evaluating technical elements of a goalie’s game has never been my strong suit and I’m not going to try to do much of that here. He’s raw but let’s face it, pretty much every goalie that’s drafted is raw.
Dobes’ journey to this point intrigues me. While he’s from the Czech Republic, he went state-side in 2017 to play high school hockey which isn’t a typical route for an international prospect to take. He struggled at times in the USHL last season but it was his first exposure to any sort of higher-level competition. And as he repeats the level this year, he has handled it much better so far which results in a bump up this list compared to where he would have been had these been run in late 2020 as usual.
Goalies with size are always interesting and he has it a 6’5. He’ll need time to fill out and refine the technical elements of his game so he’s definitely a longer-term project but with Carey Price signed through 2026 and Cayden Primeau in the system ahead of him, they can afford to be patient.
2019-20 Stats: 21 GP, 9-6-3 record, 3.09 GAA, .891 SV%, 1 SO
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26/2026-27 – If things go well, I could see Dobes leaving Ohio State a year early to turn pro but he’d still need some AHL time before being ready. In an ideal world, management likely has Dobes pencilled in as Primeau’s backup when Price’s contract ends but a whole lot would have to go right on the development side for that to happen.
21) Otto Leskinen
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2019
I have to admit, I was a bit underwhelmed with his performance last season. For someone that did well in Finland’s top league, I was expecting him to play a big role right away in Laval. He didn’t look out of place or anything but he also wasn’t exactly a go-to guy either.
From a mobility and puck-moving standpoint, Leskinen is an effective player. He skates well and likes to join the rush, something that blueliners are being asked do more and more. That’s great. However, he’s lacking in actually being able to, you know, defend. He’s a bit on the smaller side and can get pushed around by bigger attackers and he has been burned by getting caught up ice as well. That contributed to his stint in Montreal being limited.
With only one season in North America, it’s not really fair to say this is a make-or-break year for Leskinen but let’s face it, it’s basically a make-or-break year. He’ll turn 24 next month and the Habs have an abundance of left-shot defenders ahead of him in their prospect pool, several of which either have to sign or will likely be signed for next season. Someone’s going to get squeezed out and Leskinen will be facing some pressure to make sure it’s not him.
2019-20 Stats: 52 GP, 2-20-22, -7 rating, 57 PIMS, 66 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 17th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – This ETA is tied to Leskinen’s waiver-eligible season as similar to Vejdemo, he’ll use up his exempt years before having a shot at garnering any sort of long-term NHL consideration. He has a bit more development runway to use and will need to show considerable progress in his own end to get that opportunity. If he can do that though, he could be an intriguing late-bloomer.