Our next batch of prospects in our annual rankings series consists of one of Montreal’s higher picks from just three years ago, some longer-term projects, and one of their longest-tenured prospects.
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.
30) Jack Gorniak
Left Wing, Wisconsin (NCAA)
4th round pick (123rd overall) in 2018
The good news for Gorniak is that he was still a really good skater last season. The bad news is nothing really improved to the extent to justify playing him higher in the lineup; in fact, he spent a fair bit of time on the fourth line. Part of that is due to what they had for a freshman class for sure but he certainly didn’t help his cause.
However, he has been better in the early going this year and there have been improvements at both ends of the ice (although he’s still on the fourth line more than I’d like to see). A few months ago, he was approaching write-off territory and would have been in the first article (31-38) as a result but he has shown enough this season that there’s still a tiny bit of hope for him.
At this point, I don’t think Gorniak has shown enough to warrant an entry-level deal and I’m skeptical he’ll improve enough between now and the end of next season to get there. But if he can take a step forward in his senior year, I could see the Habs trying to give him an AHL contract, especially with their emphasis on high-end skating in some of their recent draftees. That’s enough to put him ahead of Joni Ikonen (31) who is a lot more talented but also a lot less likely to get any sort of contract from Montreal.
2019-20 Stats: 28 GP, 2-5-7, -7 rating, 8 PIMS, 34 shots, 8 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 28th
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – Gorniak will all but certainly playing out his full college career as I can’t see a scenario where the Habs turn him pro for next season. If he can get a contract from there, he’ll need a couple of years in the minors before having a chance at being NHL-ready.
29) Michael McNiven
Goaltender, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2015
I’ve long been a believer in McNiven’s upside so don’t let this ranking fool you. This isn’t me giving up on him. No, this ranking is simply a realization of the reality of last season and the expected outcome of this year.
McNiven was relegated to third-string status last season behind Cayden Primeau and Charlie Lindgren (later Keith Kinkaid) so they opted to try to send him to the ECHL to find him some playing time. That didn’t go too well as he had to bounce between three teams at that level to suit up as he basically served as a nomadic injury replacement. This for a player on an NHL contract.
He was recalled to Laval midseason where he was literally forgotten about for a few days before he was actually invited to practice with the team then spent most of the second half in the press box, making all of three starts.
Unfortunately for him, he’ll be lucky to make that many appearances this season where he’s the clear third-stringer behind Primeau and Vasili Demchenko who they didn’t bring over from the KHL to make a healthy scratch most nights. (Even Lindgren could get a game or two for conditioning purposes at some point.) With so many ECHL teams suspending operations, a loan to that league is going to be even harder than last year as well.
As a result, McNiven is basically faced with two years of lost development which means I have to move him down in the rankings as a result. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and as much as I’d be happy for him if he had a chance to move on, I think he’s worth keeping around when there will be an easier path to at least an AHL backup role next season.
2019-20 Stats (ECHL): 22 GP, 9-11-2 record, 3.11 GAA, .909 SV%
Previous HW Ranking: 25th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – The window is quickly closing on McNiven’s NHL upside as it’s hard to envision him getting an opportunity after 22-23 if he hasn’t at least had a sniff of NHL action by then. It’s also difficult to see that coming with Montreal unless Jake Allen is wearing a Seattle Kraken sweater next season. In the meantime, his goal over the next few seasons should be to try to establish himself as an AHL starter which would at least keep him on the radar a little bit.
28) Rafael Harvey-Pinard
Left Wing, Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
7th round pick (201st overall) in 2019
Montreal’s decision to draft him looked like a way of trying to just jump the line to get his rights rather than try to sign him in undrafted free agency, a decision that actually made a lot of sense. Harvey-Pinard was coming off a breakout year and postseason and the Habs opted to send him back to junior for his overage year rather than put him in Laval.
In hindsight, I’m wondering if that may not have been the best move. By no means did Harvey-Pinard play poorly but he wound up with a bit of lesser role than he had with Rouyn-Noranda and the offensive numbers weren’t quite as strong as a result. While scoring won’t be his calling card in the pros, it would have been nice to see him carve out a bigger slice of the pie, so to speak.
Signed to an AHL contract a while back, Harvey-Pinard will now have to prove he’s worthy of an NHL deal in the equivalent of roughly half a season due to the pandemic. At 22 now, he should be able to step into a regular role and he’s a hard enough worker at the defensive end to make an impact at both ends of the ice if all goes well. But if he gets off to a rough start, his rights could be dropped in June as well. There isn’t much margin for error as a result.
2019-20 Stats: 62 GP, 34-44-78, +16 rating, 37 PIMS, 187 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 31st
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – Had Harvey-Pinard made the jump to Laval last year, I would have been inclined to up this a bit but between going back to junior and this season being shortened considerably, he’s a longer-term project than they may have originally anticipated. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him in a Montreal uniform at some point but he’ll need to work himself into a top-six spot with the Rocket first and that will take some time.
27) Jack Smith
Centre, St. Cloud (USHS)
4th round pick (102nd overall) in 2020
In the middle of the draft, the Habs turned to their usual strategy of drafting longer-term projects, a plan that isn’t going away anytime soon. Smith had been nothing short of dominant at the high school level but that level of competition is well below comparable junior leagues or even the USHL.
Smith has moved into the USHL this season and the early returns have been underwhelming, to put it mildly. He isn’t getting top minutes by any stretch which partially helps explain the sluggish offensive start but it’s also fair to say more was expected by this point.
Despite that, there are still some elements to like about his game. He’s good enough in his own end to be serviceable and he’s a top-notch skater, an area that Montreal is definitely prioritizing. I wasn’t thrilled with his selection back at the draft – I had him as a sixth-rounder given his injuries and lack of quality competition – but it’s clear that there is an intriguing skill set. It’s also clear that Smith is very much another long-term project.
2019-20 Stats: 11 GP, 16-14-30, 12 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2026-27/2027/28 – At this point, I think it’s fair to surmise that Smith will need some time to work his way up the lineup at Minnesota-Duluth where he is heading next season. He feels like a four-year player. Most college projects don’t make the jump from the NCAA to the NHL right away so add a year or two in the minors to that timeline and you have the makings of someone that is going to be on this list for an awfully long time.
26) Jacob Olofsson
Centre, Skelleftea (SHL)
2nd round pick (56th overall) in 2018
When he was drafted back in 2018, Olofsson was coming off a season in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan where he averaged close to a half a point per game as a teenager, suggesting he had some offensive upside to complement his defensive abilities. Fast forward to today. Olofsson is still averaging about a half a point per game at that same level. All of a sudden, the upside is in serious question.
In between then, Olofsson has spent a fair bit of time in the SHL. He has been passable in that level but hasn’t played particularly well. A change to the wing did little to help his fortunes in the early going this season which resulted in him dropping down a level and signing a contract extension through 2021-22 to boot. This is not what you would call a typical development path for an NHL prospect.
I liked Olofsson’s pick originally – he seemed like more of a two-way version of Jacob de la Rose who has been a capable defensive player but bereft of any offence in the NHL. Now, I’m having a hard time Olofsson will even get that far. He isn’t as strong as de la Rose in his own end which doesn’t give him that foundation that a team like Montreal will trust and hope that offensive improvement will come. And after doing next to nothing on the offensive side in nearly three years (though shoulder injuries surely didn’t help), the optimism for him to improve is waning quickly.
Am I writing off Olofsson? Not just yet as I can see a pathway to him rebounding. He’ll need a strong finish to his season and then will need to work his way back to the SHL (through team promotion or otherwise) where he can lock down a bigger role. If that happens, the Habs should eventually come calling.
2019-20 Stats: 24 GP, 2-7-9, +1 rating, 6 PIMS, 27 shots, 13:11 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 14th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – In a perfect world, the plan would have been to bring Olofsson over after this season, give him a year or two in Laval and he’d be good to go. While that plan will be delayed, I’m not sure the overall timeline will be. If he gets to Laval (and that’s a big if at this point), it should become evident quickly as to whether or not he’s going to have NHL upside.