With the playoffs now upon us, it’s time to reveal the final grouping of prospects for 2020-21. This grouping features a trio of players who have seen time with the Habs this season and are expected to be key cogs for them in the future.
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.
5) Mattias Norlinder
Defenceman, MODO (Allsvenskan)
3rd round pick (64th overall) in 2019
This year’s biggest riser in the rankings, Norlinder’s stock shot up following a very successful full season in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, a level below the SHL. He did well in a partial season the year before to shoot him up the draft board in his second year of eligibility and while he was quiet at the World Juniors, the fact he made team on what was a deep back end was impressive in itself.
I don’t want to dig too deep into what happened this season. At the time these rankings were done, he was scuffling a bit but with it being his first taste of the top league with a new program and a new coach, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I didn’t hold that against him with this ranking and while I’d have liked to have seen a bit more offence from him this year, he’s not going to drastically tumble for the 2021-22 edition.
In fact, I think what happened this year will help him more than people realize. Yes, his offensive game is his calling card – he’s quite comfortable in the offensive zone and a strong skater and puck-mover – but that won’t be what gets him to the NHL. It may be what keeps him there but not what gets him there.
What do I mean by that? If his defensive game doesn’t come around, he’s not getting any sort of viable opportunity in the NHL. He’s good offensively but not great. You need to be great offensively to overcome defensive deficiencies. That’s not going to be Norlinder. But there were improvements in his own end despite some of the highlights that might suggest otherwise. He was asked to focus on the play in his own end and he did and the good outweighed the bad. His NHL future will be better for it even if the numbers weren’t pretty.
2019-20 Stats: 34 GP, 7-11-18, +13 rating, 2 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 13th
NHL ETA: 2022-23/2023-24 – Norlinder has another year left on his deal in Sweden and then at that point, the Habs will likely try to bring him over. I’m not sure he’s going to be ready to jump in right away though as he will need some time in the minors to adapt to the structural defensive changes from playing in North America. Given his track record, that adjustment won’t be fast.
4) Cayden Primeau
Goalie, Laval (AHL)
7th round pick (199th overall) in 2017
Expectations for Primeau were high heading into his first professional season. He was dominant in college (so much so that he left two years early) and played well at the World Juniors. Unfortunately, I think they were a bit too high heading in.
Goalies don’t typically develop at the same pace as skaters do. They tend to take longer and as a result, he was basically in a timeshare with Charlie Lindgren for most of last year. From the perspective of the fans, it may not have been the most exciting but asking him to play 50 games right away wasn’t the right development option.
Primeau has made strides in terms of playing the puck, something he didn’t do often in college and given the frequency that Carey Price plays the puck, it’s a skill he needs to continue to develop as it’s built into Montreal’s system. Cleaning up rebounds will also be critical as while he’s good at making the first stops, he gets into trouble when he kicks them out and it’s often the rebounds that get past him.
The short season certainly isn’t ideal from a development perspective either. It’s almost a year to write off entirely and it really makes the idea of having him push for the backup role in Montreal if Jake Allen is picked by the Kraken an even worse one. Former goalie coach Stephane Waite said that he figures Primeau needs 150 AHL games before he’s truly NHL ready. That number may be hard to get to but the logic is sound. He may be in the pros but he is very much still a project.
2019-20 Stats: 33 GP, 17-11-7 record, 2.45 GAA, .908 SV%, 4 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 5th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – While he’ll see spot NHL action between now and then (he already has), this is the year where Primeau becomes waiver-eligible. Until then, the best spot for him to be is where he can get a number one workload and that’s not going to be with the Habs.
3) Kaiden Guhle
Defenceman, Prince Albert (WHL)
1st round pick (16th overall) in 2020
When the Habs picked Guhle on draft night, my immediate feeling was that of ambivalence. I understood the logic behind the pick and the rationale made sense. But on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly an exciting pick as he doesn’t project to bring a lot of offensive punch to a team that went out and added a bunch of scoring last offseason and evidently still needs to add a bunch of scoring.
So why is he this high on the list? While there are no guarantees in the middle of the first round, Guhle is the type of player whose developmental floor is high enough to make it very easy to see him patrolling an NHL back end. Even if his offensive game doesn’t come around much, he easily fits on a third pairing. Part of the challenge in doing these rankings is weighing upside against risk factors. Does he have the most upside of the defencemen in Montreal’s prospect pool? Certainly not. But unlike some of the ones just behind him, there’s a ‘miss’ potential with them. I don’t see that with Guhle and that’s not often the case.
For his size, he’s a good skater. He’s not a burner but he’s more mobile than the likes of Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson, players that are stylistically comparable in terms of how they play, including in the physicality department. How many times have you thought to yourself, if only Chiarot/Edmundson could skate and move the puck a bit better; how much more effective could he be? Guhle is that type of player and that’s a very useful piece to have in the system.
I liked his performance at the World Juniors. No, he wasn’t the top player but he was a safe, reliable player for most of his shifts and showed a bit of offensive upside. For someone that has another year of eligibility left, that’s not a bad showing by any stretch. I’m not overly bullish on his offensive upside; he’s not going to be a player that racks up a lot of points. I suspect scouts feel that way too which is why he slipped to the middle of the first round. Guhle probably isn’t a top-pairing player down the road but should he be capable of 18-20 minutes a night in the top four, providing a stable defensive presence with some physicality? I think he can, making him an important piece of their future core.
2019-20 Stats: 64 GP, 11-29-40, +23 rating, 56 shots, 143 shots
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – Next season will be critical for Guhle with this one being largely a write-off due to the pandemic and a hand injury upon returning to the WHL. If he plays a full year, I can see him making the jump to the NHL quickly after a year in Laval. The Habs have a temptation to bring up their prospects quickly and with his defensive presence, that will be the case with him as well.
2) Alexander Romanov
Defenceman, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
2nd round pick (38th overall) in 2018
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. No, he’s not going to be on the list next year as he has already played in 50 NHL games. But these were done before the season started and it has taken me a long time to finish writing the columns.
2019-20 was a big of a mixed bag for Romanov. Sure, he played a little bit more but he still didn’t advance past being the sixth defenceman all that often. The offensive numbers were a little better but nothing special. For someone who clearly showed that he has some upside in that regard based on his play at the World Juniors, his time in the KHL was underwhelming. But Russian teams don’t invest a lot of development time in players that aren’t going to be sticking around so he wasn’t going to get much of a chance given his commitment to come to North America.
Romanov’s well known enough to the point where I don’t need to go on too much about his game. He can hit, skate well, and there are some decent instincts at both ends though he tends to get a little overaggressive at times. That’s called being a young defenceman and I’m confident that he’ll learn over time to make better choices on when to be aggressive and when to make the safe play.
Like Guhle, I don’t see him having the offensive upside to really become a top pairing player. He has some decent elements but nothing that makes him a real threat at that end. But again, is he capable of handling 18-20 minutes a game, playing with an edge, and fitting in with what should be a transitioning core on the back end over the next few years? All signs are pointing in that direction.
2019-20 Stats: 43 GP, 0-7-7, +10 rating, 14 PIMS, 44 shots, 39 hits, 30 blocks, 12:53 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 4th
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – He was a regular all season long. Is there anything more that needs to be said?
1) Cole Caufield
Right Wing, Wisconsin (NCAA)
1st round pick (15th overall) in 2019
Remember my comment about Guhle where the Habs added a bunch of offence and still needed to add a bunch? Caufield is the one prospect they have that has the potential to really help fill that void. (There are plenty of others with NHL upside but Caufield is the only one that has 30-goal potential.)
There was some improvement in his all-around game last season and that continued in the early going this year before the World Juniors, the cutoff for these rankings. He’s never going to be a defensive specialist or anyone you want to see on the penalty kill but the more he improves there, the longer the leash he’s going to get. With that longer leash should come more goals so it is indeed important that the Habs work with Caufield on that element of the game.
Of course, Caufield’s calling card is his shot. He is a high-end sniper and it is a skill that is already above average in the NHL. What will be important is his ability to move away from the puck in the offensive zone to get into open shooting areas. He showed a knack for that in college which is definitely a good sign.
Yes, he’s undersized. Yes, he’s not exactly an elite skater for being undersized and yes, he’s not great in the defensive end. But he can put the puck in the net which the last time I checked was how teams win games. There is legitimate top line potential here, albeit with some risk. The Habs don’t have a lot of higher-tier talent up front though and it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about Caufield as a result.
2019-20 Stats: 36 GP, 19-17-36, -3 rating, 6 PIMS, 140 shots, 8 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 1st
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – Honestly, I really think he could benefit from more time in Laval in terms of working on his defensive game and as I said earlier, it’s his improvement there that will dictate his usage as either a top liner or a situational/exploitative role player. But I don’t see him getting that time and as it stands, it sure seems like he’ll be a regular with Montreal next season.