The Habs may not have a ton of top-end talent in their prospect pool but the depth of their group has certainly improved in recent years. Our prospect rankings begin with the bottom six, several of which were slotted considerably higher in the past.
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, 2021
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 – NHL GP: Alexander Romanov (2), Jake Evans (11)
Graduated – Age: Lukas Vejdemo (23)
Traded – Hayden Verbeek (36)
Lost in Expansion – Cale Fleury (12)
Released – Jacob LeGuerrier (20), Joni Ikonen (31), Arsen Khisamutdinov (33), Kieran Ruscheinski (37)
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. Players are assessed on a combination of upside, likelihood of making it to the NHL, and overall value to the organization.
The plan heading into the season was for these to run during the Olympic break which was going to give us some coverage when the Habs were off for four weeks but obviously, that’s not happening now. Early-season performances have been taken into consideration but as they are small sample sizes, they only move a player up or down a few slots.
41) Arvid Henrikson
Defenceman, Lake Superior State (NCAA)
7th round pick (187th overall) in 2016
Henrikson has gone from a depth player to a regular for the Lakers but that’s still not saying a lot as he’s a fixture on their third pairing most nights. That’s pretty faint praise considering he’s not in a program that’s known as a hockey power.
To be fair to him, he has done well enough for himself, going from an out-of-the-blue late-round flyer to someone who’s going to get a full college scholarship out of it and that’s pretty good all things considered. But in terms of value to the Habs, there isn’t any unless his final year and a half are a whole lot better than his first couple of NCAA seasons.
2020-21 Stats: 29 GP, 0-1-1, even rating, 27 PIMS, 10 shots, 31 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 38th
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – I’m stopping myself from putting N/A in any of these even though that’s the answer for Henrikson. A much stronger finish to his college career would still need to be followed up by a couple of years in the minors before he’d have even a remote chance of a recall. That’s just not going to happen.
40) Michael McNiven
Goaltender, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2015
Deep down, I think this rating is too low but given his current status in the organization, I can’t justify going any higher. McNiven has continually been overlooked by the team in the past few years and his development has suffered as a result and no, the pandemic didn’t help either. But in the last two seasons, he played just 38 games at a time where young goalies should be seeing that much action each year at an absolute minimum.
This season, he’s not getting much playing time with Laval and, to be frank, he isn’t playing well when he is in the lineup which makes it hard for J-F Houle to play him. At this point, McNiven has no trade value other than swapping him for another underachiever between the pipes and he’ll probably be walking for no compensation a few months from now as it’s hard to envision him being brought back. While I still think he can be a decent #3 goalie, it’s not going to be with the Habs which drops him way down the rankings.
2020-21 Stats: 13 GP, 7-3-3 record, 2.59 GAA, .895 SV%
Previous HW Ranking: 29th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – Assuming he moves onto another organization and can establish himself as an AHL starter, McNiven could plausibly have an outside shot at NHL minutes the following year. But the clock is ticking fast as he turns 25 in July.
39) Jack Smith
Centre, Sioux Falls (USHL)
4th round pick (102nd overall) in 2020
There’s a reason that high schoolers are hard to evaluate. Sure, they can light it up against that level of competition but it’s not exactly a tough level compared to other junior leagues. Smith showed he was more than capable of scoring at that level but last season was his first real test. It didn’t go well.
Smith, quite frankly, was overmatched for long stretches of the year. Speed-wise, he can certainly keep up but the rest of his game didn’t nor has he taken a step forward this year despite opting to repeat the level instead of going to college. From the moment the Habs drafted him, he became another of their long-term projects and in the grand scheme of things, not a lot has changed. He’s just a longer-term project than everyone would have hoped. Until he shows some consistent progression though, he’s not going to move up the rankings much.
2020-21 Stats: 47 GP, 7-6-13, -6 rating, 60 PIMS, 52 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 27th
NHL ETA: 2027-28 – It sure seems like Smith will need all four of his college years (to be played at Minnesota-Duluth) before being ready for the pros. He also isn’t going right to the NHL so at least one year in the minors is reasonable to project. As a result, this is the earliest he could plausibly be ready and this may be on the early side.
38) Jack Gorniak
Left Wing, Wisconsin (NCAA)
4th round pick (123rd overall) in 2018
Gorniak was where Smith was a few years ago, a prolific high school scorer that hadn’t been tested much at higher levels of competition. He’s still a strong skater but the rest of his game hasn’t developed much, especially offensively.
With Wisconsin, Gorniak has become a reliable defensive player that kills penalties but aside from spot duty in the top six when there are injuries, he hasn’t really moved up much. It’s not a matter of simply being blocked by more prominent prospects either; it’s his fourth year now and many newcomers have come in and outproduced him.
Even with that said, I don’t want to entirely give up on Gorniak. I don’t think he gets an NHL deal but if I were the Habs, I’d be offering an AHL tryout as soon as Wisconsin’s season comes to an end and getting him into some game action with Laval. I believe he can be a serviceable role player in the minors for a few years but that’s just not the profile of a player I’d want to use an NHL contract slot on when there are only 50 available.
2020-21 Stats: 31 GP, 6-7-13, -1 rating, 8 PIMS, 56 shots, 20 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 30th
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – If Gorniak is able to turn pro (on an NHL entry-level deal or an AHL contract) and have some success in that checking/penalty killing role, it might be enough to earn him at least a brief NHL look. He has a long way to go to get to that point though.
37) Alexander Gordin
Right Wing, St. Petersburg (MHL)
6th round pick (171st overall) in 2020
A year ago, Gordin was coming off an impressive season that saw him tie for second in the MHL in goals. From there, a promotion to either the VHL or KHL seemed likely. Unfortunately, things didn’t go too well in his limited VHL action which had him back in the junior ranks but instead of scoring more, Gordin scored less.
This season was more of the same early on before he had an opportunity to catch on with Sochi of the KHL where he has had a very limited role. Generally, I want prospects seeing as much ice time as possible and he’s not even playing six minutes a game. The exposure to a higher level of competition is nice but the fact he hardly plays offsets that somewhat.
Gordin still has a quality shot but the rest of his game needs a lot of work. He’s not a strong skater nor is he great in his own end and without those elements, it’s hard to be a one-trick pony even if that one trick is an above-average shot. This is the final year of his deal in Russia and it’ll be interesting to see if he’s brought over or if they leave him at home with the hopes that he plays his way into a bigger KHL role first.
2020-21 Stats: 49 GP, 23-20-43, +5 rating, 16 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 34th
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – He’s more of a long-term project than it seemed when he was picked. If he was to sign this summer, he’d probably need three good years of development in the minors as it will take considerable time for the other areas of his game to improve to more passable levels.
36) Jacob Olofsson
Centre, Timra (Allsvenskan)
2nd round pick (56th overall) in 2018
A few years ago, I thought Olofsson was pretty close to a lock to make the NHL. Sure, it wouldn’t be as a high-impact player but as a fourth liner that could play centre and the wing, kill penalties, and be responsible defensively, the floor was high enough that he’d get a look. Or so it seemed.
Since then, things have gone completely off the rails for Olofsson who has regressed in his development. He was supposed to have a passable offensive skillset but that has basically disappeared to the point where he had to be dropped down from the SHL just to give him a chance to play in some offensive situations. He didn’t exactly light it up either, putting up numbers that were similar to his draft year.
Olofsson has spent most of this season back in the SHL and had been playing the same minimal role he had a year ago, not even cracking ten minutes a game. That resulted in him again dropping down a level, signing a two-year deal in the process. This is the final year Montreal has his rights and the season he’s having isn’t exactly screaming ‘must-sign‘. I’d be curious to see if he’d do any better on the smaller ice in North America but I have a hard time thinking he’s going to get that opportunity.
2020-21 Stats: 36 GP, 9-11-20, +13 rating, 16 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 26th
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – For this purpose, let’s say he does sign. Olofsson will need a couple of years in Laval to really hone his craft as a pure checker and try to show some offensive improvement to get him on the NHL radar. That didn’t seem farfetched a few years ago but now, even this feels like a bit of an optimistic scenario.