In this third group of prospects in our 2021-22 rankings, we have some later-round picks that have slowly upped their value over the past year or so.
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.
30) Frederik Dichow
Goaltender, Odense (Denmark)
5th round pick (138th overall) in 2019
Heading into last season, things were looking up for Dichow. After playing in Sweden’s junior league, he was going to go to the OHL, be a starter, get a lot of ice time, and everything was going to work out nicely. And then a certain virus got in the way. The OHL never got going and Dichow was basically relegated to being a practice squad goalie on a couple of teams back home.
Through his first two years after being drafted, Dichow has played 30 games. That’s not good for any goalie but it’s especially not good for someone who was drafted as a project. Goalies need game reps, especially those who aren’t particularly great at the basic fundamentals and so far, he hasn’t gotten them. It’s hard to put a positive spin on that.
Dichow has moved up to Sweden’s second-tier league this season and to his credit, he has done quite well, even earning a brief SHL recall in the process. In a perfect world, an NHL-drafted goalie should be playing above the Allsvenskan in his third post-draft year but in these circumstances, this is an encouraging step. Again, we’re only looking at a part season so it’s hard to get too excited but the needle is pointing upwards again in terms of his prospect trajectory. His contract expires after this season and it’ll be interesting to see if the Habs try to bring him to North America to try to better control his playing time. He has been linked to Frolunda of the SHL but no deal has been signed as of yet.
2020-21 Stats: 6 GP, 3-1-0 record, 2.23 GAA, .921 SV%
Previous HW Ranking: 32nd
NHL ETA: 2024-25/2025-26 – If the Canadiens sign Dichow at some point, he’s going to need a year if not two in the minors before having a shot at being ready for the NHL. I’d love to push the realistic timeline out further than this but waivers could be a factor by 2026. He’s still certainly a long-term project.
29) Joel Teasdale
Left Wing, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2018
A year ago, it looked like Teasdale was quickly restoring his value. He quickly earned the trust of Joel Bouchard who was deploying him in all roles and he responded with a pretty impressive rookie season. And then his knee blew out again, grinding his upwards momentum to a quick and brutal halt.
Teasdale is 2.5 years into his three-year rookie contract and all he has to show for it so far is a three-month bubble season in Laval plus a handful of games over the past week since he has now returned. It’s hard to really project or expect much from him now as a result. He wasn’t a great skater before his knee trouble and usually with these injuries, it only gets worse, not better.
Having said that, I’d still bring him back next season unless the knee problems return yet again. Teasdale profiled as a two-way bottom-six forward that could kill penalties and had it not been for the second surgery being needed, he’d have been up with the Habs fairly early in the year and I suspect he’d have been able to make a pretty good impression. To me, that’s worth another look despite the injury history. But at this point, his organizational value is minimal with how much time he has missed so I can’t objectively put him any higher than this in the rankings now.
2020-21 Stats: 26 GP, 8-10-18, +9 rating, 4 PIMS, 53 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 17th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – This lines up with his first season waiver eligibility as he didn’t accrue a professional season in his rookie year since he didn’t play. If Teasdale can stay healthy and not be hindered too much by his skating, I think he can still have a shot at getting at least some NHL action.
28) Arber Xhekaj
Defenceman, Kitchener (OHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2021
Back in September, I had Xhekaj pegged as the likeliest to sign among Montreal’s undrafted rookie camp invitees in part because the fact he missed all of last season made him a bit of a wild card (on top of being a prospect profile that Montreal doesn’t really have in their system). I think the term wild card is appropriate for him for a couple of reasons.
First, he’s raw for someone playing his overage year in major junior. He hasn’t had a particularly normal development path so there is a bit more projectability than normal for someone at this point of his career. That’s a good thing. The other reason is that he has a bit of a tendency to lose his cool and it has earned him a lot of penalties and a few suspensions already. That’s not a good thing.
I don’t put much stock into Xhekaj’s offensive numbers this season – he’s bigger and older than most OHL players so yeah, he’s going to have some success in that end. For me, the biggest question is his defensive game. He’s not a particularly strong skater and his spatial awareness has been iffy in the games I’ve seen of his. He’s capable of defending effectively but he’s not great at getting himself into the best position to defend from. That’s not all that surprising considering his atypical development curve but I think the improvement there or lack thereof will be what makes or breaks his NHL future.
2020-21 Stats: DNP (COVID)
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – Since Xhekaj has missed a lot of development in major junior, he’s going to need more time in the minors than it might seem. Physically, he’s more than ready for the pros and that will help but shoring up his defensive play is going to be a longer-term work in progress.
27) Michael Pezzetta
Left Wing, Laval (AHL)
6th round pick (160th overall) in 2016
This was a hard one to peg down. In terms of upside, this is too high as his most realistic ceiling is a lower-end fourth liner. But it’s also hard to overlook the fact that Pezzetta has been up with the Habs for most of the season. That has to count for something so I’ve moved him into this tier instead of being near the very bottom like usual.
The book on Pezzetta hasn’t changed much in recent years. He has two characteristics that stand out – he is a strong hitter and takes unnecessary penalties at too high of a rate. It’s the latter that had him as a healthy scratch at times in Laval last season, even in his third professional campaign and while he has enough overall utility to have a higher workload than a typical fighter that plays six minutes a game, he typically can’t outproduce those penalties. And no, a couple of goals bouncing off him or his stick to inflate his G/60 numbers isn’t going to change that.
Pezzetta had a good start to his AHL season that got him brought up fairly quickly and he has held onto a roster spot since then. Given how the season is going, he might even stick around the rest of the way; at this point, it’d be surprising if he didn’t. But there isn’t much more upside left in him. What you see is what is almost certainly will continue to be the case – he’s a fourth liner and it’s going to be hard to move him up much higher in the rankings as a result.
2020-21 Stats: 20 GP, 2-3-5, +3 rating, 30 PIMS, 18 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 35th
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – Considering he has been up with Montreal for most of the season, it’s hard for me to argue anything later than this year as his ETA.
26) Joe Vrbetic
Goaltender, North Bay (OHL)
7th round pick (214th overall) in 2021
It’s fitting that this column started with a project goalie drafted in large part because of his size and also ends with one. Vrbetic is yet another player who didn’t get to play in the OHL due to the pandemic so the Habs were drafting him based on projectability.
Vrbetic was a starter in 2019-20 before the pandemic hit and showed some improvement as the season went along but I think the main season he was picked is that he’s 6’7. Most of Montreal’s ‘dart throws’ between the pipes in recent years have been goalies with above average size; it’s definitely something they target. Fundamentally, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done but, like Dichow earlier, game reps are needed for improvement to be made there.
Vrbetic has outperformed his draft stock so far in the sense that he has been one of the top goalies in the OHL this season and that pushes him up the rankings a bit for someone drafted this late. But there is a long way to go for him to move into that tier of being a quality NHL prospect and not just another project. That said, he’s certainly on the right track.
2020-21 Stats: DNP (COVID)
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26/2026-27 – Most goalies need a long stretch in the minors to gradually improve to the point where they can be considered NHL-ready. Vrbetic won’t be an exception.