Over the last couple of seasons, the Habs have added quite a few defencemen to their prospect pool. As we reach the top 20 in our rankings, this next group is full of blueliners from that shift in their approach.
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
Note that players acquired after January 1st, 2022 will not be included in the rankings.
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 were taken into consideration but as they were small sample sizes, they only moved a player up or down a few slots.
20) Gianni Fairbrother
Defenceman, Everett (WHL)
3rd round pick (77th overall) in 2019
I was impressed with how Fairbrother performed in his limited duty with Laval last season before he had to go back to junior when the WHL started up. In a lighter supporting role, he looked pretty good.
When he went to the Silvertips, he wasn’t in that limited role and the end result was mixed. Yes, he put up some points and played in all situations and from a development standpoint, that’s great. But I think he was also overextended and that certainly didn’t help his cause.
There’s a lot to like about Fairbrother’s game. He plays with an edge and there are no glaring weaknesses that are going to hold him back. That said, there isn’t a single element that’s well above average either, aside from perhaps that aggression which can get him into trouble at times (admittedly common for many young defencemen).
I happen to think Fairbrother has a better chance of making it to the NHL than some do and I believe there will be some ahead of him in these rankings that don’t make it. However, Fairbrother’s ceiling is lower than those other prospects. He’s the type of player that profiles as a fit on a third pairing more than a top four player which moves him down a few slots.
2020-21 Stats: 23 GP, 1-16-17, +8 rating, 22 PIMS, 56 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 15th
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – I could see Fairbrother seeing sporadic NHL action throughout his entry-level deal but in terms of him having an opportunity to really secure a full-time spot on the roster, he’s probably going to have to wait until his waiver exemption is exhausted.
19) Josh Brook
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
2nd round pick (56th overall) in 2017
In a year where a lot of players stood out in a good way for Laval, Brook was kind of quiet. That’s not all bad either as there was some improvement in his defensive game and that was an area of concern I had from his rookie year. He did take a couple of steps in the right direction on that front although the skeptic in me worries that the lower level of competition (with so many top AHL guys on taxi squads) played a role in that.
What I didn’t like is that his offensive game didn’t really progress either. Brook wasn’t forcing his way into more minutes and he didn’t do a lot with his opportunities on the power play (which weren’t all that plentiful which was a bit concerning as well). He was just okay. For a second-year prospect with the hopes of having NHL aspirations, being okay isn’t all that okay.
I’ve said before that I don’t like to let injuries affect the rankings too much but it did play a role here. Losing a half-season of development with a serious injury after losing a half-season last year due to COVID hurts Brook, I just can’t spin it otherwise. That leaves the second half of this year to prove that there’s still some upside to his game. Unfortunately, his knee injury flared up so he’ll have even less time to prove himself when he comes back.
If that doesn’t happen, he’s either going to be stuck on the NHL roster next year as an eighth defenceman because of waiver eligibility and become the next Greg Pateryn or Jarred Tinordi as his trade value dwindles or they’re going to bite the bullet and take the risk of trying to send him down. Neither of those are appealing options but they are absolutely plausible ones for Brook which also sends his ranking down a little. I think he can turn it around and as a right-shot defender in a system that doesn’t have a lot that are pro-aged, he can still play a role for the Habs. I’m just not as confident as I once was that he will be able to realize his potential.
2020-21 Stats: 33 GP, 2-13-15, +9 rating, 33 PIMS, 69 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 13th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – It’s certainly possible that Brook is a full-timer on the roster next season if they don’t want to risk losing him on waivers. But in terms of when he’d be ready to make an actual impact, I think the lost development time will push his ETA back a little further.
18) Dmitri Kostenko
Defenceman, Togliatti (VHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2021
When we hear the term ‘project prospect’, we tend to think of the players in college. They have a long way to go but with nearly a half-decade of team control, there’s plenty of time for gradual development. Kostenko isn’t in college but he is certainly a project.
There is always projection involved with prospects as well but some involve more than others. A cursory look at Kostenko’s numbers would suggest a player with limited offensive upside. In fact, it’s his offensive tools that make him stand out in a good way. Most prospects have shown evidence of putting their tools together but Kostenko hasn’t, hence there being more projection than usual in this choice.
He’s a good skater, at least when it comes to playing offensively. He’s a pretty creative player even if the point totals suggest otherwise. But in the end, whether or not Kostenko makes it will come down to his willingness to improve defensively. It was a problem area last year which is what dropped him to the end of the third round and improvements on that end this season have been gradual.
Having been drafted out of Russia, there’s no transfer agreement in place between them and the NHL so there is no signing deadline. As a result, a slower pace when it comes to development isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A slow upwards trajectory is still an upwards trajectory and Montreal can afford to be patient with the right-shot defender.
2020-21 Stats: 40 GP, 1-9-10, +1 rating, 10 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – I expect Kostenko will have a transition year or two as he makes the jump to the KHL where he will have to work his way up from very limited ice time which will slow his development down. From there, some time in Laval will also be needed.
17) Jakub Dobes
Goaltender, Omaha (USHL)
5th round pick (136th overall) in 2020
After a tough first year with the Lancers, Dobes repeated the level last season and it proved to be the right decision. He was much more comfortable and with that, he started to show some elements that made him stand out among the others in the USHL.
Scouting goalies isn’t my strong suit but when I watch Dobes, there are two things that really stand out. The first is his aggression. Young players in general are a little too aggressive but as far as goalies go, he takes that to another level. It’s not going to work for him in the pros but it’s good that he has that in his toolbox, so to speak. The top goalies in the NHL are a hybrid of technique and aggression and while technique can be taught, that gut instinct of when to go for the big play over the safer one is a little harder.
The other is his puck handling. He really, really likes to play the puck. That’s a skill that few goalies have as a plus but he’s already at that level. However, he gets himself into trouble with it at times, trying to do too much (there’s that aggression element again). Thinking to the future, Montreal’s new management team wants an up-tempo squad that puts pressure on their opponents. A goalie with the puck skills that Dobes has fits how the Habs seem to want to play so that’s a big plus for him.
I’m encouraged by Dobes taking over the number one job at Ohio State – that’s always good for a freshman – but there’s still a long way to go to move him into that higher tier of goalie prospects. He’s certainly off to a good start, however.
2020-21 Stats: 47 GP, 26-13-3 record, 2.48 GAA, .908 SV%, 1 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 22nd
NHL ETA: 2025-26/2026-27 – While Dobes could turn pro earlier than expected as Cayden Primeau did, I’m going to assume he stays in college for at least two more years. From there, a season or two in Laval will be needed before he gets a real look at an NHL opportunity.
16) Kale Clague
Defenceman, Ontario (AHL)
Claimed off waivers in 2021
Considering Clague is only 23, he still qualifies for this series and was in the organization before the January 1st cutoff. Like many prospects, last season didn’t do him any favours in the sense that he only got a partial season although, to his credit, he did well enough to split the year between AHL Ontario and Los Angeles.
By now, anyone reading this is already pretty familiar with Clague. He’s a good skater and puck mover and as far as his offensive awareness goes, he’s not bad on that front. That’s what had him seeing power play time with the Kings before the Habs picked him up. That was enough of an intriguing skillset for him to be Jeff Gorton’s first acquisition after he joined the Canadiens.
What has hurt him (and what ultimately got him through waivers the first time), however, has been his defensive play. It’s not great and when he’s pressured, he can make some bad mistakes in a panic. That’s never a good thing for a defenceman. I don’t remember it being as much of an issue for him in junior as it has been in the pros; taking a step backward in this element isn’t good.
At the end of the day, Clague has enough NHL-level attributes to legitimately hang around at the back of an NHL roster. What will make or break him in terms of being a regular is settling down in his own end. That’s a hard element to develop at the top level but he’s going to have to find a way if he wants to ever become a legitimate option on the third pairing. I’m not sure he’s going to be able to do that but the fact he has seen NHL action in parts of three seasons already has to count for something so he slides in ahead of a few others that similarly have ceilings of being third-pairing players.
2020-21 Stats: 23 GP, 1-11-12, -7 rating, 8 PIMS, 42 shots
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – I don’t think really requires much of an explanation – he has been on an NHL roster for most of the season.