We’ve finally reached the top group of our annual prospect rankings series. It’s a group that features a pair of players that should have no trouble establishing themselves in the NHL plus some others whose upside could make them impact players down the road.
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.
5) Jordan Harris
Defenceman, Northeastern (NCAA)
3rd round pick (71st overall) in 2018
In terms of Harris’ raw upside alone, this ranking is too high. But what pushed him up this far, for me, back in January, was the likelihood of him making the NHL. It’s easy to see a path for him on the third pairing at a minimum and if you can get close to a near-lock to make the NHL near the middle of the third round, the scouts are doing something right.
Last season (albeit in an abbreviated one), Harris showed some signs of having some legitimate offensive upside over being more of a complementary player. He averaged a point per game, logged big minutes on the power play, and averaged nearly 2.5 shots per game. However, that production levelled off somewhat early on in the year before the rankings were set.
Harris is a top-notch skater which is an element that is becoming more and more in demand in the NHL, particularly from blueliners. He can skate the puck out of top spots, join the rush when needed, and hustle back. Will he be strong enough given his smaller stature? That’s always going to be in question but his decision-making is already pretty good and should get better in the pros as he matures. He’s not going to outmuscle opponents but should be able to work around that relatively well.
To put into perspective where I see Harris fitting in at the NHL level, it’s pretty close to the role he has had down the stretch. Around 16 minutes a night at even strength and a little bit of special teams time at the end of power plays and penalty kills. In that role, he’s a valuable piece on the third pairing. Could he become a number four blueliner? It’s possible but even if he doesn’t, he can be a useful piece for the Habs for several years.
2020-21 Stats: 19 GP, 6-13-19, -5 rating, 8 PIMS, 47 shots, 33 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 7th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – Some defencemen need time in the minors coming out of college before they’re pro-ready but Harris isn’t one of them. He’s ready now and should break camp with Montreal next season unless they decide playing 25+ minutes in Laval is better than 16-18 with the Habs.
4) Cayden Primeau
Goaltender, Laval (AHL)
7th round pick (199th overall) in 2017
Throughout this series this year, I’ve talked at times about some of the challenges associated with evaluating some of Laval’s players given the weaker level of competition the AHL was last season due to many top minor leaguers being on taxi squads. Primeau was no exception but I opted to give him the benefit of the doubt and held him at the same ranking as a year ago.
The Rocket were a stingy defensive team last season so Primeau wasn’t tested a lot some nights but he improved on his rookie season numbers which was at least a small step in the right direction. Heading into 2021-22, he looked like a future NHL goalie in some respect.
There are two major issues that Primeau will need to clean up if he wants to make it at the NHL level on a full-time basis. He needs to significantly cut down on the untimely soft goals (this one makes or breaks plenty of prospect goalies) and his lateral movement needs to be refined. He loses his post too frequently, leaving him out of position too often. He doesn’t pay for it often in the minors but he has in limited NHL action.
But when Primeau is on his game, he looks like an NHL goalie. He battles well and is able to come up with some big stops on high-danger chances. His puckhandling has improved compared to his time in college where he basically stayed in his net. Goalies take longer to develop for a reason and while he has some of the same issues that plague someone like Samuel Montembeault, for example, he’s three years younger; there’s still some room on his development curve. But sooner than later, demonstrable improvement will need to be shown to shore up his weaknesses.
2020-21 Stats: 16 GP, 11-4-0 record, 2.10 GAA, .909 SV%, 2 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 4th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – Goalies get an extra year of waiver exemption and Primeau will need to spend that getting a heavy workload in Laval. From there, he remains the logical internal option to take Jake Allen’s spot should the veteran not be extended at the end of his current deal.
3) Logan Mailloux
Defenceman, Lejon (HockeyEttan)
1st round pick (31st overall) in 2021
Mailloux is quite a difficult prospect to evaluate from both an off-ice and on-ice perspective. (For the purposes of this rankings series, the latter is the focus.) As is the case for all of the drafted OHL players last year, finding a place to play was quite difficult and for those that did, it was at a level that made it difficult to assess since the level of competition wasn’t particularly high. And with the cut-off period for these rankings coming before he suited up for London this year, there’s even more emphasis on his play in a lower-tier Swedish league.
From an upside perspective, Mailloux has it in spades. In terms of pure upside, he has the highest ceiling among Montreal’s defensive prospects and that includes the recently-acquired Justin Barron. If everything came together, he could be a top-pairing player in the NHL while being a right-shot player that the Habs don’t have a lot of in their system. But the ‘bust’ risk is also quite high.
Mailloux is a strong skater for his size, has strong offensive upside, and plays with a physical edge. There’s a level of immaturity in his game that isn’t uncommon for junior-aged players where he gets a little too overaggressive but that should improve over time. Assuming he’s able to settle down defensively, he should be good enough at that end as well to be an impact player.
Of course, there are valid concerns about how much development time has been lost, both from the pandemic as well as his actions that earned him a lengthy suspension to start this season. There is a lot of projection in terms of his development curve still, considerably more than someone drafted in the first round typically has. The upside is definitely there but Mailloux has a long road ahead of him to reach that potential.
2020-21 Stats: 19 GP, 7-8-15, -14 rating, 32 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2024-25/2025-26 – If he ultimately signs with the Habs after next season, I think Mailloux will need a year or two in Laval. Talent-wise, he could be good enough to make an impact before that time but if they want to round out his game and give him some more development reps, a longer stint with the Rocket makes sense.
2) Kaiden Guhle
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
1st round pick (16th overall) in 2020
Here’s a player that didn’t have a lot go his way from a development perspective. Things started well with him earning a spot at the World Juniors and he did well in three games with Laval before having to go back to junior. In Prince Albert, he suffered a season-ending hand injury in his second game. All in all, he played just 12 games which is a very light workload coming off of being a first-round pick.
Even so, I don’t think Guhle’s development was all that negatively affected compared to someone like Mailloux. He’s more of a fundamentally-strong player that allows him to play with the type of poise you’d expect from a seasoned NHL blueliner, not a junior player. That type of maturity will help him overcome not getting much ice time last season.
Guhle is a pretty well-known prospect at this point in terms of his strengths. He’s a strong defensive defenceman with a penchant to play physically. But at the same time, he’s not a plodding defender and there is some offensive upside as well. He isn’t going to be a big point-getter in the NHL but he’ll be good enough at that end to not be a liability if he’s getting heavy minutes (which he almost certainly will). While defence-first defencemen aren’t as desirable as they were in the past, Guhle is an exception in that he has all of the elements that teams are looking for on the back end.
I’m not convinced that Guhle will get to the level of being a legitimate top-pairing defenceman and I like him more as someone that would be third on a depth chart in a perfect world with an ability to move up if necessary. A player like that averages 20-22 minutes a night in the NHL and can be a core piece for a long time. He’s not flashy but Guhle should be a very good player for years to come.
2020-21 Stats: 3 GP, 0-0-0, even rating, 3 shots, 0 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 3rd
NHL ETA: 2022-23/2023-24 – I think there’s a very good chance Guhle breaks camp with Montreal next season. But if management decides to take a slower approach with him, he shouldn’t need more than a year in Laval before he’s up on a full-time basis.
1) Cole Caufield
Right Wing, Wisconsin (NCAA)
1st round pick (15th overall) in 2019
Well, there are some players who gradually improve and then move on from a level without truly establishing themselves as too good for that level. Caufield isn’t one of those players as his sophomore season in college was nothing short of dominant.
There was a big question when he turned pro about his ability to make an impact right away in the NHL, especially since he made the jump at a time when the Habs were still trying to lock down a playoff spot. He passed that test. Then in the playoffs, Caufield showed that he was able to produce against tighter checking and more physicality as he helped the Habs get to the Stanley Cup Final.
That isn’t to say that it’s smooth sailing from here. We saw that at the beginning of the season where Caufield couldn’t get anything going. There will be similar moments down the road; such is the life of a goal-scorer as most of them go into prolonged slumps. His next step will be learning about impacting the game positively in those situations, something that frankly wasn’t the case over the first couple of months.
Nevertheless, Caufield is a dynamic offensive threat on a team that is bereft of them both in the present and future as many of Montreal’s better prospects are defencemen or two-way forwards. He will be a key cog for the Canadiens for the foreseeable future as a result.
2020-21 Stats: 31 GP, 30-22-52, +9 rating, 165 shots, 4 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 1st
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – Yeah, this one doesn’t need any further explanation.