We’ve reached the top ten in this year’s prospect rankings. It’s a group that features five players that all have legitimate NHL upside although they all have some level of uncertainty as to whether or not they can reach their ceiling.
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.
10) Jan Mysak
Centre, Laval (AHL)
2nd round pick (48th overall) in 2020
Last year was a tough one from an evaluation standpoint for Mysak. He wasn’t getting a lot of time playing back home so he came to North America after the World Juniors. He then became one of the youngest players in the AHL in a league year where the level of competition was a lot more different than usual and with the depth the Rocket had, he was basically stapled to the fourth line so he still wasn’t getting much ice time.
The end result was a dreadful offensive season that saw him with three points between Laval and Litvinov combined. But, again, with minimal playing time, it’s hard to read too much into that on its own. I liked his defensive play with Laval – he wasn’t overmatched on that end and with his inexperience, that’s a good thing.
I keep coming back to the same concern with Mysak though. There aren’t any glaring weaknesses offensively but for me, he looks like someone who only fits as a complementary piece. Even at the World Juniors when he was the go-to player for the Czechs, he didn’t thrive in that role. That makes me question his overall offensive upside.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to like about him. Mysak can play all three forward positions and that versatility is great. He’s a good enough two-way player to be trusted in a bottom-six role in the NHL. That combination makes him someone who profiles as a good third liner that certainly could fit on the fourth line as well. To me, he’s a fairly safe bet to see some NHL action but I’m not optimistic that he will be able to crack the top six down the road for any extended stretch.
2020-21 Stats: 22 GP, 2-0-2, +3 rating, 0 PIMS, 23 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 9th
NHL ETA: 2024-25/2025-26 – A couple of uninterrupted seasons in Laval starting next season would be great for Mysak, allowing him to slowly develop his offensive game. By then, I think he’d be good enough to move up to the NHL in a limited role but there would definitely be some value from a development perspective by having him spend an extra year with the Rocket after that.
9) Ryan Poehling
Centre, Laval (AHL)
1st round pick (25th overall) in 2017
After a disappointing showing in 2019-20, Poehling was one of the beneficiaries of the taxi squads last season. That allowed him to be a focal point of the offence in Laval and he responded with a good showing. But again, against a weaker level of competition with so many top AHL guys on taxi squads made this a tougher evaluation.
We know Poehling has the size to handle himself in the NHL. We know that he has flashes of offensive upside that still make him an intriguing prospect. However, we also know that he’s very inconsistent on that front and that it’s a trait that he has shown since turning pro. At what point does the script flip from the notion that it’s something that can be fixed to something that’s just going to be a part of who he is as a forward?
When that happens, Poehling’s value as a prospect is going to tumble. His floor is good enough to be an NHL player – we’ve seen that this season. But if his ceiling isn’t much higher than what he has shown, he goes from being a quality prospect to organizational filler.
At the time these rankings were done in January, he had gotten off to a good start with Laval so there was still some hope. But now, if he wasn’t going to graduate from this list next season (based on NHL games played), he’d be someone that would be taking a tumble in the rankings as he’s no longer worthy of a top-ten slot.
2020-21 Stats: 28 GP, 11-14-25, +5 rating, 2 PIMS, 59 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 8th
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – Since his early-season stint with Laval this season, Poehling has largely been a regular in Montreal so there’s no point in going into any further detail here.
8) Sean Farrell
Left Wing, Chicago (USHL)
4th round pick (124th overall) in 2020
If there’s an unintended theme for the players in this group, it’s the difficulty in evaluating their 20-21 season. Harvard (where he was supposed to be going) didn’t have a season so he stayed in the USHL. Compared to players that weren’t able to play at all, this was a good thing. But there’s only so much to glean from someone who is too good for the level playing on an offensively-stacked team.
Farrell led the league in scoring. That’s good. He set a USHL record for points. That’s also good. (That record was broken last month, by the way.) But it was largely expected. Perhaps not quite to that extent but he was expected to score a lot and he did.
How much better did he really get by repeating the level? It’s hard to say. At the cut-off point for these rankings, Farrell only had a handful of college games under his belt and the results were a bit of a mixed bag (which is fine for a freshman, don’t get me wrong). That’s why I went a bit more conservative with his ranking for this year.
Farrell has legitimate top-six upside in a system that, quite frankly, doesn’t have a lot of players with top-six upside. But there are question marks – his size and defensive game being the big ones; he doesn’t have to be a Selke-calibre player but after being basically solely used as an offensive weapon, I want to see him take some strides on that front. For me, improvement there would really raise his floor as a prospect as we’ve seen that smaller offence-first players can fit on a lower line in the NHL if they have a decent defensive game. The more options he has to make it, the better.
2020-21 Stats: 53 GP, 29-72-101, +31 rating, 54 PIMS, 143 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 16th
NHL ETA: 2023-24/2024-25 – I think it’s possible that Farrell turns pro next year and could see ice time with the Habs down the stretch. But from a longer-term perspective, I’d want to see him get some time in with Laval which would push things back a little bit.
7) Jayden Struble
Defenceman, Northeastern (NCAA)
2nd round pick (46th overall) in 2019
I’m not sure there’s a more polarizing player in Montreal’s system than Struble. There are some that believe he has top-four upside in the NHL and others who would be surprised if he ever got a chance to play at the top level. I’m closer to the first camp than the second.
Admittedly, Struble’s performance wasn’t good enough last year and in the early going this season to justify this rating. But he’s someone that I believe has a chance to be a more impactful pro than a college player and I’m factoring that into this placement.
There remains an immaturity element in Struble’s game which has limited him so far. He does a lot of things to impact a game but he has a propensity for bad penalties and taking himself out of the play to throw a hit. He’s also 20 years old. There’s reason to believe he’ll clean that up as he gets a bit older and a bit smarter.
I don’t think Struble will be a big point producer in the pros but he has a strong enough all-around game to comfortably fit on a second pairing. He’s a strong skater and fits the style that the Habs want to play. He should be able to kill penalties. That’s a pretty valuable player if he can put it all together. There’s a higher bust factor than most of Montreal’s prospects but if he develops to his potential, he can be a strong NHL blueliner for a long time.
2020-21 Stats: 18 GP, 2-10-12, -2 rating, 33 PIMS, 37 shots, 14 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 6th
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – Montreal is probably going to have to burn the first year of his entry-level deal next season to get him to sign but I’d be surprised if he’s truly NHL-ready by then. A full year in Laval would do Struble some good.
6) Mattias Norlinder
Defenceman, Frolunda (SHL)
3rd round pick (62nd overall) in 2019
There was plenty of hype surrounding Norlinder heading into this season. He had successfully moved up to play a full-time role in Sweden’s top division and while his offensive numbers were fairly pedestrian, he made some improvements defensively. It wasn’t a huge leap to think that the production would come soon after, making for a promising blueliner in Montreal’s system.
Of course, things haven’t gone well this season. He was injured at training camp with the Habs who then decided they wanted to get a look at him before sending him back. He showed some flashes of upside but looked a bit overmatched, eventually resulting in him going back to Frolunda. By the time he got back, he had been passed on the depth chart and there was a big re-adjustment period.
So where is he at now as a prospect? I’m not sure a whole lot has changed. Norlinder has legitimate offensive upside which is something that few of Montreal’s defence prospects have. That’s a big deal and will keep him in the mix for playing time as soon as next season. The question continues to be whether he’ll be able to defend well enough to be a third-pairing player with the Canadiens. I don’t think he has helped himself this season but he also hasn’t drastically hurt his fortunes either.
It’s worth noting that Montreal didn’t ‘waste’ a year of Norlinder’s entry-level deal by signing him for this season. If he signed a contract starting in 2022-23, it only would have been a two-year pact; either way, he would have had two years left heading into next season. But if they wouldn’t have signed him, he’d have had the full uninterrupted season in Frolunda. In hindsight, that probably would have been the better way to go even though they were able to briefly get his feet wet in North America.
2020-21 Stats: 37 GP, 5-5-10, -9 rating, 12 PIMS, 54 shots, 16:25 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 5th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – While it’s possible (if not probable) that Norlinder will see some NHL action next season, he needs a longer stint at the AHL level to hone his defensive zone play. Close to a full year in Laval would help Norlinder make a push for a regular spot in Montreal in 2023.