We have reached the top ten in our annual prospect rankings series. This group features our biggest riser from last year as well as the first one to that was voted into the same position as last season.
As we’ve done the last few years, the top-10 have been voted on by members of HabsWorld’s writing staff at the beginning of the regular season while I ranked the players from 11 through 38. 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, 2018
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
* – One exception to this rule is Victor Mete. While he technically still qualified (he was at 49 NHL games heading into the season), it’s clear that he has established himself as an NHL regular and the only reason he didn’t get that extra game was his injury. Accordingly, we’re classifying him as a graduated prospect.
Here are the departures from last year’s list (previous ranking in parentheses):
Graduated: Charles Hudon (2), Michael McCarron (6), Victor Mete (8), Max Friberg (31)
Released: Martin Reway (20), Zach Fucale (24), Markus Eisenschmid (25), Jeremy Gregoire (26), Casey Staum (29), Tom Parisi (32)
Traded: Will Bitten (13), Simon Bourque (16), Hayden Hawkey (17)
Included with each ranking is an estimate of each prospects’ NHL readiness date. For some players, the estimate is a specific season while others whose projected development paths are harder to determine will be in a range.
10) Jake Evans
Centre, Notre Dame (NCAA)
7th round pick (207th overall) in 2014
Evans didn’t take his game to a completely different level in his senior year. Instead, he basically continued on the same path he was on before – one that was more than good enough to land an entry-level deal while earning a spot on Canada’s Spengler Cup roster in the process.
Let’s face it – Evans is never going to be a prolific goal scorer. He is a pass-first player and he could certainly stand to look to shoot more. He didn’t do so often in college and that has carried over to the pros. Fortunately, between his above average playmaking skills and a continued strong showing at the faceoff dot, there are some elements there that could make him an intriguing NHL player before too long.
The big question when it comes to him is his ceiling. Is Evans a top-six forward? Probably not. He’s not an ideal fit on the fourth line either as he’s not a great skater, a high energy player, or a top penalty killer, elements that appear to the focus for the Habs right now. The upside is there for him to make it as a third liner but it’s far from a guarantee. Even so, he’s about the only pick from Montreal’s 2014 draft class to actually exceed expectations.
2017-18 Stats: 40 GP, 13-33-46, +9 rating, 18 PIMS, 111 shots, 26 blocks, 55.6 faceoff percentage
Previous HW Ranking: 10th
Fan Vote: 14th
NHL ETA: 2019-20/2020-21 – A year ago, I thought Evans could potentially push for a spot in Montreal fairly quickly. I don’t think that’s the case now. He’s doing well in Laval but he’s not lighting it up there either. Until he really starts to show signs of dominance (and consistency), I’d hesitate to bring him up. It’s going to take some time for him to get to that level.
9) Cale Fleury
Defenceman, Regina (WHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2017
Fleury started out last season with Kootenay where he was their go-to player in all situations. That changed with the early trade to Regina and while that gave him a chance to play in the Memorial Cup and on a team that was expected to go far, it also cut into his ice time. The lowered role didn’t seem to bother him as he was a key cog in their run.
He is one of those blueliners that doesn’t really have many standout elements in his game but at the same time, there aren’t any glaring weaknesses either. There is still room for a jack of all trades defenceman in the NHL but the ceiling for that type of player is fairly low which is why our writers slotted him towards the back of the top ten.
Unlike Evans, the odds of Fleury making it to the NHL in a meaningful capacity are certainly higher. While Montreal’s positional strength lies on the right side of their back end, right-shot rearguards with some upside are always in high demand. If he can’t make it with the Habs, he’ll be able to somewhere else; accordingly, I suspect he’ll be inquired about a few times between now and the trade deadline.
2017-18 Stats: 62 GP, 12-39-51, +17 rating, 58 PIMS, 167 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 15th
Fan Vote: 13th
NHL ETA: 2020-21/2021-22 – While he’s progressing well, it’s important to note that Fleury is not remotely close to being NHL ready. He’s not getting there this season or next in a perfect world. He’ll need some time to work his way up the lineup in Laval (by merit, not circumstances) and a longer learning curve for defenders is a good thing in most circumstances.
8) Alexander Romanov
Defenceman, Krasnaya Armiya Moskva (KHL)
2nd round pick (38th overall) in 2018
This is the part of the article where I remind everyone that voting for this was done back in training camp. In other words, this ranking does not take the World Juniors into account.
Romanov’s selection was the shocker of the draft for Montreal. While he seemed like an intriguing player, he also seemed like an extreme reach in the early second round. Suffice it to say, it’s not looking like a huge one now.
Despite a fairly quiet showing last year, Romanov did well enough to crack CSKA Moscow’s roster and has been with them all season, albeit with limited ice time most nights. While it’s nice to see him crack the KHL level, I still think him dropping down a level at times to play a bit more would be ideal but I’m not holding my breath at this stage.
Romanov certainly isn’t afraid to be aggressive, whether it comes from jumping into the attack, pushing the pace with his skating, or with his physicality. While that can look great in a short tournament, that can also be exploited at the higher levels so he will need to refine that and pick his spots, something that should come with time. If we were doing this vote now, he’d be a safe bet to be in the top five.
2017-18 Stats: 37 GP, 7-7-14, +17 rating, 37 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
Fan Vote: 12th
NHL ETA: 2020-21/2021-22 – Romanov is signed in the KHL for one more year after this one and it’s not as simple as merely buying out the contract to try to get him to North America – his KHL team can decline the idea. Quite frankly, Romanov is still pretty far away from the NHL, something that his lowered ice time isn’t helping either. He needs some more seasoning and in a perfect world, he’ll work his way up the CSKA depth chart and be more of a factor next season. I get the temptation to bring him over but patience is the smarter play here.
7) Cayden Primeau
Goalie, Northeastern (NCAA)
7th round pick (199th overall) in 2017
Primeau started last season in a timeshare for the starting role which, for most freshmen, is still pretty good. Things changed in a hurry as he quickly grabbed the number one job and never looked back.
With the NHL trending towards focusing on taller goalies, Primeau fits the mold. He’s also becoming more comfortable coming out and playing the puck and we’ve seen the type of impact a goalie can have in the transition game (or how it suffers with a goalie who doesn’t like to venture outside the crease). He has improved his rebound control considerably from his time in the USHL and there aren’t any real weak areas to highlight.
It’s safe to project Primeau as the starter with the Huskies for as long as he wants to be there. He’s once again one of the top NCAA goalies so far this season and there’s little reason to think that won’t be the case moving forward either. It looks as if the Habs have landed quite the steal with this selection.
2017-18 Stats: 34 GP, 19-8-5 record, 1.92 GAA, .931 SV%, 4 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 27th
Fan Vote: 9th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – This one is really tough to project. I could see a scenario where the Habs try to turn him pro after this season in which case, this projection will be late. On the flip side, if he plays out his college eligibility, it may be longer than this for him to make it to the NHL. That said, the fact we’re talking about an NHL ETA as if it’s a legitimate possibility for a player one year removed from being a seventh rounder is quite something.
6) Charlie Lindgren
Goalie, Laval (AHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2016
Lindgren didn’t fare particularly well with the Rocket last season but to be fair, not many did. His time with the Habs provided some reasons for optimism as he was quite strong early on before faltering as the season progressed.
One area that was a little concerning was his propensity for allowing some untimely soft goals. That wasn’t an issue much for him in St. John’s in his rookie year but it crept up last season. The ability to keep those down will ultimately determine his upside long-term.
Clearly, the Canadiens still have plenty of faith in him as they gave him a three-year extension last year and are paying him NHL money with the Rocket this season. The plan was for him to supplant Antti Niemi next season and there’s little reason to think that has changed. However, the question is whether or not Lindgren can be the type of goalie that will push for more playing time or simply be a decent number two.
2017-18 Stats: 37 GP, 8-19-2 record, 3.39 GAA, .886 SV%, 2 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 5th
Fan Vote: 6th
NHL ETA: 2019-20 – Even though this season hasn’t been all that much better for Lindgren, he’s waiver-eligible next season and given the demand for goaltending (look no further than some of the waiver claims on fringe guys this season), he’s a safe bet to land on an NHL roster whether it’s Montreal or elsewhere. I’d expect him to be with the Habs and if he could handle 20-25 starts to spell Carey Price, that would be a win in my books.