Our third group of players in this year’s prospect series includes a pair of players who have been in the organization for a while and have seen their stock dip plus a newcomer with some potential to move up fairly quickly.
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, 2022
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: Cole Caufield (1), Samuel Montembeault (23), Michael Pezzetta (29)
Graduated – Age: Otto Leskinen (35)
Traded – Ryan Poehling (9), Cam Hillis (32), Michael McNiven (40)
Released – Kale Clague (16), Josh Brook (19), Brett Stapley (24), Jacob Olofsson (36)
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 rankings were set in November (the write-ups take a while) so 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.
35) Emmett Croteau
Goaltender, Waterloo (USHL)
6th round pick (162nd overall) in 2022
Even with a new head scout, some traditions just have to continue. Evidently, drafting a long-term project goaltender late in the draft is one of them. More specifically, a tall long-term project goaltender. Last year, that goalie was Croteau.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not great when it comes to goalie scouting and there isn’t a whole lot out there on him to work with. But I will note that it’s interesting that he changed his college commitment year following the draft. He was originally expected to play at Clarkson this season but instead opted to stay with Waterloo.
While that actually makes Croteau even more of a long-term project, I think it’s the right call from a playing time perspective. Clarkson has an NHL-drafted goaltender in his third year this season that is getting the bulk of the action. Staying at the lower level isn’t always the best for development but goalies need game reps and he wasn’t getting that in college this season (and won’t be next year). Having one year (2023-24) as a developmental write-off is much better than two.
2021-22 Stats: 35 GP, 16-16-3 record, 3.00 GAA, .899 SV%, 1 SO
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2028-29/2029-30 – Remember I said Croteau was going to be even more of a long-term project? This is what I meant. Four years of college takes him through the 2026-27 campaign and with next year being a write-off for playing time, he’s not likely to leave early. Add a year or two in the minors after that and you have a very long development timeline. There’s room for him to go up in the rankings but it’ll be a gradual increase.
34) Rhett Pitlick
Left Wing, Minnesota (NCAA)
5th round pick (131st overall) in 2019
Pitlick is a prospect I’ve been wanting to see more from. His final two years in the USHL saw him traded which, in that league, is a bit of a rarity. He took a step back offensively in his final season at that level which isn’t ideal either.
That had me curious as he headed onto a stacked Golden Gophers roster last season. How would he fare? Perhaps more importantly, how much would he play? The end result was a decent freshman year once you factor in that the point totals are probably boosted a bit by the loaded roster. But, in the grand scheme of things, Pitlick did well.
And that’s where I struggle a bit with him. He has three straight post-draft seasons of decent but not stand-out performances. Skill-wise, Pitlick has top-six talent offensively. But the output isn’t matching the skill level often enough and at 5’9, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for him to make it in a different role. In terms of raw upside, I know this is too low for him. But Pitlick needs to become a true go-to player, especially for someone already in his draft +4 year. Getting from good to great is a tough step to make but it’s the one that needs to happen for him to put himself from a depth prospect to an impact one for Montreal.
2021-22 Stats: 30 GP, 5-13-18, +6 rating, 16 PIMS, 33 shots, 7 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 34th
NHL ETA: 2026-27/2027-28 – Assuming Pitlick plays the full four years of college, I don’t think he’ll be the type of prospect to make the jump to the NHL right away so a year or two in Laval is likely going to be needed. Even four years post-draft, he’s still a longer-term project.
33) Gianni Fairbrother
Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
3rd round pick (77th overall) in 2019
Fairbrother is a prospect I had fairly high hopes for. Not so much that he was a high-end player but he was someone I felt had a reasonable chance of seeing some NHL games. So, why is he down this low? He simply can’t stay healthy and at this point, I think it has done serious damage to his development trajectory.
Last season, he was limited to just 25 games between injuries and a brief stint in COVID protocol that prevented him from making his NHL debut. By the time he returned, Laval had a full defence core and while they snuck him into a few games as a seventh blueliner in the playoffs, it was a bit of a lost season. This year is a completely lost season as a preseason knee injury ended his campaign before it even began.
100-plus games of lost development is difficult to overcome. He’s not a pick of this management group which doesn’t help either. Then there’s Montreal’s depth on the left side which is definitely the stronger side of the prospect pool. This is a lot going against him. I think organizationally speaking, he’s viewed as more of a tradable asset now than a viable prospect but with him missing all of this season, even that is iffy.
I still think Fairbrother has enough defensive ability which, coupled with his physicality, could still make him an NHL prospect as long as this knee injury doesn’t tank his skating. I wouldn’t be shocked if he had a bounce-back season next year and earns a higher spot in these rankings for 2024-25. Honestly, I’m rooting for it. But right now, his stock hasn’t been lower.
2021-22 Stats: 25 GP, 1-6-7, -14 rating, 46 PIMS, 19 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 20th
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – If Fairbrother doesn’t play at all this season, he won’t accrue a season towards waiver eligibility which would give him an extra year in the minors. He’ll need it so his timeline will be pushed back a year longer than it would have been otherwise.
32) Dmitri Kostenko
Defenceman, Khimik (VHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2021
There’s a case of glass half-full versus glass half-empty when it came to Kostenko’s play last year. After a decent post-draft season, he changed organizations and, quite frankly, had a similar performance. The good news is that he didn’t play poorly but the bad news is there wasn’t much to really say that he took a big step forward in his development. That results in a pretty sharp drop after adding in so many newcomers to the prospect pool.
Kostenko showed just enough offensive flashes playing in Russia’s junior level to suggest there might be another level he can get to eventually. He isn’t the most aggressive of defenders which helps him avoid getting into some trouble in coverage although, on the flip side, you’ll rarely see him make a big play either. He’s relatively steady for a young defender and I mean that in a good way; that gives him a good floor to work off of.
I think Kostenko has the upside to take a step forward but it may take a while to get to that point. This season, he has made the jump to the KHL. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s hardly playing. Basically, it’s another glass half-full, glass half-empty situation. Good for him for moving up but how much of that is neutralized by the lack of ice time? One thing is for sure, it stalls his development somewhat.
2021-22 Stats: 40 GP, 4-10-14, +9 rating, 40 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: 18th
NHL ETA: 2026-27 – At this point, I think Kostenko is going to need at least two more KHL seasons to prove that he’s worthy of an NHL deal and from there, a year in the minors would probably be beneficial as well. As a Russian-drafted player, there’s no requirement to sign him by a certain date as their federation hasn’t signed a transfer agreement with the NHL so they can afford to be patient with him.
31) Jared Davidson
Centre, Seattle (WHL)
5th round pick (130th overall) in 2022
Davidson was a selection that some would call off the board. In his first two WHL seasons, he didn’t play much and the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign left him sitting with 39 points heading into last year over parts of three seasons. That’s generally not going to get you on the radar from a scouting perspective.
But everything clicked for Davidson last season. His strong shot became much more of a consistent weapon, especially on the power play. His playmaking went up several notches as well as he moved from being a depth piece to a key contributor. Along the way, his feistiness didn’t go away either.
So why is he this low? For me, Davidson looks like the type of player that is going to produce in junior (he’s producing at a similar rate this season) but I question whether he can score in the pros. He’s not a great skater and he’s not the most creative of forwards. You can get away with that in the CHL and still do quite well but those players can often struggle when transitioning to playing in the minors. He’s also a bit on the smaller side which doesn’t help.
I liked the pick as the pandemic has definitely messed up some development timelines, creating an opportunity for some late-bloomers to fall. Davidson is definitely a late-bloomer in the WHL and they’ll be able to get a look at him in Laval or Trois-Rivieres next season before deciding on if they’re going to sign him. I’ll take that from a fifth-round pick.
2021-22 Stats: 64 GP, 42-47-83, +43 rating, 68 PIMS, 285 shots, 57.6% faceoffs
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2026-27/2027-28 – Davidson is going to need at least three years in the minors to work his way up the depth chart, similar to how things have gone for him in Seattle. There will definitely be an adjustment period so some patience is going to be needed.