In our next group of prospects, we have a collection that was relatively untested at the professional level heading into the season. Some are already established with the Habs while others might not be far away from doing so.
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.
10) Jordan Harris
Defenceman, Northeastern (NCAA)
3rd round pick (71st overall) in 2018
At the time these rankings were finalized, Harris hadn’t quite established himself as a full-timer with Montreal. Things were heading that way, sure, but this placement was based primarily on last season.
Here’s the thing with Harris. It’s one thing to basically be NHL-ready coming out of college. He basically proved that he was down the stretch last year, settling in nicely and in the early going this season, took a step forward. That’s good. However, the question I keep coming back to is how high his ceiling is. And that’s why he’s a bit lower than some other prospects on this list.
Harris has shown that he’s a good piece on the third pairing. I’m not sure he goes much higher than that, aside from jumping into the top four when injuries arise. There’s just not a lot of projectability within his raw skills. He’s not much of an offensive threat and it isn’t as if his shot is going to get a whole lot stronger. There isn’t a frame that’s going to get filled out to make him much stronger to help him defensively. Accordingly, beyond improving his hockey sense, I don’t know how much more room there is for demonstrable improvement.
Don’t get me wrong, what Harris is now is still a quality NHL player. He’s not a slightly taller version of Victor Mete that is going to follow the same path and be out of the league in a couple of years. But as the Canadiens plot out their future depth chart, Harris is probably slotting in near the bottom of it.
2021-22 Stats: 39 GP, 5-15-20, +11 rating, 14 PIMS, 94 shots, 69 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 5th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – I think this is pretty much established by now, right? Harris has a two-year extension under his belt already, a nice early vote of confidence from management.
9) Sean Farrell
Left Wing, Harvard (NCAA)
4th round pick (124th overall) in 2020
I’ve typically been on the lower end for Farrell’s rankings over the last couple of years and that’s still the case here but for a different reason. The fact of the matter is that the Habs added several significant prospects to the organization in 2022 and that has pushed a lot of rankings down.
Offensively, Farrell isn’t just a one-trick pony. He’s a strong playmaker and his shot is better than his lower goal total might seem. Defensively, I think he’s better than I’ve given him credit for in the past. He’s not going to be a checker by any stretch but he certainly shouldn’t be a significant liability on that side of the ice either. That’s going to give him some runway from a development perspective.
Of course, Farrell’s college play isn’t the only film we have on him as he suited up in the Olympics and World Championship. He did quite well in both events although I’m not sure how much can be gleaned from a couple of watered-down events on international ice. He showed he can keep up with pros which is promising but I don’t think too much more should be taken away than that.
As an undersized player, there are only so many roles that Farrell can realistically hold in the pros. At the high end of the scale, there’s a chance, albeit a small one, that he could hold his own on the top line. The likelier outcome is that he settles in as a secondary scorer, one who can move up and down the lineup. Those players can be quite valuable to a team.
2021-22 Stats: 24 GP, 10-18-28, +6 rating, 11 PIMS, 72 shots, 10 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 8th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – There’s a case to be made that Farrell could benefit from spending some time in Laval next season but barring some sort of significant change, it seems like a roster spot could be his heading into the fall.
8) Arber Xhekaj
Defenceman, Hamilton (OHL)
Undrafted free agent signing in 2021
Expectations were pretty low for Xhekaj coming into rookie camp. Aside from the odd mention of having the hardest name to pronounce out of the various invitees, there wasn’t much to think about. It was widely thought that he was a field-filler as many invites often are at these things. Even Rob Ramage, one of Montreal’s development coaches, acknowledged he didn’t know who Xhekaj was coming into camp.
If you’re reading this, you know the rest of the story. Xhekaj slowly but surely improved, earning himself extra looks and eventually, an entry-level deal. He went back to the OHL and became one of the most dominant rearguards in the league. Not a bad way to end his major junior career, that’s for sure.
I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t expect Xhekaj to remotely even be on the radar for a spot with Montreal in training camp. I expected him to start in Laval, work his way up, and maybe he’d get a look at some point in 2023-24. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
There are still some areas for Xhekaj to improve upon. Skating is one of them; he’s not a lug on the ice but he has been beaten with speed at times in junior (and in Montreal). Discipline is another while his defensive awareness needs some work. These thoughts aren’t meant to be overly critical either. Right now, he showed he can play on an NHL third pairing. Improvements in these areas could get his playing time closer to 18-20 minutes a night, closer to that top four range. The upside is there but there is still much to be done to get to that point.
2021-22 Stats: 51 GP, 12-22-34, +44 rating, 138 PIMS, 193 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 27th
NHL ETA: 2022-23 – Let’s not waste any time with this one, shall we?
7) Lane Hutson
Defenceman, US NTDP (USHL)
2nd round pick (62nd overall) in 2022
This feels like the perfect time for a reminder for those who skip the preamble that these rankings were set in November when there were still plenty of question marks about his ability to adapt to playing at the NCAA level. No, Hutson won’t be rated this low next season.
Skill-wise, Hutson should have been one of the first defencemen off the board. However, 5’8 is still 5’8 and blueliners that small don’t have a long track record of making it. He creatively brought medical paperwork showing that a potential growth spurt was still coming and he’s now listed at 5’10 so he was onto something there. But even that size is on the small side for a rearguard.
But let’s forget about size for a moment. Offensively, Hutson has a level of dynamism and creativity that is unparalleled in Montreal’s prospect pool. He makes a lot of good reads and makes a lot of things happen. He has the potential to be a high-impact player in the NHL.
Of course, offence is only part of the equation for a blueliner. No, Hutson isn’t going to be the type of defender who is throwing big hits and anchoring a penalty kill. But he is prone to getting beat with speed on the outside and there is definitely work to be done regarding his defensive reads and positioning plus his stick work. He has shown improvement in those areas for sure but more need to happen. Having said that, the same can be said for many other prospects too but it needs to be noted here.
As is often the case with offensive-minded blueliners, their production and skills get them to the NHL but it’s the defensive play that keeps them there and moves them up in the lineup. If Hutson can’t defend well at the top level, he’s a depth player that logs a lot of power play minutes and plays more when the team is trailing in a microwave scorer type of role. But if he can be counted on defensively with his smaller stature not holding him back, the sky is the limit with a potential top-pairing ceiling.
2021-22 Stats: 60 GP, 10-53-63, +59 rating, 51 PIMS
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2024-25 – 2026-27 – In the best-case scenario, Hutson signs late next season and pushes for a full-time spot in 2024-25. However, it’s possible that he needs more time to fill out which could push him into another college season. It’s also possible that he needs some time in Laval to hone his defensive skills which could delay things. What he has done is exciting, yes, but some patience still may be needed here.
6) Owen Beck
Centre, Mississauga (OHL)
2nd round pick (33rd overall) in 2022
One of the challenges when weighing high second-round picks is the risk-reward factor. Does a team go for a skilled player that has top-six upside but a higher chance of busting or do they go safer with one whose ceiling might be lower but has a much higher probability of making it? With Beck, the Habs tried to land in the middle of that range.
With the pandemic wiping out a year, Beck’s first OHL campaign was just last season. His offensive numbers weren’t bad but also weren’t anything to get too excited about. But how much of that was due to a sluggish start, likely in part to not having played at that level in 2020-21? If you look at how he finished, his numbers were much more impressive and were worthy of where he was selected.
It isn’t just the offence that matters with Beck though. He’s already a strong defensive forward, one that has established himself as one of the better players at the faceoff dot. There’s the high floor that makes him a near lock to be a regular in the NHL; he profiles as someone that could hold his own in a shutdown role, making him a potential third liner in the making.
Back to the offensive skills for a moment. Beck has a strong shot and he’s a quality playmaker while displaying strong speed both with and without the puck. This is where the projecting comes in. If they’re patient with him and allow those skill elements to develop gradually, he could have a shot at being a second-liner down the road. Or, perhaps better still, a high-end two-way third liner, the type of middleman that a team with high playoff aspirations always tends to have. Beck shouldn’t be a high-end producer for Montreal but he should be a core player for them at some point.
2021-22 Stats: 68 GP, 21-30-51, +17 rating, 14 PIMS, 170 shots, 60.6% faceoffs
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – 2025-26 – I can see a scenario where the Habs aren’t patient and put him on the fourth line next season. I think Beck would hold his own in that role. But if other things play out and they wind up with ample centre depth without him, letting him have another year in junior in a top role and even a season with Laval might be the best way to go to try to improve his offensive skills.