Montreal’s prospect pool has certainly gotten deeper over the last few seasons as a result of the extra draft capital they’ve had. We go similarly deep in our annual rankings as we begin with the players ranked outside the top 40.
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, 2023
2) The player must have no greater than 39 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: Juraj Slafkovsky (1), Kaiden Guhle (2), Justin Barron (3), Arber Xhekaj (8), Jordan Harris (10), Jesse Ylonen (19), Lucas Condotta (39)
Traded – Gianni Fairbrother (33), Nate Schnarr (44), Arvid Henrikson (47)
Released – Frederik Dichow (29), Joel Teasdale (43), Jack Gorniak (46)
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 at the end of training camp (the write-ups take a while) so some 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.
45) Jakov Novak
Left Wing, Northeastern (NCAA)
Acquired in trade with Ottawa in 2023
If you want a sure sign of how little an organization values a player, consider this. Montreal acquired Novak back in September and didn’t even bother announcing the swap. Neither did Ottawa, for that matter. The Sens had already decided not to sign him so he signed a minor league deal with Laval in July which actually extended his NHL signing deadline. With the two sides facing each other in the rookie tournament, the swap needed to be made since an Ottawa-registered player couldn’t play against Ottawa in the event.
Early in his college career, Novak showed a bit of a scoring touch with Bentley, notching 47 points in 50 games over his second and third years with them. But after transferring to Northeastern (a stronger program), the production fell by the wayside quickly as he had a much lesser role for the last two seasons.
He had some success with ECHL Allen down the stretch last year which likely got him on the radar for a contract from Laval. That said, he’s best suited for being a fourth line depth piece should he make it to the Rocket for any sort of extended time. If that’s the ceiling for a player and the organization couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge acquiring his rights, that makes him a viable candidate to take over the bottom spot from Arvid Henrikson. Unlike Henrikson, however, he’ll be a one-and-done player in this slot as he turned 25 in late October.
2022-23 Stats: 35 GP, 8-4-12, +4 rating, 26 PIMS, 38 shots, 13 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: N/A
NHL ETA: 2025-26 – Since I have to put something in here, it stands to reason that if Novak had a couple of good years in the minors, that could give him an outside look at a fourth line spot if a team had a bunch of injuries. I’m not banking on that happening.
44) Daniil Sobolev
Defenceman, Windsor (OHL)
5th round pick (142nd overall) in 2021
The 2021 draft featured plenty of ‘dart throw’ picks with some leagues not playing and others having very limited viewings. Sobolev didn’t play at all that year so the Habs were basing his selection based on his Russian junior performance the year before and projecting some improvement with physical growth.
That hasn’t exactly happened. With Windsor last year, he was a regular and pretty good in his own end. For someone in his second post-draft year, that’s not all that much of an accomplishment. The fact the Spitfires then turned around and traded him over the summer signified that they felt an import and overage slot would be better used on someone else also says a lot. So, too, does the fact Montreal didn’t bother inviting him for rookie camp.
Sobolev’s rights with the Habs were originally expected to lapse after last season but the fact he didn’t play in 2020-21 actually pushed his rights expiration date to 2025. In theory, a strong 2023-24 campaign with OHL Niagara could at least get him a look in the pros at some point but that’s not a likely outcome at this point.
2022-23 Stats: 48 GP, 1-8-9, +12 rating, 56 PIMS, 54 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 42nd
NHL ETA: 2026-27 – Let’s assume the unlikely outcome happens and he winds up in Laval or Trois-Rivieres on an AHL deal next season. Sobolev would need a few years adjusting to the higher level (especially with AHL time) before even receiving remote NHL consideration. It’s unlikely he’ll get that close.
43) Jack Smith
Centre, Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA)
4th round pick (102nd overall) in 2020
After an injury took out most of 2021-22, Smith entered the college ranks on something other than a high note. Unfortunately, he also battled injuries a bit last season while also being scratched a bit as well. Hardly an ideal freshman year, to say the least.
Back when Montreal drafted Smith, he was a high-end producer at the high school level while being a legitimate defensive option. A two-way centre is never a bad thing. But since then, his production has fallen off a cliff; his decision to turn down an NTDP offer a few years ago hasn’t exactly panned out.
Last season, Smith was primarily on the fourth line and he remains in the bottom six in the early going this year. With two-plus seasons remaining at Minnesota-Duluth, it’s possible that he will find a way to turn the corner and become a legitimate top-six two-way threat. A few years ago, I’d have even suggested this was a likely outcome. Now, it feels like a bit of a long shot.
2022-23 Stats: 24 GP, 0-5-5, +3 rating, 10 PIMS, 21 shots, 5 blocks, 33.4% faceoffs
Previous HW Ranking: 41st
NHL ETA: 2028-29 – At a minimum, it’s a given that Smith will need all four years of college. From there, if he gets an NHL deal (and that’s a big if), he’d need multiple years in the minors to have a shot at being NHL-ready.
42) Ty Smilanic
Centre, Wisconsin (NCAA)
Acquired in trade with Florida in 2022
After a disappointing end to his sophomore year at Quinnipiac, Smilanic decided to transfer to Wisconsin. The hope was that he’d have a bigger role and he could re-establish himself as a quality prospect. That didn’t happen.
Instead, he struggled early on before taking a lengthy leave of absence for mental health reasons. Upon his return, he didn’t do any better. He then made the decision to turn pro, one that has him toiling away in Trois-Rivieres. Staying at Wisconsin probably would have made more sense.
Smilanic has the skills to be a useful player. He can play both centre and the wing and his speed is certainly an asset. The scoring touch was there in the past as well and theoretically, it could recover. But now, after being a legitimate prospect as recently as a couple of years ago, his stock has dropped sharply. He has to earn an NHL contract by June 1st. That doesn’t seem likely to happen at this point.
2022-23 Stats: 14 GP, 1-1-2, -8 rating, 7 PIMS, 17 shots, 4 blocks
Previous HW Ranking: 28th
NHL ETA: 2027-28 – If Smilanic did well enough with the Lions to earn an NHL deal, he’d likely need a couple of full seasons with Laval where he’d have to slowly work his way up their lineup.
41) Joe Vrbetic
Goaltender, Trois-Rivieres (ECHL)
7th round pick (214th overall) in 2021
With no OHL team wanting to use an overager slot on Vrbetic last season, the Habs instead turned him pro, inking him to a minor league deal. He spent most of last year with Trois-Rivieres in the ECHL and fared okay while he struggled in limited action with Laval.
Vrbetic was another ‘dart throw’ pick in 2021 coming off a year in which he didn’t play. Montreal saw his size (6’6) and figured that he was worth a late-round flyer. Frankly, the logic made sense. But from a technical perspective, he’s still a bit raw which isn’t a great sign at this stage.
The fact that Vrbetic turned pro last season actually extended his rights for the Canadiens who would have lost them back in June otherwise. But knowing that he didn’t have a spot to play this year, the Habs weren’t exactly helping him find a landing spot, only bringing him to training camp on a PTO. While he’s with the Lions now, playing time could be a question as the season goes on. He’s still very much a project goalie whose stock has dropped lately.
2022-23 Stats: 28 GP, 14-12-0 record, 3.30 GAA, .896 SV%, 1 SO
Previous HW Ranking: 40th
NHL ETA: 2027-28 – If Vrbetic landed an entry-level deal at the time his NHL rights would expire, it’s likely he’d still need a couple of years in Laval, working his way from a backup role to a starting one. That doesn’t seem likely to happen but that would be the required trajectory.