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Montreal Canadiens Prospect Pyramid

Introduction to the Prospect Pyramid

For the past few years, I have heard at length how the Montreal Canadiens have one of the strongest prospect pools across the NHL. This argument was even stronger when players such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki hadn't reached the NHL, however the fact remains that there are still numerous players that are ready to make a significant for the Canadiens in the near future. I attempted to go through the many prospects in the Canadiens organization and rank them based off their skill and future potential. The first task is to lay out the criteria for who I consider to be a prospect. I have decided to rank any player that has played in less than 50 NHL games, while also being under the age of 25. This means players like Kotkaniemi and Suzuki will not be ranked, however players like Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury will be. The next task is to show the tiers I will use for the rankings.

Tier 1 - Elite talent (Auston Matthews/Connor McDavid-level talent)

Tier 2 - Very, very good prospects with a real chance of being top-six forwards, top-two defenders or good starting goalies

Tier 3 - Good players who fall just short of tier 2, perhaps due to lower ceilings, but who are distinctly better than tiers below them

Tier 4 - Distinct shot at making an NHL roster and being a contributor (middle six forward, bottom-four defender, fringe starter or backup goaltenders

Tier 5 - Players who likely don't project to be anything more than a role player in the NHL as their ceiling - these players chances of making the NHL aren't very high compared to their comrades (sometimes due to being relatively unknown at this point)

Tier 6 - Players who have an uphill battle to make the NHL, or there isn't enough information to make an informed decision

Another point worth discussing is the understanding that where a prospect ranks now is by no means where they will remain. Players such as Jacob Olofsson, Noah Juulsen, and Joni Ikonen could easily move to a higher tier if they can stay healthy for an entire season and return to the high trajectory each of them showed prior to various injuries. With all that being said, let's discuss where each of the Montreal Canadiens prospects fill in.

Tier 1 - Elite talent (Auston Matthews/Connor McDavid-level talent)

Nobody

This is the easiest of the tiers to fill out. While players like Cole Caufield and Alex Romanov have high potentials, there is no guarantee of NHL success, and they are clearly a step down from where players like McDavid and Matthews were as prospects. The only way the Canadiens have a player ranked in tier one prior to the start of the 2020-21 season would be if Alexis Lafrenière finds his way to Montreal.

Tier 2 - Very, very good prospects with a real chance of being top-six forwards, top-two defenders or good starting goalies

Cole Caufield, Alexander Romanov

While there is temptation to list numerous players on this tier, part of what makes a prospect pyramid useful is differentiating the good from the great prospects. Caufield is the best scoring prospect the Canadiens have had in a long time, and despite his relatively disappointing World Juniors tournament as an 18 year old, Caufield was still a point per game player as a Freshman in the BIG Ten, notching 19 goals to go along with 17 assists for 36 points in 36 games. For his efforts, Caufield was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. This upcoming season is a hugely important year for Caufield, as he will look to build on his successful NCAA debut, while taking on a bigger role for USA at the World Juniors. It is probable that it will be his last season at Wisconsin as he will more than likely make the transition to the pros following the NCAA season.

Alexander Romanov will be making the transition to North America in the fall with either the Canadiens or Laval Rocket, and with it, comes a great deal of expectation. While I debated between a ranking of tier 2 vs tier 3, what ultimately was the difference was the opportunity that exists on the left side in Montreal, as well as my belief that Romanov is a step above other defenceman in the organization. Whether he plays with Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Cale Fleury, or any other defenceman, Romanov has a great chance to make an immediate impact for the Canadiens. While expectations need to be managed amongst Habs fans, Romanov's wealth of KHL experience at just 20 years old, and 14 points in 14 World Junior games gives Canadiens fans plenty of reasons to be excited. In addition to Romanov and Caufield, it is worth noting each of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi would fall into this category had they fit the criteria.

Tier 3 - Good players who fall just short of tier 2, perhaps due to lower ceilings, but who are distinctly better than tiers below them

Cayden Primeau, Jordan Harris

Differentiating between tiers 3 and 4 proved to be the most difficult task for me, for that reason, I have ranked only Primeau and Harris as players above the rest for various reasons. First Cayden Primeau is one of the top goaltending prospects across the entire NHL. His upside is as a starting goaltender, and if all goes according to plan, he will one day take over for Carey Price as the next Montreal Canadiens starter. I think it is too early to place him in tier 2, however his first professional season was one to build on, being named AHL goaltender of the year.

Next, I have ranked Jordan Harris above Fleury, Struble, Norlinder, Juulsen, and Brook as the second-best defensive prospect for various reasons. To me, Jordan Harris has the potential to develop into a top 4 defenceman, whereas players like Fleury, Juulsen, and Brook are likely to be more bottom 4 defenceman in the NHL. Harris has the mobility and understanding of the game that makes him perfectly suited for the modern NHL. Harris is coming off a second consecutive impressive season at Northeastern notching 21 points in 33 games, while playing in all situations, as well as playing a top 4 role for USA at the World Juniors. Harris will continue to be leaned on by Northeastern as he enters his junior season.

I feel it is warranted to describe why I believe only 4 players fit into the top 3 tiers. To me, these tiers are primarily reserved for players with higher upside, and tier 4 still represents a significant chance at making the NHL. While I understand and could be convinced of moving a few players up, I will do my best to justify the lower ranking for each player respectfully. Furthermore, the Canadiens unlike any other team have faced an unprecedented amount of injuries to their prospects. Players like Noah Juulsen, Jacob Olofsson, Joni Ikonen, and Jayden Struble may still find themselves in the top 3 tiers, however to this point, given their injuries it would be unwarranted to classify them in tier 3.

Tier 4 - Distinct shot at making an NHL roster and being a contributor (middle six forward, bottom-four defender, fringe starter or backup goaltenders

Ryan Poehling, Cale Fleury, Jake Evans, Noah Juulsen, Joni Ikonen, Jacob Olofsson, Jesse Ylönen, Jayden Struble, Josh Brook, Mattias Norlinder, Cam Hillis, Brett Stapley

This next tier is where the Canadiens have the most upside, and this tier is what differentiates the Canadiens from many other organizations. Included in this list are players that already have NHL experience, as well as a ton of young prospects that have impressed in various leagues. Ryan Poehling may be the most surprising inclusion, however given the Canadiens depth at centre (can't believe I typed that), I would be surprised if Poehling passes any of Max Domi, Philip Danault, Nick Suzuki, or Jesperi Kotkaniemi for a top 6 role. I have little doubt Poehling will become a full time NHL player during his career, however it is likely it is as a bottom 6 centre, and thus justifying a tier 4 ranking. Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen are in a very similar point in their careers. With similar NHL games played, both have shown potential to be solid right-handed defenceman behind Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. For Juulsen, his primary focus will be on returning to health, whereas Fluery will look to build on a successful debut season in the NHL. Jake Evans is the last of tier 4 with NHL experience. Evans will likely compete for the 4th line centre role upon the resumption of the NHL season. Given Evans is already 24 years old, it is unlikely he becomes a top 6 player, however a long career in the NHL is still attainable.

Joni Ikonen and Jacob Olofsson have unfortunately both been ravaged with injuries since being 2nd round selections in 2017 and 2018 respectively. When healthy, each have shown the potential that made them high picks, but with such lengthy health concerns, both players face an uphill battle to make the NHL. It is important to remember both Ikonen (21) and Olofsson (20) are still incredibly young, so fans shouldn't lose hope on either prospect just yet. Ikonen's rights with the Canadiens expire in June 2021, so the upcoming season with Ilves of SM-Liiga will serve as a make or break season for his Canadiens future. Jesse Ylönen will make the transition to North America following a season where he ranked fourth in points for his team in SM-Liiga. Ylönen has the talent to lock down a middle 6 role for the Canadiens in the future. He is responsible in both ends and has the ability to play either wing which may prove valuable to the Canadiens. He will play with the Laval Rocket next season and he will be looked to as a solid contributor for Joël Bouchard's team.

Jayden Struble will primarily need to focus on getting healthy and returning to Northeastern for his second season should see him round out into a more complete defenceman. Struble transitioned very well considering he made the jump from High School directly into the NCAA, and another year developing alongside fellow Canadiens prospect Jordan Harris at Northeastern will help immensely. Struble is known for being a physical and strong defenceman which in an organization with players like Mattias Norlinder and Victor Mete on the left side could prove to be valuable. Speaking of Norlinder, he will transition from Allsvenskan to the SHL playing with the Frölunda Indians organization. The increase in competition will lend a great eye into who Norlinder is as a prospect. If he is able to translate his play into the SHL, he could easily move to a higher tier.

Continuing on the backend, Josh Brook will be entering his second season in the AHL, following a successful WHL career. It will be interesting to see his continued usage and development as he is unlikely to win a role with the Canadiens as long as Weber, Petry, Fleury, and Juulsen remain on the right side. While it is easy to be down on his first professional season, it is important to remain patient with Brook, as he was one of the WHL's best defenceman in 2018-19.

Cam Hillis won the apparent competition for a contract over Allan McShane, Samuel Houde, and Cole Fonstad this past year, and it's no wonder why. Captaining the OHL's Guelph Storm, Hillis put up a prolific 83 points in 62 games, as well as being third in votes amongst OHL coaches for defensive play. He will almost assuredly transition to the Laval Rocket next season and will be used in roles previously occupied by Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling if they make the jump to the NHL.

Lastly, Brett Stapley to me the most intriguing prospect in the organization. A relative unknown prior to being a 7th round selection, Stapley has become a solid contributor at the University of Denver. Nearly a point per game player this past season, Stapley has overcome his smaller stature and could prove to be a steal in the 7th round. Another strong season in 2020-21 may warrant the Canadiens signing him and Stapley foregoing his Senior season and avoid losing him for nothing in August of 2022.

Tier 5 - Players who likely don't project to be anything more than a role player in the NHL as their ceiling - these players chances of making the NHL aren't very high compared to their comrades (sometimes due to being relatively unknown at this point)

Otto Leskinen, Lukas Vejdemo, Rhett Pitlick, Joël Teasdale, Gianni Fairbrother

Each player finds themselves in tier 5 for different reasons. While Leskinen and Vejdemo did make their NHL debuts this season, at ages 23 and 24 respectively, it is unlikely either makes a huge leap forward in their development. They likely only project as role players in the NHL. Pitlick and Fairbrother are too unknown at this point to make a declaration on their future, though both showed positive progression in their first year following the draft, warranting tier 5 over tier 6. Joël Teasdale is no exception to the injury bug in the organization as torn ligaments in his MCL and ACL caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season. While recovering from an injury of this severity is extremely difficult, familiarity should help Teasdale as he will play alongside former QMJHL teammates Alexandre Alain and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, with his former head coach Joël Bouchard in Laval once fully healthy.

Tier 6 - Players who have an uphill battle to make the NHL, or there isn't enough information to make an informed decision

Jack Gorniak, Hayden Verbeek, Michael Pezzetta, Antoine Waked, Arsen Khisamutdinov, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Arvid Henrikson, Kieran Ruscheinski, Frederik Dichow, Alexanadre Alain, Aaron Luchuk, Michael McNiven, Jacob LeGuerrier

I won't go into too much detail on each of the players in tier 6. Most if not all of these players will either play with Laval next year or project to join the lineup in the coming years. In some cases, the players are simply too young (Gorniak, Dichow), or there is too little to accurately assess the player (Khisamutdinov). Being in this tier does not mean the team has given up on the player necessarily, it just means each of the players have the most uphill battle to one day play for Montreal. Another note to add, is each of these players will need to compete with the 2020 draft class for future contracts. Especially for a player like Rafaël Harvey-Pinard who recently signed a 1-year AHL contract, this upcoming season will prove to be vastly important if these players hope to maintain their NHL dreams.

Summary

In summation, I think the perception of the Canadiens prospect pool from many outsiders is wrong. The Canadiens have one of the top pools in the NHL not because of the wealth of talent in the top 3 tiers, but the talent that exists in tier 4 rivals any team in the league. For anyone that may be disappointed to only see 4 players ranked in the first 3 tiers, should be equally encouraged by the 16 players in the top 4 tiers. The Canadiens are likely to add a number of players to the higher ranked tiers due to their 25 draft picks in the next 2 drafts. Another takeaway I had was seeing where each player was selected. Players like Alex Romanov (2nd round), Jordan Harris (3rd round), and Cayden Primeau (7th round) have shown it is less important when you were selected, and more important what you do following the selection. While there is a high upside in drafting either 1st or 9th in the upcoming draft, it is important to remember that no matter where the Canadiens pick, the future is still bright.

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