Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is faring week by week. This time around, I wanted to provide a broader update on the general level of the prospects in the Habs’ pool that play on this side of the pond, and highlight the most promising among them. This pyramid will exclude prospects currently playing in the AHL, NHL, and obviously any overseas Habs draftees.
Rather than count down and rank these prospects from one to 21, which leads to confusion in instances where players four through 11 are more or less interchangeable, I thought it best to make a tiered prospect pyramid to display them in a way that better encompasses their ranks within the number of possible outcomes for any given prospect, and how similarly they project.
This will be an upside-focused ranking that won’t take into account the certainty of these prospects’ projections, and serves to evaluate the Habs’ draft tendencies.
One specific player, drafted in the first round of 2021, will not figure on this list. Logan Mailloux has been suspended indefinitely by the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for valid and well-documented reasons, and therefore is not playing in North America. In fact, he’s not playing at all — his last game was on February 14th, nine months ago, and there is no news on his progress as of yet.
Without any further explanations, here is the 2021-22 Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects pyramid.
First and foremost, let’s break down what each prospect tier signifies. At the top, the most self-explanatory: franchise prospects. In other words, prospects with the potential to win awards and be the face of the organization. The Habs, like most teams, have no one in the system of that stature.
As a reference for tier-two upside, I’d keep in mind a player with the potential of an Alex DeBrincat, Shea Theodore or Igor Shesterkin.
For tier three, we have skaters who could spend some time in first line/pair duties but wouldn’t be ideal in that role, along with majority-start netminders — the Jeff Petrys, the Anders Lees, the Robin Lehners. In the case of middle-six forwards and bottom-four defencemen, I’d keep in mind someone like Christian Dvorak or Joel Edmundson, with Matt Murray as a good reference for a 1A goalie.
Under that, we have the Jake Evans, Brett Kulak, and Jake Allen tier — prospects who could one day see a stint or two in the upper half of their lineup, but who will primarily see success against sheltered competition in support roles if they make it.
Finally, we have the depth/backup roles (think Pezzetta, Wideman or Lindgren), and then everybody else.
Left-winger Sean Farrell finds himself alone in this tier, and to be honest, I could well have placed in the tier below and felt comfortable doing so. However, there’s something extra in Farrell’s game, a high-end, dual-threat offensive game that sets him just a peg above the pack upside-wise, and that makes me believe that, however slim it may be, there’s a chance he makes it as a full-time top-line player.
He manipulates opponents really well to open up ice and space for his teammates, and he has added a ton of intensity and off-puck involvement to his game since his draft year, which has allowed him to claw away at the opposition for additional puck touches every shift. He manages his stick and body very well in 50/50 puck battles for a player of his size (5’9”, 175 pounds), and plays with the pace required at higher levels.
Farrell’s red-hot NCAA start (10 points in five games) is aided by his ECAC conference not being the strongest, but he’s still looked utterly dominant and has manned the power play with brilliance and poise. He still has two years after this one to sign with the Habs, after which he will be free to sign with any team.
There are three prospects in this tier, and each plays a different position. First and foremost, we have left-shot defenceman Jordan Harris, the Northeastern University captain whose two-way game and puck-carrying have done nothing but improve over his NCAA stay. The Canadiens’ rights to Harris expire after this season, and the prospect is setting himself up to be a must-keep for the organization.
I see a lot of Petry in Harris: the smooth stride and seemingly unshakeable puck-protection, the ability to draw in opponents and free up a rushing teammate in-stride, the poise and confidence on the puck, and the stick-checking so refined that shoulder hits often become unnecessary. He’s eating up half of Northeastern’s total ice time on the back end and has dominated on both special-teams units. His nine points in 11 games might not jump out at you, but his game has been outstanding, especially as of late.
Next up, centre Joshua Roy has been remarkable for the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL, sitting tied for third league-wide in points and points per game with 23 in 13 games, nine of which were goals. His selection in the fifth round seems comical in retrospect, but that was due to him showing very little of what he’s been doing so far this season.
In multiple viewings early on in his draft year, I deemed Roy’s off-puck movement to be sub-par, and his pace of play was nowhere near pro-grade. Since then, those two areas of his game have almost become strengths, the former especially having improved massively in such a short time. He’s still deficient in the skating department, but he’s shown a playmaking and scoring touch that have helped him up the tempo despite that.
Finally, we have Kaiden Guhle, whose season has started off with 11 assists in nine games in Prince Albert, which masks one little hiccup. The blue-liner hasn’t earned a goal so far, despite shooting pretty much everything he can on net.
He throws pucks on goal with haste and plays a very direct style, but doesn’t often utilize delayed releases, nor does he have a tendency to change the angle of his shot to make it more dangerous. Guhle’s tendency to rush the play when an opponent closes down on him, if it remains unimproved, will almost definitely hinder his game in the NHL, where there’s always at least one forward exterting high pressure on the defence pair.
He’s big, strong, skates well, defends his own zone valiantly, and is a good leader, and that set of qualities should earn him a top-four role under this coaching and management team, but I wonder if he’ll be able to drive possession positively at the next level.
If he’s paired with a more poised puck-carrying blue-liner like Petry, Kulak, Norlinder or Harris later in his career, who can draw attention to themselves and free him up, his fluid edgework, strong first pass, and powerful straight-line skating could be utilized to develop a stronger puck-moving ability and make him more adaptable to the modern game, like Ben Chiarot has begun doing with the Habs this year.
The most populous tier with six prospects ranked as middle-of-the-pack projections, this is where the Habs shine the brightest: safe-bet prospects with high floors and average ceilings. Starting off, we have the two-year-over-ager picked with the team’s 2021 sixth-round selection, Xavier Simoneau. Rarely have I seen a 5’7” forward be as difficult to handle for opponents as Simoneau has been so far in the QMJHL. He moved from Drummondville to Charlottetown this year and has brought his game to another new level with 23 points in 13 games.
HIGHLIGHT | He does it again. Xavier Simoneau ties it up late in the 3rd with this beauty. pic.twitter.com/11qLnRX8gl— Charlottetown Islanders (@IslandersHKY) October 31, 2021
Then we have Jayden Struble, Jordan Harris’s teammate at Northeastern. The imposing left-shot defenseman has gotten off to a shaky start with the NCAA team, earning four points in 11 games, three of which he earned in the opening game of the season. It’s been difficult for the prospect to stand out in other ways than physically, which has also landed him a fair share of avoidable penalties.
When Marc Bergevin called Struble a “Greek God” on draft day in 2019, he was right in more ways than one. Yes, he’s built like one, but much like Zeus, he has trouble containing his excitement, to the point of causing himself a lot of problems. Reeling back that lack of impulse control will come a long way in making him a more complete defender.
The next three prospects, Riley Kidney, Luke Tuch, and Jan Mysak, are in the same boat upside-wise, although their styles differ greatly. Kidney’s 21 points in 15 games lead the Acadie-Bathurst Titan by a margin of eight and he has improved upon his goal-scoring ability by attacking between the dots a lot more, adding onto an already advanced playmaking game.
Left-winger Luke Tuch, on the other hand, sustained a lower-body injury and will be out for at least a month after going pointless in three games for Boston University, but has shown decent middle-six upside with his intensity and net-front dominance throughout my viewings of him.
Mysak has been off to an average start for a player in his second post-draft season despite his point-per-game pace through 12 games, still having moments where he’s playing a step behind. This is despite a draft year, two years ago, in which the forward outpaced his current production, with 25 points in 22 games. The lack of tangible progression in Mysak’s pace of play and production isn’t ideal, but I’d bet on him exceeding his current and previous scoring paces over the next few months.
Finally, we have a goaltender in Jakub Dobeš who was drafted as an over-ager in the fifth round of the 2020 NHL Draft, and has been exceptional in his first seven NCAA games as a 20-year-old. He is first among goaltenders with six or more games played in save percentage at .960, and his 1.06 goals-against average is by far the best among players under 21. I’m not sure how long this stellar start carries, but his size (6’4”, 201 pounds), athleticism, puck-tracking, technique, and reactions make his performances so far even more promising.
In this tier, we have prospects who show one or two outstanding qualities that could punch them a ticket as long-term support-role players, but who still need some polishing before truly being NHL-ready. Centre Blake Biondi is the epitome of that, with his advanced anticipation on both sides of the puck, his forechecking intensity, and his net-front presence being hindered by a sub-par skating posture and a tendency to get rid of the puck and play away from it. Biondi reminds me a lot of Ryan Poehling in that aspect, whom I’ve written about in detail.
Then we have the Habs’ training camp revelation, left-shot defenceman Arber Xhekaj. The prospect now has six points in eight games with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, while tallying 31 penalty minutes. He fights, he hits hard and late, he holds his stick high on cross-checks, and overall makes his corner of the rink a nightmare, but has put his team in trouble on many an occasion. At 20 years old and 6’4”, 220 pounds, Xhekaj has the pro frame to make a bottom six. He just needs the pro habits.
Here is video of the Abner Xhekaj slewfoot as time expired. Automatic 2 games as this has no chance of being over turned. In some instances the #OHL will tack on more and I could see that here. It was as time expired and was rather aggressive. pic.twitter.com/zSQHyoEQT0— Peter Kneulman (@PeterKneulman) October 30, 2021
With right-winger Rhett Pitlick, the Habs have a short, dynamic type with the ability to burn defenders wide and stickhandle the puck decently. His offensive touch could still use some improvement, and the University of Minnesota staff has noticed. The program started the year by benching him, and continues to limit his minutes through six games on the season. The prospect has two points in that span.
Finally, William Trudeau shows some deficiencies in preventing zone entries, but his ability to build plays from the back end when in possession of the puck makes him a decent rush-chance creator. Trudeau is really a jack-of-all-trades prospect, with few glaring weaknesses and just as many strengths.
Here we start with centre Brett Stapley as a potential depth piece; the prospect has a goal and six assists through eight games for the University of Denver, and has one true tool in his arsenal: his speed. His distribution ability is decent enough to not be a detriment to his game, but doesn’t stand out to me as a key tool he can build his game around. I’ll be interested to see what the next months lead to for him, but I’m not convinced that, at 22, he can start turning things around.
Then we have Jack Gorniak, a speedy winger who shows above-average defensive involvement. I’m starting to believe a bit less in what he can bring to the table, with a concerning tally of three points in nine games for Wisconsin at 22 years of age, but he makes it into Tier 6 due to having a lack of glaring issues to his game.
Fairbrother #59 scores twice. Nice setups by Ryan Poehling #25 and Jack Gorniak #81. pic.twitter.com/l45Wdt5d5S— David St-Louis (@DavidSt_Louis) June 27, 2019
Daniil Sobolev, for his part, has a point in each of his last four games, after only putting up an assist in six games prior to that. Maintaining that consistency will be key for him as he continues to develop the offensive side of his game. A determined and efficient defender, Sobolev’s manoeuvring is limited by sub-par skating and stickhandling mechanics, which lands him low on the tier list.
Here, we have the prospects whose projections don’t land them in the NHL, due to a lack of standout traits, or a lack of surrounding skills to elevate their strengths. A textbook example of this is Jack Smith, who remains stuck in the USHL with Sioux Falls after failing to get recruited for NCAA Division I hockey. He has three points in seven games in a league where anyone of NHL value scores above that mark before they’re even drafted.
The Habs’ attachment to high-school scouting lands them some unimpressive picks like this one, especially when Sean Farrell’s selection 22 picks later is added to the context.
Then, we have Arvid Henrikson, the now 23-year-old Swede playing for Lake Superior State in the lower-tier CCHA conference. His main attraction was his size and defensive dependability, but the prospect lacks much of anything outside of that. His four points in 78 total NCAA games attests to a glaring lack of offence on his side, and he doesn’t have anywhere near the footspeed to do what he does defensively at the pro level.
Last and, well, least, Joe Vrbetic hasn’t inspired much confidence with North Bay so far in nine OHL games, with a 3.27 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage, despite the team going 7-2-0 with him in net. In his draft year, the 6’6” netminder had even worse stats (4.23, .881) in 42 games for the lower-tier OHL club. I’m just not sure what to expect from this goaltender, who has range and quick reactions but lacks technique.
To conclude, I believe the Canadiens need to be more proactive with their top-round picks on both the North American and European side. The lack of true top-end talent makes the team’s prospect pool a bit barren at the top, while the organization multiplies its lower-tier, safe-bet acquisitions. The team’s drafting philosophy outside of the first round is improving, especially with additions such as Farrell, Simoneau, and Roy piling up in the team’s depth chart.
If the Canadiens can manage to swing for the fences with their future first-round picks, the organization would get a much-needed injection of top-end talent which will reinforce the lineup from within. One thing I’ve almost never seen the Canadiens do is trade up; for Mailloux and Kidney’s picks, the Habs could easily have selected in the top 25 and acquired a prospect like Corson Ceulemans, Zachary L’Heureux, or Oskar Olausson instead.