At the #23 spot, we come to last year's 18th ranked Habs' prospect, defenseman Darren Dietz.
When we last checked in on Dietz, the 6'1", 204 lb. rearguard was wrapping up his CHL career as a member of the WHL's Saskatoon Blades. Dietz was one-third of an impressive trio of Blades defenseman, including Colorado first-rounder Duncan Siemens and fellow Canadiens prospect Dalton Thrower.
While the Blades back-end talent didn't translate to any playoff success, Dietz was able to rack up some impressive individual credentials. The Medicine Hat, Alberta native earned a berth on the WHL first all-star team in 2012-13, while also leading WHL defenseman in goal-scoring. Unfortunately, in Dietz's first foray into professional hockey, the talent he demonstrated in the AHL didn't translate to immediate success.
Dietz proved difficult to read as an AHL player, and this was exacerbated by the fact that his rookie season cut short by two different injuries. A lingering wrist injury delayed his debut in the hammer, and when Dietz was finally beginning to settle in, his season was cut short by serious leg injury. In all, Dietz missed more than half of the 76-game AHL season due to two separate injuries, limiting his opportunities to impress this season.
In 2013's T25U25, the EOTP panel generally agreed that the right ranking for Dietz was in the mid-to-late teens. This year, that consensus has shifted, with no voters placing Dietz higher than 19th, and 40% of the panel left him out of their top 25 altogether. Part of this drop in ranking is procedural - veterans on a less certain path get pushed out by the talented youngsters that join the prospect pool each year - while part of it is a reflection of a challenging season. My vote, placing him at 25, was an attempt to balance his skills as a potential NHLer with the inertia he endured this season.
All of this begs the question - is Darren Dietz off track?
Dietz offers an excellent set of physical tools, contributing to his acclaim as another one of Trevor Timmins' high-value fifth round picks.
His size is solid, if not overwhelming, and his aggressive style certainly lends itself to physical play. That aggressive play carries over to his offensive capabilities as well, where Dietz was unafraid to start a rush with a quick play up ice. These assertive tendencies are nicely complemented by an accurate shot and some soft hands, leaving Dietz capable of doing some damage in the other team's end.
Dietz's skating is not perfect, but his top gear is competitive, allowing him to keep up with speedier opponents once he gets going.
All things considered, Dietz can be considered, if nothing else, steady.
Of course, when it comes to your up-and-coming players in a developmental league, sometimes you want more than steady. While Dietz may not have been making frequent errors, his play wasn't turning heads for other reasons, either. Also, while his top gear has been noted as competitive, his acceleration is one aspect of his game that needs work.
The difficult part of reconciling all of this is determining the cause of his struggles. It's unclear how much of Dietz's tough rookie season had to do with nagging wrist injury, Sylvain Lefebvre, Dietz's own shortcomings, or some other factor altogether. When his season ended 25 games early due to that torn hamstring, Dietz was robbed of a chance to demonstrate that he had accumulated some comfort and poise at a higher level of play.
While Dietz's first season in the AHL was somewhat of a let-down, there's no reason for alarm just yet.
Dietz had some pretty rotten injury luck, and an off-season to heal and condition should make a significant difference.
The circumstances surrounding his standing on the Bulldogs have improved, too. Marc Bergevin has left roster room in Montreal, leaving it likely that at least one of Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, and Greg Pateryn will stick with the Habs this year. Other AHL veterans, like Drew Schiestel, look like they won't be back with the organization, so there appears to be ample opportunity for Dietz to establish himself.
Finally, it's worth noting that a 20-year-old AHL rookie taking some time to adjust isn't exactly unprecedented. Of Dietz's fellow 2011 draftees, exactly two are currently NHL regulars - Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Brodin. Others, like Beaulieu, or Carolina's Ryan Murphy, are poised to make the jump. For the most part, however, the process takes longer, and it shouldn't be surprising to see Dietz where he is at year 1 of his 2-3 year AHL track.
Darren Dietz has the tools to be an NHL player, probably as a bottom three defenseman, and at age 20, it would be unfair to say that he's off track. In 2014-15, it'll be up to him to show the organization that he's still progressing toward his potential.