Normally in the Top 25 Under 25 series, our first article revealing the list from the bottom up extends to the player ranked 31st, usually grouping together several players who have very little chance of progressing beyond what they’ve already shown. However, with a large amount of new additions, there are a few players who have some enticing elements that could be the basis for a breakout.
Or they could all stay at their current level and never get any closer to the NHL than they are now.
These are the biggest young projects in the Montreal Canadiens system.
35. Arsen Khisamutdinov - LW - 21 - Reaktor Nizhnekamsk (MHL)
Arsen’s days as a Junior prospect should be over. A 21-year-old last season, he likely played his last year in the MHL and will (in all likelihood) turn professional with a full season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk of the KHL. But even if he is closer to the NHL in terms of maturity than many of the other 2019 drafted players, his age also leaves a lot less room for development in his game.
His shot is his standout attribute — not necessarily his firing mechanics per se, but in how he sets them up to improve his chance to beat the goalie, actively using screens and masking where exactly he is firing with his blade angle.
What limits his game is his skating, which is noticeably below average. Most of his impressive scoring sequences right now only come off the rush, which leaves questions about how he will be able to replicate his success in the faster-paced North American pro leagues.
While staying true to his strengths, he will have to become more threatening in different situations, being a better cross-ice shooting option or taking advantage of his size and finding openings off the cycle in the offensive zone. As the chances of him becoming a top-six NHL player are extremely slim considering his profile, he will have to work on his play away from the puck to earn more ice time when he comes over.
34 - Rafaël Harvey-Pinard - LW - 20 - Chicoutimi Saguenéens (QMJHL)
Harvey-Pinard is a small forward who distributes the puck well, flashes playmaking abilities a tier above his peers, and scores around the net. He can sometimes dangle around defenders, but he stands out more with his intensity with and without the puck, especially on the forecheck. This quality earned him the captaincy of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in their Memorial Cup-winning season.
All in all, he fits a player mould that Montreal has shown a lot of affinity for through the years.
The biggest roadblock in Harvey-Pinard’s path to a successful professional hockey career is his skating ability — similarly to Khisamutdinov, who was drafted a round before him. At 5’9”, improving this aspect of the game may be even more important for Harvey-Pinard than the Russian forward.
It will have to come from changes to his technique. Harvey-Pinard is closer to his physical maturity than the younger players drafted in this last class and can’t be expected to add another gear by naturally improving his strength as much as his 18-year-old counterparts.
The QMJHL forward will have a chance to battle for a spot in Laval’s forward group as soon as this season. If he were to return to the QMJHL for his over-age year, he would get a chance to take the next step toward becoming a dynamic player by leading the Chicoutimi Saguenéens’ offence. He would be a great asset to fellow Habs prospect Samuel Houde.
33 - Gianni Fairbrother - LD - 18 - Everett Silvertips (WHL)
Everett has always been a strong defensive team. They like a more shutdown style, and play it very well. This season, they finished first in goals against in the WHL, holding teams to under two goals per game.
Their system already produced an NHL talent in Noah Juulsen, who excelled at holding the blue line for them a couple of years back. Fairbrother could be next.
Call it good scouting or player development, but the third-rounder fits Everett’s identity quite well and should continue to evolve into the top defensive role he filled for them this season, playing heavy minutes and contributing on special teams.
Fairbrother is physical, closes on attackers hard (both in-zone and off the rush) and looks to separate the puck from the opposition to feed it to teammates. He doesn’t play a creative brand of hockey. There’s little manipulating and shaking opponents with agile moves to hit rushing teammates through the neutral zone or creating plays in the offensive zone, but his style could still fit the modern NHL game quite well.
He is effective in engaging and at moving the puck, showing poise in his short passes. His skating should remain an advantage in the professional game, and he handles the puck well enough that it shouldn’t hold him back from making plays against professionals.
The standout element of Fairbrother’s offensive game is his shot. He scored a few goals in Canadiens development camp by joining the attack as a trailing option and also showed last year that he can hammer the puck from the offensive blue line. Selecting the best time to fire and forfeiting a slight touch of power in favour of a more controlled release could have him improve on his already double-digit goal production from last season.
32 - Jack Gorniak - LW - 19 - University of Wisconsin (NCAA)
Carrying and chasing. Forechecking and tracking back. This season, Gorniak consistently raced up and down the ice. He improved his board game, coming out with the puck more by slipping through defenders to hit teammates with passes, but most of his shifts were spent rushing. He is both quick and speedy, and while that is an advantage for him on the ice, it can also hold his game back in some ways.
Physical dominance can be a hinderance to development for a prospect. The common example is when they are bigger and stronger than their peers, they pick up physical habits that were successful against their competition but won’t work as well at the next level. It takes time to adjust and change to find new ways to drive plays, and some can never do it.
It’s the same when it comes to speed difference. A lot of Gorniak’s game at the high-school level was based on his extraordinarily dominant skating. He was skilled, but his fast tempo, acceleration, and balance allowed him to dominate entire teams. He is very athletic and it still serves him in creating some chances and checking the opposition quite well at the NCAA level, but to evolve into a key offensive contributor he will need to get ahead of plays, find space, take better angles in his rushing game, use more changes of speed, and keep his head moving to find passing targets and shot opportunities.
Gorniak will likely need three to four years of college before he makes the jump to professional hockey. The good news for him is that his team, the Wisconsin Badgers, will be very exciting to follow as soon as next season with the addition of Alex Turcotte and Habs top prospect Cole Caufield.
31 - Brett Stapley - C - 20 - University of Denver (NCAA)
In last year’s profile (ranked 43rd), we mentioned that Stapley’s qualities — his vision of the ice and above-average passing ability — would allow him to put up numbers in the NCAA down the road. The centreman didn’t wait for that happen, instead immediately getting to work. He came out of the gate strong and put up more than respectable totals in his first year with the University of Denver: 19 points in 32 games.
He was a bit older than some other NHL draftees in their freshman year (he was selected in 2018 in his second year of draft eligibily) but this first campaign is still a very encouraging one for the prospect.
Stapley isn’t the most explosive skater and is on the smaller side. He is not as athletic as Gorniak, but what he has over Wisconsin prospect are some of the aforementioned elements that Gorniak will need to acquire to take his offence to the next level.
Stapley supports his teammates very well, especially on the attack. He finds holes in the coverage easily and has an innate feel for where the passing outlets are. He even shows an ability to manipulate the defence to get off the boards and direct plays to the slot at times.
Watch how Stapley, #7 in red, consistently gives good pass options by adjusting his pace to find and remain in passing lanes. He is also very willing to keep the puck under pressure to wait for his teammates to act out the plays he sees. The highlights were taken from one of the better weekends of games of the centreman this season.
His confidence was very noticeable this past year. The change of pace and the heightened level of competition didn’t faze him. He made the most of his toolset and showed signs that he could evolve into a top player for Denver in the coming years — especially if he can show the same ability to support the play on the defensive side.
In 2019-20, a season of close to a point per game seems like a high, but attainable, goal for the prospect. At this time next year, Stapley could have another deserved jump in the rankings as he becomes more well known.
After looking at some of the players at the bottom end of the list, tomorrow we profile the players who just missed making the the cut for the Top 25.