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2020 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: The Near Misses (30-26)

The five players who were a puck’s throw away from cracking to Top 25 this year

NHL: SEP 09 NHL Rookie Showdown Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You could easily make a case to include some of the prospects below in the Top 25 Under 25. They all have a few NHL qualities. Yet, due to equally noticeable weaknesses, they didn’t make the cut this year.

30. Rafaël Harvey-Pinard - Forward - 21 - Laval Rocket

At times, Harvey-Pinard can finish from a distance and pass the puck through defensive layers. But while he has the necessary hand-eye coordination and handling skill to create a bit of his own offence at the professional level, you shouldn’t expect highlight-reel plays from the forward. What you can count on him to do every night, however, is outwork opponents. He isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but Harvey-Pinard acts as the motor of all the teams he is on. He forechecks intensively and does so with good technique, using his stick and body in timely ways, and backchecks with as much momentum as he can generate. He also anticipates the play of the opposition well and steals the puck to launch his team into a counterattack.

Harvey-Pinard is a fierce competitor. His giant heart might carry him further in professional hockey than one might expect projecting his skill alone. That said, even competitiveness has a limit. Harvey-Pinard remains an unlikely NHLer. In the pros, opponents are bigger, faster, and smarter. They protect the puck better, move it rapidly on breakouts and are more aware of backchecking threats. To play his type of game, even in the AHL, Harvey-Pinard will need to become more explosive and speedy, more deceptive in his defensive approach and in his passes, and more slippery around the net-front to jump on loose pucks. Otherwise, he might not write his name on the scoresheet all that often.

The forward’s minor-league contract will allow him to prove himself against better competition. Fortunately, Joël Bouchard knows what he is capable of and he will give him the chance to show that he belongs. Harvey-Pinard will probably be used as a complementary forechecking threat at first, but his role will evolve if he displays that he is capable of generating more offence.

29. Gianni Fairbrother - Defenceman - 20 - Everett Silvertips

Most of the things Montreal values in Jordan Harris are also found in Fairbrother’s game.

Although he doesn’t break up as many plays in between blue lines, Fairbrother closes his gap early in the neutral zone, forcing opponents towards the boards or his partner’s side of the ice. In zone, he plays strong one-on-one defence due to his ability to shadow attackers with controlled footwork. He limits his usage of crossovers and relies on quick shuffle steps to maintain almost perfect defensive-side positioning. His one-on-one game in tight spaces is also effective; he pins attacker’s hips to the boards and pokes the puck towards teammates.

Once he gets possession, Fairbrother shows himself elusive against the forecheck, making more than his share of controlled zone exits by shoulder-checking consistently and through precise and occasionally deceptive skate and handling moves.

Like Harris, however, Fairbrother lacks the projectable offence. He shoots hard from the point, walks the blue line, and can make the odd exchange with teammates to beat defenders and attack down zone, but doesn’t manipulate the opposition in any way. He distributes the puck and takes the opportunities that are given to him.

Due to being sidelined for the second half of last season from an upper-body injury, we only got to monitor him for so many games. But his progression was encouraging.

In time, the prospect could absolutely earn a bottom-pairing role in the NHL. It is not the most likely outcome due to his lack of standout skill, but his defensive and transition game already have pro-like qualities. If he can continue to improve his strengths, he could become a dependable piece for Bouchard’s team as soon as next year and provide depth to Montreal’s back-end in a couple of years.

28. Joël Teasdale- Forward - 21 - Laval Rocket

Teasdale played his last competitive hockey game on May 26, 2019. His ACL and MCL injury necessitated a long recovery and when he finally got close to a return to play with the Laval Rocket in 2020, the season was canceled. With the uncertainty surrounding the AHL, we still don’t know when he will make his debut with the team.

A year and a half on the sideline hurts the development of any prospect, but especially the ones lower in the depth chart. They can’t rely on the exceptional parts of their game to keep organizations interested in them. They have to prove themselves continuously and work to add missing skills in order to aspire to an NHL career. And to do that, they need playing time in the lower levels — something Teasdale won’t get for a few months still.

Teasdale was a power forward in the QMJHL. He kept the puck out of reach of the defence on the boards with his body, timely fakes, and even some creative handling moves. Teasdale could beat defenders one-on-one with finesse or bully them on his way to the net where he would then slip the puck past the goalie. When he didn’t have possession, the cage was still his main destination. The forward would abuse the QMJHL’s spotty defence by planting himself around the blue paint. At the far or near post, he would wait for a teammate to reach him with a pass that he would then catch to again take on the goalie.

Teasdale also provided defensive value. He was used on the penalty kill where he showed a real knack for disturbing the opposition up ice before they even crossed his blue line. It’s a talent he displayed again with the Habs in pre-season games in 2019.

The forward’s offensive and defensive skills and his grittier nature, would have likely earned him ice time last year under Bouchard, his coach with the Armada Blainville Boisbriand for a number of seasons. Teasdale is the kind of player Bouchard is affectionate towards.

There is little doubt that Teasdale will get back to his old form. He is hard-working and spends a lot of time in the gym, but his old form won’t be enough for him to reach the NHL.

His QMJHL game will not translate to the top league without adaptations. Teasdale’s handling skills were superior to his Junior counterparts, but ranks only as average in the NHL. He also lacks speed and quickness and won’t be able to stand around the net to collect goals as easily in the top league. He will need to learn to slip behind defenders, and pop up into the slot at the right time to avoid being pushed out or stick lifted.

In other words, his offensive reads will have to develop for him to score and his skating will need to improve if he is to check with the same intensity.

27. Alexander Gordin- Forward - 19 - SKA-1946

With seventh-rounders like Jake Evans and Cayden Primeau outperforming their draft selection in recent years, it seems like the community has decided to preemptively move the last pick of the 2020 class close to the Top 25.

Gordin, a 19-year-old, draft-reentry, MHLer got caught in a hype wave and now finds himself ahead of many other more established names in the Habs’ prospect pool, and even some prospects drafted ahead of him in the 2020 Draft like Jack Smith and Blake Biondi.

While this ranking can be perceived as optimistic, I had the prospect at 26 on my own board, so I can’t say I disagree.

Gordin has a long path to the NHL ahead of him. And considering his slow pace, it might take him a while to get there — if he gets there at all. That said, the prospect has NHL qualities, like his powerful shot that he can release off either foot and with deception, or his ability to quickly use teammates and well-timed fakes to move around the defence. He also possesses the size to hold onto the puck along the walls and the vision to attack open spaces ahead of time to connect plays or make use of his superior shot.

He will likely get to test his game in the KHL this season. The change of pace might be hard for him at first, but he is smart enough to find ways to adapt. Seeing a new level of competition would be good fuel for his development; his weaknesses would become evident to him. Right now, the MHL competition doesn’t challenge him enough to lead to improvements.

All in all, if Gordin can get his skating to an NHL-average level, the Habs might have something there. In order to improve his footwork, the MHLer will need to both work in the gym and on the form of his stride.

26. Rhett Pitlick- Forward - 19 - Muskegon Lumberjacks

Pitlick is one of the better skaters in the prospect pool. His game is heavily based on outracing opponents. Lucky for him, he should retain his mobility advantage even in the professional game.

What makes Pitlick’s skating so projectable is his solid technique, close-to-optimal limb-angle, ability to project himself forward from a stop, and skating habits or heavy use of crossovers. Pitlick first beats his opponents to loose pucks with his first two steps and then accelerates away from them by rapidly crossing his feet. USHL defenders had a hard time containing him this past season and, next year, he should give trouble to NCAA ones, too.

The forward can also elude opponents in tighter areas. He shakes them with abrupt changes in direction and roams the periphery of the zone until he can find teammates in the slot.

Pitlick is energetic and he rarely gives up on plays. If a defender manages to steal the puck away from him, he gets right on his tail to poach it right back. This high-churning motor is at the center of his defensive game and makes him a great penalty-killer. When defending a man down, he can quickly reposition to cut shooting and passing lanes.

To turn into a dominant NCAA forward, Pitlick needs to both find ways to create when he can’t manufacture a speed advantage (through deception and manipulation) and also learn to use his skating even better (by improving the timing of his cutbacks and making more east-west movements to attract multiple defenders).

Overall, Pitlick’s game still needs refinement, but he is one of the better forward prospects in the Habs’ pool. Montreal might see him turn into a viable option for their bottom-six in the next three years.

Now that we’ve made our way through the players who didn’t make the Top 25, we’ll begin profiling the top young players in the organization on Monday.