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2020 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: The biggest rises and largest drops

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Some players make big advances as they near an NHL career, while a few big names take a step backward.

Tommy Holl TT

For the final look at EOTP’s 2020 ranking of the top 25 Montreal Canadiens players under 25, we’ll look at the biggest movers on the list from last year.

There were some major moves from the 2019 version — in both directions. A year ago we introduced a tweaked ranking procedure, which changed how certain players or types of players were viewed, and that had an impact on the year-over-year moves. This time we get a more direct comparison as many of the players from a year ago were re-evaluated using the same criteria.

Biggest Rises

Mattias Norlinder

2019: #16 → 2020: #5

For the first time in several years, we didn’t get a jump to rival some of the largest we’ve ever seen. There is still a bit of history to talk about, however, because since we started these rankings in 2010, no player had ever made a double-digit single-year leap into the top five before Mattias Norlinder did so this year.

We knew about his underlying abilities when he was drafted a year ago, even if many were a bit wary of why such a talented player slipped to the third round in his second year of eligibility. After watching him for a year, seeing glimpses of skill unmatched by any other defenceman in the organization, and hearing endless praise from those who have worked most closely with him, some of the perceived restrictions on a top-four projection have evaporated. There’s still a lot of development that needs to take place, but many of us feel it’s just a matter of time and practice before his game becomes more refined and those glimpses of top-end skill more regular.

Cam Hillis

2019: #30 → 2020: #19

In the second of three 11-place rises from one year ago, 2018 third-rounder Cam Hillis moves up from “near-miss” status to a spot in the top 20. He dropped a few places after a dismal 2018-19 season, one in which we all expected him to build upon a point-per-game draft season but he instead battled injuries and posted a brow-furrowing 22 points in 33 games. That all changed last season, as he initially rode the hot hand of Pavel Gogolev with the Guelph Storm, then started to control more of the play himself as the season wore on.

We’re now waiting for the AHL season to begin to see how his playmaking talents translate to the professional ranks. He won’t have a player like Gogolev to set up in the minors (barring a pre-season signing), so we’ll get a better indication of his play-driving abilities with more blue-collar talent around him.

Brett Stapley

2019: #31 → 2020: #20

Trevor Timmins may have been watching Stapley for a couple of years before the Canadiens used their final pick on him in 2018, but we didn’t have high hopes for a point-per-game, over-age Junior A forward that year, and had him third-last in our ranking. Nineteen points in 32 games in his freshman year gave us a better idea, and his 30 points in 35 games in 2019-20 have him rising up the list to become a legitimate NHL prospect.

Jordan Harris

2019: #25 → 2020: #16

Harris just made the list last year by tying with pro defenceman Gustav Olofsson for 25th. In 2019-20, he played his steady brand of defence while also increasing his point total, earned a spot on Team USA’s roster for the World Juniors, and scored the game-winning goal in overtime to secure the coveted Beanpot trophy contested by collegiate teams in the Boston area.

He ranked last of the group of nine defencemen in 2020’s top 16, but he’s had an incredible start to what will be a shortened 2020-21 campaign, with three goals and five points on the opening weekend, so his rise is probably far from over.

Cayden Primeau

2019: #12 → 2020: #6

Each year brings another big jump in our list for Cayden Primeau. He started at 36th as a seventh-round pick, tied for the largest single-year leap the next year as we wondered how he was a seventh-round pick, and them moved up to 12th after his sophomore year as he left GMs around the league mumbling that he shouldn’t have been a seventh-round pick.

Despite a rough start to his first year as a professional (a difficult start for a disjointed Laval Rocket team as a whole), as some personnel changes created a more stable environment, so too did Primeau settle into the AHL crease. He was playing a major role as the team began a late march to a post-season berth, and was named to the All-Rookie Team for his efforts; another accolade in his first three years in the organization.

We can add another bullet point to his resume: largest overall rise in the Top 25 Under 25, and he smashes the record with a six-spot jump to bring the total to 30 places.

Lifetime rises

Player Rank (Year) New Rank (Year) Change
Player Rank (Year) New Rank (Year) Change
Cayden Primeau 36 (2017) 6 (2020) 30
Jake Evans 35 ('14, '15) 10 (2020) 25
Charles Hudon 28 (2012) 5 ('15, '17, '18) 23
Morgan Ellis 34 (2010) 11 (2012) 23
Brett Stapley 43 (2018) 20 (2020) 23
Brendan Gallagher 24 (2010) 2 ('14, '15, '16) 22
Alexander Romanov 26 (2018) 4 (2020) 22
Daniel Carr 28 (2014) 7 (2016) 21
Martin Réway 33 (2013) 12 (2016) 21

Can he go even higher in 2021? Given what he’s done so far, it would be silly to bet against him now.

Alexander Romanov

2019: #9 → 2020: #4

Romanov will never be able to match Primeau’s rise as he debuted at 26th in 2018 (an error in our judgment of a second-round pick, not by 31 NHL scouting departments), but he is pretty close, and also appears on that list of lifetime risers. His big hop helped keep him ahead of the leap by Norlinder, taking the belt as the top young defenceman this year.

He will be playing in North America in 2020-21, possibly in the AHL but most already have him pencilled into the NHL lineup. An increase in level often brings a drop in ranking as some weaknesses get exposed by better competition, but there’s a lot of faith in Romanov’s ability to make an impact right away.

Jake Evans

2019: #15 → 2020: #10

Since we seem to be highlighting a lot of the players in that lifetime rises table, we might as well discuss one more. Evans would have held the record for biggest rise if Primeau hadn’t snatched it away, but it’s still an incredible run for yet another seventh-rounder.

He had a very good debut in the AHL upon the conclusion of his time at Notre Dame, then overcame an ice-cold start last season to grow even more. He received his first NHL call-up and impressed enough to gain the trust of the Canadiens’ coaching staff in the playoffs, which certainly played a big part in gaining a top-10 spot.

That performance in the post-season seems to have impressed Marc Bergevin, because, for perhaps the first time in his tenure, he didn’t add a veteran to take the fourth-line centre spot during the off-season. As some of the players we’ve seen rising start to transition from prospect to big-league player, Evans claiming that role could be the end result of all those years of development.

All 2020 rises

Player 2019 Rank 2020 Rank Change
Player 2019 Rank 2020 Rank Change
Norlinder, Mattias 16 5 11
Hillis, Cam 30 19 11
Stapley, Brett 31 20 11
Harris, Jordan 25 16 9
Primeau, Cayden 12 6 6
Romanov, Alexander 9 4 5
Evans, Jake 15 10 5
Struble, Jayden 20 15 5
Dichow, Frederik 42 37 5
Suzuki, Nick 5 1 4
Caufield, Cole 7 3 4
Fairbrother, Gianni 33 29 4
Harvey-Pinard, Rafaël 34 30 4
Alain, Alexandre 38 34 4
LeGuerrier, Jacob 40 36 4
Henrikson, Arvid 46 43 3
Fleury, Cale 13 11 2
Khisamutdinov, Arsen 35 33 2
Ruscheinski, Kieran 44 42 2
Ylönen, Jesse 14 13 1
Pezzetta, Michael 41 40 1

Biggest Drops

Joni Ikonen

2019: #20 → 2020: #35

Ikonen has been a popular prospect since he was drafted in 2017, when he made his debut at 11th. Despite some struggles both on the ice with production and off the ice with long-term injuries, he held a place at 20th for the past two years. But a missed 2019-20 season, and then a different injury just as the current one was about to begin have caused that patience to crumble.

Rather than thinking about what he can do when he gets healthy, we’re left wondering if he will get past this spate of injuries. With recent news that his recovery from a knee injury is nearly complete, my initial reaction was ‘I wonder how long he will play this time’ more than ‘we can finally see him get some consistent playing time.’ That’s the obstacle he’ll have to overcome to not only put himself back in a more familiar place next year, but keep the Canadiens interested in a player whose draft rights expire on June 1.

Jack Gorniak

2019: #32 → 2020: #38

Gorniak’s speed at least put him on the radar in 2019; a great ability to build the rest of his game upon. A placement at 32 was by no means high, but it pushed him above about one-third of the players on last year’s list. An offensive regression in his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin dropped him down to 38, which is quite a large drop from that place on the list.

He’s already increased his point total in just 10 games with the Badgers. The exodus of some of the program’s top talent in the summer has worked to his advantage as he now gets more of a role, even playing with Cole Caufield to start the season, and that will boost his offence. Perhaps he’ll be one of the risers in 2021 as a result.

Jacob Olofsson

2019: #19 → 2020: #25

Olofsson finds himself in a similar position to Ikonen; brimming with talent, but dealing with injuries that prevent him from showing it off. When he rejoined the Skellefteå roster this fall after recovering from a concussion, he had lost his chance to compete for a centre role, and he was unable to adapt to play on the wing.

Now back with his old team, Timrå, he’s in a more comfortable role in the middle of the ice, but also in a tier lower than he started in. It’s not the direction an NHL team wants its prospects to be heading, and next year’s evaluations will have to take that demotion into account.

Ryan Poehling

2019: #4 → 2020: #9

Poehling swapped spots with Romanov this year, sliding down to ninth at the conclusion of his third year in the organization. In his case, it may not be so much a precipitous year-to-year drop as a correction for a slightly too ambitious jump a year ago. Many of us bought into a few incredible performances that year — and it’s hard not to when a player beats a goaltender four times in his NHL debut — and that proved too rash.

In 2020, he’s back to his typical bottom-six projection that was attached to him even before his draft day, and he has a more reasonable ranking for that role. He’s not the NHL-ready player he looked to be in the 2018-19 season finale, and still has work to do to become an effective player in the big leagues.

All 2020 drops

Player 2019 Rank 2020 Rank Change
Player 2019 Rank 2020 Rank Change
Ikonen, Joni 20 35 -15
Gorniak, Jack 32 38 -6
Olofsson, Jacob 19 25 -6
Poehling, Ryan 4 9 -5
Verbeek, Hayden 37 41 -4
Teasdale, Joël 24 28 -4
McNiven, Michael 18 22 -4
Pitlick, Rhett 23 26 -3
Brook, Josh 11 14 -3
Juulsen, Noah 10 12 -2
Leskinen, Otto 22 23 -1
Mete, Victor 6 7 -1