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2021 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: The Long Shots (41-31)

Our flagship series begins with a look at the players who ranked the lowest, making cases for those who deserve more recognition.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 24 Wisconsin at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Editor’s note: Since Jesperi Kotkaniemi was lost via offer sheet partway through the project, we moved everyone who ranked behind him up a spot from the initial results, and had 41 players ranked.

The bottom part of the Top 25 Under 25 is always a mixed bag of players who are playing out their time on the reserve list, new prospects who are trying to work their way to a professional contract, and players who are working to take the next step toward the NHL.

It can be a place where the story starts for some players, including the most recent success stories of Jake Evans and Cayden Primeau who have played key roles for the organization at the professional level. For others, their time with the Canadiens organization ends here.

Notes: In the voting graphics in this article, and all articles in this series, the “EOTP” vote is the average rank from the hundreds of community ballots. Members “lunchboxgarcia” and “Jlevy88” are also listed along with the eight EOTP staff members.

41. Arvid Henrikson - Defenceman - 23 - Lake Superior State University

The unfortunate part about this exercise is that someone has to finish last. Henrikson is not a bad hockey player. He will forever be an NHL draft pick which is something millions of people who strap on skates cannot say.

However, the gamble on the 6’5” Swede in the seventh round of the 2016 Draft didn’t pay off like it did with others taken in that range, including Evans and Primeau. Henrikson is playing at Lake Superior State University where he had one assist in 29 games.

He’s getting an education, and could have an opportunity to play professional hockey somewhere. It probably won’t be in the NHL, but that’s still a success story. Hey, he even moved up from his 43rd spot a year ago.

40. Jack Smith - Forward - 19 - University of Minnesota-Duluth

Being drafted out of high school is a tough adjustment for any player, and that seemed to be the case for Jack Smith, Montreal’s fourth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Smith played his 2020-21 season in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede where he had seven goals and six assists in 47 games. The voting panel likely needed to see more from him in that league, and it probably had an effect on his ranking. He did have some offensive skill as he was well over a point-per-game in high school play.

It’s hard to get a read on his potential at this point, but we may get a better understanding this year when he plays for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs with fellow Canadiens prospect Blake Biondi. Players taken out of high school and who go the NCAA route can take some time to develop.

This ranking may be a bit harsh, considering it is a nine-spot drop from last year, but he’ll have every opportunity to move up in the future.

39. Joe Vrbetic - Goalie - 18 - North Bay Battalion

One look at Vrbetic’s OHL stats and you’ll understand why voters are skeptical. A 4.22 goals against average and .881 save percentage in 43 career OHL games don’t exactly scream “NHL future.”

Vrbetic was picked in the seventh round by the Canadiens in 2021, and didn’t play in 2019-20 as the pandemic cancelled the OHL’s season. He’s definitely a project, and at 6’6” you can’t teach his size. He gets praise for his play in front of a... rebuilding Battalion team and has good reflexes and athleticism.

It probably won’t be until he plays in front of a better team that we’ll get a good read on Vrbetic, but for now he’s the fifth goaltender on the list.

38. Jack Gorniak - Forward - 21 - University of Wisconsin

A fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Gorniak is entering his senior season at the University of Wisconsin. Canadiens fans who cheer for the Badgers (looking at you, J.J. Watt) will not have to split their attention between Gorniak and Cole Caufield any longer.

Gorniak has had an up-and-down time at Wisconsin as he has often been overshadowed by underclassmen who are top NHL prospects. He has 12 goals and 23 assists in 96 career NCAA games, including six goals and seven assists in 31 games last season.

Every year there are a handful of players who are in make it or break it seasons, and Gorniak is firmly in that group this year. At the end of his season, the Canadiens will have to make a decision on whether to sign him, and even if they decide not to sign him, another team will have that chance.

The NCAA is a league where you play your way into big roles, and that — mixed with some key departures — may give Gorniak the opportunity he needs to take that next step.

37. Arsen Khisamutdinov - Left Wing - 23 - Laval Rocket

Khisamutdinov came to North America last year, and it just happened to be the weirdest season to have come over. There was no real NHL training camp, and the AHL season started late. It made for a tough year to make that adjustment.

In 15 AHL games, he had one assist, and was in and out of Joël Bouchard’s lineup. When he was in the lineup he did show some puck skills, but there wasn’t much to suggest he would be able to take the next step to the NHL. That combined with eight career points in 40 career KHL games means that he’ll need to show more offensive skill.

A four-spot drop likely indicates that people expected to see more, and he’ll have to take advantage of a more routine off-season and pre-season in order to improve his stock going forward.

The team clearly saw something in him to give him an entry-level contract and bring him from Russia, and he’ll likely have this season to show whether they were right as he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the 2021-22 season.

36. Michael Pezzetta - Forward - 23 - Laval Rocket

Pezzetta showed a lot of improvement in his third year with the Laval Rocket in the AHL, his two goals and three assists surpassing his four points from 2019-20 in 12 fewer games.

He showed enough to earn an NHL contract after his entry-level contract expired. He has moved up three spots in the ranking as a result.

A favourite of Joël Bouchard, it will be interesting to see what role he will play under Jean-François Houle this season. Pezzetta won’t wow you with puck skills, but he will get some scoring chances, and likely could have had more points than he did last season.

Although he is one step below the NHL, his ceiling is likely what holds him back in this ranking. He probably tops out as a fourth line energy player at the NHL level, which is mostly the role he plays in the AHL as well. He can stand up for teammates, and annoy the other team while holding his own on the penalty kill.

35. Frederik Dichow - Goaltender - 20 - Kristianstads IK (HockeyAllsvenskan)

Playing only six games in 2019-20 due to the pandemic, Dichow is kind of in a holding pattern in his development and his ranking.

He had planned to play with Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League, but the pandemic ruined those plans. As a result, he will stay in Europe in 2021-22, playing in the second division in Sweden. As he told our Patrik Bexell, he will likely split the net with Olof Lindbom and this season should give us a better idea as to what his future will hold.

He was the third goaltender for Denmark at the most recent World Championship, so he may still have an intriguing future but voters had a better grasp on other players in this ranking.

34. Blake Biondi - Centre - 19 - University of Minnesota-Duluth

The NCAA is not a league that is easy for freshman to stand out in, unless you’re a top prospect. Biondi played his freshman season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, racking up two goals and three assists in 26 games.

Those numbers don’t jump off the page, and plays a part in his three spot drop from a year ago. It’s hard to distinguish Biondi from the team’s other 2019 fourth-round pick Jack Smith, and to hammer that point home, they’ll be teammates next season.

The future is perhaps a bit brighter for Biondi, who was named the best high school in Minnesota in 2019-20. As his role grows in the NCAA, perhaps his ranking will rise as well. He was one of the youngest players in the college circuit, having just turned 19 in April.

33. Jakub Dobeš - Goalie - 20 - Ohio State University

It’s a six-spot rise for Dobeš, who will start his NCAA career at Ohio State University this season. Last season, he played a big role for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL. He had a 26-16-3 record with a 2.48 goals against average and .908 save percentage. In two playoff games, he was 0-2 but had a 2.10 goals against average and .923 save percentage.

His 47 games were the most of any USHL goaltender, and he was top five in goals against average and save percentage. Lucky for him, however, he didn’t have to play a game against the stacked Chicago Steel.

That performance was enough to move him up past two other goaltenders in the organization. At 6’5”, he has the modern-day size that makes so many goalies intriguing prospects.

32. Xavier Simoneau - Centre - 20 - Charlottetown Islanders

While most late-round picks in the NHL Draft are relative unknowns, that is not really the case with Xavier Simoneau. The 5’7” forward was in his third year of eligibility in the NHL Draft when the Canadiens chose him in the sixth round in 2021.

The combination of size and age moved him down several lists, but likely there’s a hint of optimism with Simoneau thanks to the success that the team had with Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Joël Teasdale.

Nothing has come easy for Simoneau, who was invited to Team Canada’s World Junior camp this past season, but a positive COVID test meant he didn’t even get to touch the ice before being cut. The fact that an undrafted player gets invited to that camp in itself is notable. There’s no denying the skill Simoneau has, but his size will always be a handicap until he proves what he can do at the professional level.

While he’s eligible for his over-age season in the QMJHL, he has yet to play for Charlottetown in the pre-season. He will likely be a fixture at Canadiens rookie camp, and how he performs there will decide whether he gets a professional contract for 2021-22 like the team did with Harvey-Pinard a year ago before signing him to his NHL entry-level contract.

31. Daniil Sobolev - Defence - 18 - Windsor Spitfires

The Canadiens’ fifth-round pick in 2021, Sobolev is another prospect who is hard to get a read on due to the lack of an Ontario Hockey League season.

The Russian came over to North America for the 2020-21 season that ended up being cancelled. Rather than going back to Russia (where he said he wouldn’t get a chance to work on his offensive game), he chose to stay in North America where his agent found him coaches to work out with throughout the year.

He will likely finally make his OHL debut this season, and how he performs there will go a long way in determining which direction his stock — and ranking — will go. There’s reason to be intrigued with Sobolev, but more data is needed to get a better read on him as it has been two years since he’s played an actual game.

Below you can listen to Patrik Bexell and Anton Rasegård talk about all of the twelve longshots in podcast form:

Cracking the Canadiens’ roster would be an impressive feat for any of these prospects. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at five players who may come a little closer to making the cut.