Fans of the Montreal Canadiens have had to strap into a roller coaster of emotions. From suffering through watching their team finish 32nd in a 32-team NHL, to winning the draft lottery and then hearing the bad news on franchise cornerstone Carey Price that he will not play at all this season, and possibly will never play again.
Now, the Canadiens enter the 2022-23 season with a new management team and head coach working together from the start of a season for the first time. While there may be new, higher expectations on the team this season, there is still a focus on the franchise’s prospects as the team, despite the highest hopes of any fan, is in a rebuild.
Definition of a Prospect
For this exercise, I will keep the definition of a prospect simple. It is a player under 23 years old, who has only played one full NHL season or playing in a lower league, professional or amateur, and has not played a season in the NHL previously. For goaltenders, they must not have played 50 NHL games. Also, they must be 25 years of age or younger.
Using this as the basis to follow, names such as team captain Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach no longer apply, as adding them to this pyramid would greatly improve the outlook of the prospect pool for the Canadiens.
A pyramid is just as subjective as any other traditionally used ranking system. What this approach will do is look at a prospect’s top-end potential as opposed to arguing why Prospect A is ranked fourth over Prospect B. Most players will never reach their top-end potential, however, the Canadiens’ management team has begun to focus on modernizing their player development plans with the creation of analytics and skill development departments. Hiring a head coach that says that his focus is on a player’s ceiling (Canadiens Focussing on Player Development Under Martin St. Louis , Stu Cowan, The Montreal Gazette, 26 Sep 2022) demonstrates a new inclination towards building the future. With that, draftees and newly acquired players will have a better chance to meet, or maybe even exceed expectations.
The Tiers are as follows:
Tier 1 – Elite or top-line, top-pair talent
Tier 2 – Top-six forward, top-four defender, starting goaltender
Tier 3 – Third-line forward, bottom-pair defender, backup goaltender
Tier 4 – Role players, bottom-line forward, depth defenceman or forward
Tier 5 – Minor league player used for call-ups
Elite or Top-Line, Top-Pair Talent
After the 2021-22 season, there was only one name on this list, Cole Caufield. After a difficult start to his rookie season, scoring one goal in 30 games, the arrival of Martin St. Louis as the new head coach saw an increased level of performance. In his 37 games under St. Louis, Caufield scored 22 goals and returned to being the Habs’ top line winger they drafted 15th overall in 2019.
Now, there is a second name added to this top tier, Juraj Slafkovsky. At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds the 2022 first overall pick towers above his peers at camp. There is still a question as to whether he will start the season playing in Montreal, or with their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Laval Rocket. Yet no matter where he suits up, management’s focus is on his long-term development, that he will become the best player at 24, not peak at 18 years old.
During training camp, however, Slafkovsky has not been as dominant as some would have hoped. While a guest on the Ray and Dregs Podcast, general manager (GM) Kent Hughes was brutally honest with his assessment of the young Slovakian’s performance in camp, stating that Slafkovsky looked very good in rookie camp, but was “a little underwhelming in preseason games so far”. While fans may not have the ability to be patient as they wait for their first overall pick to reach his potential, the Canadiens are willing to wait and have the luxury of time to develop him as the team is not expected to compete for a few more seasons.
Top-6 Forward, Top-4 Defender, Starting Goaltender
This tier is the most well populated in the Canadiens’ system, thanks to some good decisions on the draft floor and additions via trade. After the happy surprise of seeing Joshua Roy’s leap in development (already on pace for a 133-point campaign with his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) team with two goals and four points in two games) to becoming a legitimate NHL prospect, it is Frederik Dichow’s turn to play that role. His .930 save percentage (SV%) and 18-9 record in Sweden’s second-tier professional league, HockeyAllsvenskan led directly to him catching the eye of one of Sweden’s top teams, Frolunda HC. The 6-foot-5 right-handed goaltender started his first Swedish Hockey League (SHL) season off strong, with a .914 SV% and a 2.14 goals against average in his first two games.
The 2022 training camp has been a revelation for two forward prospects drafted only in the 2022 Draft, Filip Mesar and Owen Beck. Mesar has flashed some high-end skill at both center and wing, but it has been Beck stealing the show at camp, impressing everyone who has watched him play. In a style reminiscent of Suzuki’s when he made his debut with the Canadiens, Beck has shown an ability to read and react to the plays in all three zones.
Lane Hutson sits in this tier and he is the biggest boom/bust prospect in the Canadiens system. The 5-foot-8, 148-pound puck-moving defenceman completed an impressive draft year putting up 95 points in 87 games played for the United States National Training and Development Program (USNTDP). If he reaches his potential, it would be a home run for Hughes coming out of his first draft.
This tier also includes Jesse Ylonen, Kaiden Guhle, Cayden Primeau, Jordan Harris, Jayden Struble, Luke Tuch, Logan Mailloux, Matthias Norlinder, Jan Mysac, and Frederik Dichow.
Third-Line Forward, Bottom-Pair Defender, Backup Goaltender
Of this tier, Arber Xhekaj has gained the most attention entering this season. He is coming off a strong campaign playing for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Champions, Hamilton Bulldogs becoming a near point-per-game defenceman in the playoffs while playing a physical style. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound defenceman is expected to start the season in the AHL with Laval, but with the lack of depth on the Habs’ blue line, that may change before the season ends.
This tier also includes Adam Engström, Vinzenz Rohrer, Emmett Croteau, Rem Pitlick, Riley Kidney, Raphael Harvey-Pinard, Oliver Kapanen, Jakub Dobes, Emil Heineman, Daniil Sobolev, William Trudeau, Petteri Nurmi, and Ty Smilanic.
Role Players, Bottom-Line Forward, Depth Defenceman or Forward
At best, the hope is for some of these players to make it into the NHL and provide some depth in case of injuries or develop their skills to move up the pyramid if at all possible. Micheal Pezzetta is the lead name in this tier as he has already pierced the NHL lineup for 51 games last season. His ability to play in a fourth-line energy role while providing some physicality and a willingness to step up to defend his teammates shows he has reached the potential that was seen in his draft year. While he may never become more than this role, players like him are always a necessity for any team hoping to remain competitive.
This tier also includes Jared Davidson, Dmitri Kostenko, Blake Biond, Rhett Pitlick, Gianni Faibrother and Alexander Gordin.
Minor-League Players Used for Call-Ups
Those mentioned in this tier are players that may not be able to pierce an NHL lineup permanently but still hold value for an organization. They can provide depth in the case of injuries, but also support in the minor leagues as quality players for the team’s top prospects as they develop their games.
Miguel Tourigny was drafted in the seventh round, 216th overall in 2022. At 5-foot-8, 175-pounds, he is another undersized defenceman that must rely on his offensive skills to keep a professional job. He may never become an NHL-quality defenceman, but he does have good offensive instincts and an ability to move the puck quickly. He can also help at the AHL level by supporting the offensive players under development by quarterbacking a power play.
Players in this tier include Jack Gorniak, Jack Smith, Xavier Simoneau, Arvid Henrikson, Brett Stapely, Joe Vrbetic, Joel Teasdale, and Cam Hillis.
This is simply a snapshot of the Canadiens’ prospects at the beginning of the 2022-23 season. As the months roll by, it is possible that a player could go up or down by the time the mid-season pyramid is released. For a franchise in a rebuild, it is clear that the top tier needs to be re-stocked, and that will come in time with high draft picks, but that unfortunately also comes from a season with another disappointing record.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.