1/ Alex Romanov (4)*
2/ Cole Caufield (1)
3/ Cayden Primeau (3)
4/ Ryan Poehling (5)
5/ Jesse Ylonen (6)
6/ Jordan Harris (9)
7/ Jayden Struble (12)
8/ Josh Brook (7)
9/ Mattias Norlinder (10)
10/ Noah Juulsen (11)
The graduation of Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury from prospects to full-fledged NHLers has resulted in significant changes in the top 20.
As noted in earlier rankings writeups, Alex Romanov‘s litmus test would be how he performed at his final WJC tournament. After dropping a couple of spots in the rankings due to the stellar play of Suzuki and rookie goalie Cayden Primeau, Romanov put to rest any fears that his development was being hampered by his lack of ice time and point production in the KHL with his virtuoso performance for the second-straight U-20 event.
The 6-0 blueliner played like he was a 6-4, 220-pound bruiser, stepping up in the neutral zone to staple countless forwards to the boards from the opening draw until the gold medal match.
Romanov’s mobility, athleticism and fearlessness add up to a 2020’s version of Darius Kasparaitis, but without the “over the edge” streak. Romanov is a smarter player than Kasparaitis at both ends of the ice, and is a good bet to become a crowd favourite soon after joining the Canadiens.
Romanov outperformed Cole Caufield at the World Juniors, and if one looks back at the 2019 WJC, he played much better at 18 in the tournament than Caufield did this time around, so while Caufield remains the top offensive prospect in the system, Romanov has the tools to be an all-around, top-pairing defenceman. That brings tremendous value to any club.
Caufield may one day be a 35- or 40-goal scoring winger with somewhat limited defensive abilites due to his diminutive stature. Is that more valuable than a 23-minute per game, 40-point all-around number one left defenceman, which is Romanov’s upside? Not in my book.
Slight edge to Romanov at this point, but it remains up in the air how much offence he will provide at the NHL level. Mind you..the same can be said for Caufield and any other prospect…nothing is etched in stone.
Cole Caufield has cooled off after an unprecedented start to his first NCAA season. The 5-6 winger notched two goals in each of his first three NCAA games, and there were visions of freshman goal-scoring records being shattered by the former USNTDP star.
After that impressive start, which included tough matchups versus Boston College and Minnesota-Duluth, Caufield has scored seven goals in his last 19 games. Sandwiched in between was his first trip to the WJC, where he scored one goal in five games as the US fell in the quarter finals. More offence has been expected from Caufield in the past couple of months as that is his modus operandi…producing.
Fortunately, he is still creating plenty of chances and has been thwarted somewhat by hot goaltending and those pesky goalposts. This is Caufield’s first introduction to adversity – he is not used to being kept off of the scoresheet.
It will be interesting to see how he handles it the rest of the NCAA season. Certainly, the calls for him to be coaxed into leaving school after one season and signing a pro contract are not as vocifereous as they were two months ago, especially with the Canadiens falling out of the playoff race and the signing of another sniper in Ilya Kovalchuk.
Cayden Primeau has picked up two shutouts already in 2020 playing in Laval, and only strengthened his case to be Carey Price’s backup next season. It is quite possible that the only reason he isn’t playing in the NHL right now is because Montreal doesn’t want him to be eligible to be selected in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft.
Since Keith Kinkaid was sent down, Primeau has outplayed the veteran netminder,`offering further proof that he should be playing in the NHL sooner rather than later.
It is time to stop rotating goalies in Laval for several reasons. Primeau is the future; Kinkaid is the past. Did Carey Price split his duty with another goalie in the 2007 AHL playoffs? Nope…he played EVERY game. Price played more games in a two-month span that playoff run than Primeau has played in close to four months this season.
Why was Price handed the reins right out of junior? Because he was the future in Montreal’s net. If Kinkaid was outplaying Primeau and gave them the best chance to win, it would be understandable, but that is not the case. Kinkaid is 3-5-1 with an .882 save percentage…those are ECHL numbers. Primeau is 12-6-1, and the last two seasons led Northeastern to back-toback Beanpot titles. He is a winner, and Laval needs to win.
Laval is in a dogged fight to make the playoffs, sitting tenth in the conference in win percentage. The best goalie should be in nets, and that would be Primeau. It’s readily apparent that games in the AHL aren’t going to turn around Kinkaid’s game, and Montreal is essentially out of the playoff picture at this point anyway, so ride the prospect down the stretch to further enhance his development.
Ryan Poehling recently tallied his first point of the NHL season after going pointless in 19 games. One goal in 23 games was not the expectation for the former first-round pick after starting his NHL career with a hat trick in the final game of the 2018-19 NHL season versus Toronto.
Is that what the Canadiens want him to become….a checker? The 2019 WJC MVP was not picked in the first round to be a checker…he was chosen to one day battle for a top-two center role in Montreal. Is it a possibility that he ends up being a winger because of his difficulties winning faceoffs? Sure; but what better spot to be learning the defensive part of being a pro than at center?
If his faceoffs never get up to an acceptable level, then fine…move him back to the wing at a later date and play him in a top six or top-nine winger role on the Habs when he is ready to contribute offensively. But this notion that you give up on him as a center a month into his first pro season when you can never have too many centers in the system seems misguided.
Poehling needs to find his offensive confidence, and that is not going to happen in Montreal in a checking role. We all know he can check; what we want is for him to also contribute offensively. Get him down in Laval playing a top-six role and one the first power play, let him regain the offensive side of his game, and give him a solid shot at playing a more prominent role in Montreal next season.
Jesse Ylonen has heated up his game the past few weeks, picking up four goals in his last eight games and moving into the top 30 in FHL goal scoring with a dozen goals.
While his stats are far from mind boggling, consider that he is one of the younger players in the Finnish league, and is playing on one of the bottom feeders with little offensive punch. In the games I have seen, Ylonen’s speed and skill are on display thoughout the matches, and plenty of offensive chances are created by the speedy winger.
In communicating with Habs EOTP European correspondent Patrik Bexell recently, his thinking is that Ylonen may well be loaned to a playoff contender after the Pelicans season ends, and he expects Ylonen to come over to play in Laval next season. His size/skill combination will be a welcome addition on the Rocket.
Jordan Harris moved from ninth to sixth in the rankings thanks in part to the graduation of Suzuki and Fleury, but also because of his solid showing at the WJC over the holidays.
Asked to play on his wrong side on a shutdown pairing for the US, Harris finished the tournament tied for the fourth-best plus/minus mark among all defencemen, and the best rating among defencemen on the American team.
Harris has the mobility, smarts, vision and poise to vie for an NHL position in two or three years on a Canadiens’ defence that will suddenly be teeming with speedy, puck-moving left defencemen.
Harris’ Northeastern teammate Jayden Struble made the largest jump in the top ten by moving from 12th to seventh in the past couple of months.
After missing camp and the first few games of his freshman college campaign, Struble has quickly moved up the pecking order on Northeastern’s defence, and is a regular partner of Harris in the Huskies’ top-two defence pairings.
Struble started the season as Northeastern’s seventh defenceman, going pointless in his first eight NCAA games. Struble has scored three goals and added six assists in his last nine games, and often paired with Harris in a top-four role.
The improvement in Struble’s game between November and January has been abundantly obvious to those watching Northeastern games. He is playing with much more confidence at both ends of the rink, becoming a physical force in his own end, and a constant threat in the offensive zone thanks in large part to his puck-carrying skills and heavy point shot.
Josh Brook was overtaken by Harris and Struble in the rankings due to their stellar play moreso than any regression in Brook’s play.
One thing Brook can’t control is whether his coach likes him or not. It is abundantly clear that his junior coach from last season, Tim Hunter, thinks Brook is a better offensive defenceman than his current coach, Joel Bouchard.
That does not necessarily bode well for Brook’s future with the NHL club. He has been passed by Cale Fleury on the depth chart, and his move to the wing a couple of weeks ago when injuries struck in Laval was not a good omen. Why move Brook to the wing instead of lesser prospects like Evan McEnany? Why mess with what is supposed to be your best defence prospect in Laval?
Yet another example of what appears to be less emphasis on developing the clubs’ top prospects than on trying to win games. Getting into the playoffs would be a positive for the organization, but not at the expense of the development of the top prospects; that should never even be a question.
Brook was good enough to be a leading offensive defenceman in the WHL the past two seasons and a top-four defenceman on Canada’s WJC team. Yet…a few months later he’s deemed inferior to Karl Alzner and undrafted, recently-signed McEnany?
This is not a positive sign for Brook. Yes…there have been a few defensive struggles, and due largely to being paired with Alzner, and receiving very little prime power-play opportunities, Brook hasn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers.
Here’s hoping that his move back to defence in the last game is a permanent one. He remains a solid prospect, and has offensive upside at the pro level with his passing skills and vision. If his play had been noticeably inferior to others I could have understood the move better, but from my viewings he has been playing as well as several others.
To no one’s surprise, Mattias Norlinder played a limited role on Sweden’s vaunted defence at the WJC. A defence core rife with top-50 prospects, Norlinder ended up averaging well below ten minutes per game as the team’s extra defenceman.
The important thing is that Norlinder even made the team considering that he had never played in a U-20 international tournament of note in his young career. Passed over in the 2018 draft, Norlinder’s ascent into a formidable offensive defenceman in the Allsvenskan the past two seasons has been impressive.
He has NHL-calibre skating and puck-carrying skills. If the rest of his game can develop, the Canadiens will have yet another legitimate left-handed NHL defenceman in 2-3 years.
The most difficult player to rank is Noah Juulsen given his serious injury concerns since fracturing an orbital bone 14 months ago in an NHL game.
If that injury never occurs, Juulsen is quite likely playing a regular role on Montreal’s defence today, and perhaps even pushing Petry for more ice time on the right side.
As things stand right now, his hockey future remains up in the air. Juulsen has been suffering from migraines on and off from the time of the injury, and he hasn’t played a game since the early part of the AHL season.
The tools are there for Juulsen to be a solid NHL regular…what is not there is good health.
He is slowly sliding down the rankings as other prospects become more proven and Juulsen remains sidelined. All Canadiens fans are praying for a full recovery for Juulsen, no matter how long it takes.
Keep an eye on Twitter following @grantmccagg for the top prospects ranked 11-20 next week: