By JD Lagrange – Isn’t it fun to be able to look ahead and talk about players hitting the ice? After two years of COVID shortened off-seasons and an early elimination from participating in the playoffs, Habs’ fans aren’t used to that long of a delay. It seems like it’s been forever that their favourites have hit the ice, and there is a lot of excitement and novelty for the upcoming season.
There are some young guys in the organization who will be fighting for their lives trying to finally break through and fulfil their dream of playing in the NHL. The following is not a list of the Canadiens’ top prospects, but rather a subjective ranking of the prospects whom I feel are the closest to being ready to take the next step into the league.
1- Otto Leskinen
At 25 years old, calling him a prospect is pushing it. Let’s say that he’s the oldest one on that list and that’s why he’s at the top and I placed him amongst prospects because he came back to Montreal for one last kick at the can. He had a good season last year in the KHL and in Liiga and I’m fully expecting that with his age and experience, he is the forgotten one as fans only speak of Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris on the left side of the defense.
2- Justin Barron
Barron has one huge advantage over the team’s other young defensemen: he shoots right, a rarity in the organization. In fact, only David Savard and Chris Wideman are right-handed ahead of him. He has the size, the mobility and the skills, and he has a little bit of NHL experience under his belt. He will be turning 21 in November and he must come ready to play and contribute. It is his job to lose.
3- Kaiden Guhle
Admittedly, it is kind of weird to say that a 20 year-old is NHL-ready. Particularly a defenseman. But if you ask anyone, Guhle is mature well beyond his young age. He has the physique, the skating ability and good decision-making to be a contributor on this year’s squad, particularly that there are three open spots on the Canadiens’ defense at the time of writing this. He may be part of a rotation between Laval and Montreal with a few other prospects to start, but he’s very close to sticking with the big club.
4- Juraj Slafkovsky
When was the last time that we thought that an 18 year-old player was NHL-ready on the Canadiens? Fans will have a bad taste in their mouth from the Alex Galchenyuk and Jesperi Kotkaniemi experience and rightfully so. But unlike them, Slafkovsky is said to be the most NHL-ready of his Draft class. Further, he is a first overall pick. Oh that doesn’t guarantee him a spot on the team, far from there, but at 6-foot 4-inches and 229 lbs, and having played against men all season last year, he can handle it physically. He may or may not stick, but he’s close.
5- Jordan Harris
Harris is special. Having played his senior year of College, he’s already 22 years old. He did fairly well in the few games that he’s played at the end of last season. A bit undersized, his best attributes are his skating abilities, and how calm he is on the ice, even as a rookie. Not panicking at such a young age at that level is a huge quality. He may have to be part of that rotation between Laval and Montreal with a few other defensemen. As he said himself just recently, what’s important is that he plays big minutes.
6- Jesse Ylönen
I truly feel for Ylönen. The Canadiens have absolutely no room for him right now. Yet he is, in my humble opinion, totally NHL-ready. The 22 year-old right-winger has the speed, the shot, the offensive flair and the defensive awareness to play in this league. I’m just hoping that he managed to put some muscle mass on his six-foot frame in the off-season, as 168 lbs is way too light for him. Please Kent (Hughes), clear some space on the wing…
7- Arber Xhekaj
One word to describe “Jack-eye”: Beast! He played as an overager last year in the OHL and it showed. He man-handled those kids from his 6-foot 4-inches and 218 lbs frame. He doesn’t have the offense or skills Shea Weber had, but he has his sheer strength. Undrafted, he had a good camp last year and expect the 21 year-old to open some eyes at camp again this year. Another guy who can rotate between Laval and Montreal next season.
8- Mattias Norlinder
Perhaps the best offensive defenseman of the group, Norlinder struggled a bit to adapt to the North American lifestyle last year. At 22, he’s a year older and knows more what to expect. Great skater with good offensive instincts, he has a great first pass and good shot from the point. He’s not very physical in the defensive zone but he does utilize his positioning and stick work quite well. Another member of that rotation between Laval and Montreal, I’m thinking.
9- Cayden Primeau
Last year’s call-up was too soon for young Primeau. He was simply not ready, particularly not being left up to dry with the team in front of him. Thankfully, he managed to rebound in Laval after being sent back down as I was concerned that Montreal burnt him. It shows the resiliency and character of this young man. He needs to play, and to play often. So in my humble opinion, he plays close to 50% of the games with Jake Allen in the NHL, or as the starter in Laval. Let’s not mess around with this guy as the other goaltending prospects are a few years away.
10- Rafaël Harvey-Pinard
I have him at number 10 on this list but don’t count this guy out. The one they nicknamed Lavallagher, as a comparison to being the Brendan Gallagher of Laval, he will go through a brick wall to make his dream come true. And when someone is that determined, you should never count them out. Limited talent, he did remarkably well last season with the Rocket, accumulating 21 goals and 56 points in 69 games. But like Ylönen, he is facing the tough reality of too much NHL depth on the wing.
11- Emil Heineman
Surprised to see his name here? Heineman is, in my opinion, a wild card to cause some pleasant surprises at camp. The left-winger will be turning 21 in November and he did well playing against men in the SHL last season. Elite Prospects has this to say about him: “He’s the type that can fit anywhere in the lineup and play any role. There’s a strong push to his stride, which gives him added acceleration and top speed while skating in a straight line. He’s always got his feet moving, always maintains a high battle-level, and never shies away from making personal sacrifices to improve the two-way health of his team.”
12- Jan Mysak
Mysak had a taste of the AHL during COVID back in 2020-21, and he used that experience to his advantage last year, both in the OHL and on the International scene. In fact, he was a dominant player last year and kept progressing. He is likely to be playing in Laval next season, but he’s only a call-up away from showing what he can really do. You know who he reminds me of? Tomas Plekanec…
There you have it. You may agree with some of my choices, or rankings, and disagree with others. That’s okay as it’s totally subjective and definitely up for debate. Let’s drop that puck, shall we?