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2020-21 HabsWorld Prospect Rankings: 11-15

Montreal’s prospect depth really starts to show in this segment of our prospect rankings.  Among the players slotted 11-15, most of them were in the top ten a year ago but have been pushed out as the system has gotten stronger.

Overview

Here are the criteria that each player had to meet to be eligible to be in these rankings:

1) The player must be 24 years old or younger as of October 1, 2020
2) The player must have no greater than 50 games of NHL experience (including regular season and playoffs)
3) The player cannot be signed to an AHL contract

Here are the departures from last year’s list (previous ranking in parentheses):

Graduated: Nick Suzuki (2)
Released: Allan McShane (20), Cole Fonstad (21), Alexandre Alain (29), Samuel Houde (32), David Sklenicka (34), Antoine Waked (36)
Lost via Waivers: Noah Juulsen (9)

Included with each ranking is an estimate of the NHL readiness date for each prospect.  For some players, the estimate is a specific season while others whose projected development paths are harder to determine will be in a range.

I also want to take a second to address the delay in running these this year.  Given the uncertainty surrounding this season all the way through December, these were saved in case the schedule was further delayed.  The hope was also that by now, the junior leagues would be up and running, providing an opportunity for some fresher analysis which hasn’t quite happened for some prospects.  Because some players have played though, players from the 2020 draft class aren’t slotted in the order they were picked as they often are as some have bolstered their value already.

Rankings

15) Gianni Fairbrother

Defenceman, Everett (WHL)
3rd round pick (77th overall) in 2019

Last season wasn’t one to remember for Fairbrother.  After his strong 2018-19 season which helped get him drafted, expectations were high with a bigger role on the horizon.  Unfortunately, his year was cut short as an upper-body injury cost him the final 23 games of the year with the pandemic taking care of the rest.

In the end, his numbers weren’t bad by any stretch – his point-per-game rate actually increased – but any time you lose 40% of the year due to injury, it stings from a development perspective.

Fairbrother is an intriguing prospect but as far as CHL players go, he’s raw.  There is a small level of dynamism to his game when everything is clicking as he can drive the play offensively while still playing with a level of physicality.  Having said that, things could get adventurous in his own end when his aggression came at inopportune times though that’s not uncommon in junior.

He has a skill set that could put him on the second pairing if everything went perfectly.  However, the safer goal would be turning into someone that is fifth on the depth chart but can play more than a typical third-pairing guy.  If the Habs got that out of Fairbrother, they’d be thrilled.

He got a brief stint to start this season with Laval and clearly impressed management as they wasted little time signing him to an entry-level deal once the window for future contracts opened up last month.  They see some upside in Fairbrother but it may take a little while for him to get there.

2019-20 Stats: 37 GP, 5-20-25, +6 rating, 38 PIMS, 93 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 18th
NHL ETA: 2023-24/2024-25 – While he had the short appearance with the Rocket earlier this year, there is going to be a transition period for Fairbrother when he makes the jump to the pros on a full-time basis.  I don’t see him jumping into a big role right away as he’ll have to go through a phase of learning what may have worked in junior won’t necessarily work in Laval.  It’s something similar to another blueliner in this section that will be mentioned shortly.

14) Jesse Ylonen

Right Wing, Pelicans (SM-liiga)
2nd round pick (35th overall) in 2018

I found that Ylonen was one of the tougher players to slot on this year’s list.  It’s not that he took a big step back last season by any stretch but he didn’t really show any demonstrable improvement either.  On the other hand, he was a top-six forward in Finland as a 20-year-old which is impressive and it can’t be held against him that the supporting cast wasn’t great either.

The start of this season (rankings were slotted after the World Juniors) didn’t really help either as it was basically more of the same.

For someone whose father was more of a defensive forward in the NHL, one would think that Ylonen would have similar traits.  Instead, he’s not the best in his own end but his shot is a major weapon and that’s something the Habs don’t have much of in their organization.  On the other hand, he’s more or less blocked at that position with Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson signed long-term and Cole Caufield expected to be in the mix before too long himself (to say nothing of natural right winger Tyler Toffoli).  That part doesn’t affect his ranking – who else is around can’t be held against Ylonen – but it makes me question his future with Montreal.

To me, Ylonen feels like a player who is going to be at his best with better players and while that may seem obvious at first, I don’t think it’s always the case with prospects.  He isn’t going to be someone that drives the play, controls possession, or be otherwise noticeable for long stretches of the game beyond his high-volume shot propensity.  But give him someone who can find him in dangerous areas in the offensive zone and he can be an intriguing weapon.  If that doesn’t happen though, I’m not sure his shot alone is enough to carry him into a full-time NHL spot for an extended period of time.

2019-20 Stats: 53 GP, 12-10-22, -20 rating, 14 PIMS, 189 shots, 16:18 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 8th
NHL ETA: 2022-23/2023-24 – Ylonen has fit in well so far with Laval this year and it’s not crazy to think he could be recalled at some point next season for a stretch but he needs to improve his all-around game to get a shot at a longer-term stint.  That will take a little longer and by then, I’m not sure that opportunity will be with Montreal.  At some point, they are going to move out some prospects and I think he has enough value to be one that could part with before too long while bringing in someone of note in return.

13) Josh Brook

Defenceman, Laval (AHL)
2nd round pick (56th overall) in 2017

Expectations were high heading into Brook’s first professional season.  He was coming off a big junior campaign where he logged heavy minutes so the hope was that he’d step into a prominent role quickly and everything would be great.  It didn’t happen.  Instead, he was overmatched at times, even with Karl Alzner as a partner for long chunks of the year to try to take some of the pressure off of him.

What happened to him last season is what I see happening to Fairbrother next year, in case you hadn’t figured out that hint already.  There are habits that Brook developed in junior where he got a little too casual but was talented enough to make the play more often than not.  That doesn’t work too often in the pros and Joel Bouchard was tasked with trying to get that out of his game with some mixed results, especially in his own end.

It’s not all bad with Brook despite the tough year.  They’re clearly taking the long-term approach here, breaking things down and then building up the responsibility gradually and we’ve seen that in the early going this year as he has often been on the second pairing.  The offence wasn’t there last season but is coming around slowly this year.

He’s more of a project than it first seemed but the upside is still there despite his tough rookie season with the Rocket.  Like Fairbrother, there’s top-four potential if everything was to go perfectly but he may be more of a fifth defender realistically that can play a bit more than someone in that role.  (And if that doesn’t intrigue you, consider the third pairing the Habs have been using this season – someone that can play 16-18 minutes a night would be a perfect fit right about now…)

2019-20 Stats: 60 GP, 4-9-13, -3 rating, 43 PIMS, 80 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 6th
NHL ETA: 2023-24 – Despite the gradual improvement, I find it hard to imagine that Brook will be able to play his way into a regular spot before the end of his entry-level contract.  He’ll be waiver-eligible in 2023-24 which is when they’ll really have to make a call on him.  By then, there could be an opening on the third pairing or he could start out as a seventh option as well.  He’ll still be a bit of a project player if he makes it to the Canadiens, however.

12) Cale Fleury

Defenceman, Montreal (NHL)
3rd round pick (87th overall) in 2017

Fleury was one of the bigger surprises last season when he made the team out of training camp and ultimately spent more than half the year with the Canadiens.  He didn’t look out of place early on in a third pairing role but as the season progressed, his performance went in the wrong direction before finally being sent down in mid-January, a lot later than he should have been reassigned.

With the Habs, Fleury’s role was basically two things – play physically and try to not make too many mistakes in his own end.  While that served a purpose for a while, it also probably didn’t a whole lot for his development as he has shown himself to be capable of more back in junior when he was more of a two-way player.  The hope was that he’d rediscover that form with Laval but the pandemic stopped him from finishing on a high note.

This season has been hit or miss so far.  The opportunities for playing time are there but Fleury isn’t really standing out most nights.  At this stage of his development, he should be making an impact almost every night and not just in terms of throwing big hits.  If I was re-slotting the rankings today, he’d be a bit lower as a result.  There’s still time to turn things around and with Montreal’s injuries and a spot to try to play for (Alexander Romanov could be shifted back to the left side if Fleury was to play his way into a recall), there’s a lot riding on the second half of his season.

2019-20 Stats: 41 GP, 1-0-1, -4 rating, 6 PIMS, 45 shots, 45 blocks, 102 hits, 14:21 ATOI
Previous HW Ranking: 7th
NHL ETA: 2021-22 – You could make a case that his ETA was really last year but since he’s still in the minors, he isn’t really established in the NHL yet.  Fleury’s waiver exemption expires next season and at this point, he could be in line for the seventh spot with the Habs if he’s still around by then.  A year ago, he seemed like a possible Seattle pick in expansion but it’s hard to see the Kraken eyeing him now.

11) Jake Evans

Centre, Laval (AHL)
7th round pick (207th overall) in 2014

Last season got off to a rough start to the point where he was about to be made a healthy scratch before a late injury caused him to play that game.  He scored the empty-netter in that one, snapping a 17-game goalless drought in the process.  From there, things improved and he earned himself a 13-game look with Montreal where he held his own.

Evans is never going to be a big point producer in the NHL but he’s a decent enough defender to hold his own and when he’s on, he can even chip in a bit at the offensive end.  We saw that early on this season.  However, we’ve also seen that when he goes into a slump, he really goes into a slump.  When that happens, his defensive play isn’t quite enough to justify keeping him in the lineup.

It’s a fine line that Evans is trying to navigate to carve out a spot in the NHL.  The potential is definitely there for him to be a low-cost contributor to the fourth line for a few years while bringing a modicum of upside to the table.  That’s a solid return from a seventh-round pick as well.  But if he’s not at his best or battling a crisis of confidence, then he falls on the wrong side of that line.  He’ll need to soon figure out how to stay on the right side of it.

2019-20 Stats: 51 GP, 14-24-38, -5 rating, 26 PIMS, 109 shots
Previous HW Ranking: 10th
NHL ETA: 2020-21 – Aside from a few spot days on the taxi squad, Evans has been a regular on the roster and played in most games this season.  He’s more or less established in the role he’s going to have in the NHL and as a waiver-eligible player, his days in the minors may soon be over if they’re not already.

Previous Rankings

16-20
21-25
26-30
31-38





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