MONTREAL — Three years.
That’s how long it took for general manager Marc Bergevin, assistant general manager Trevor Timmins, director of amateur scouting Shane Churla and their staff of area scouts to fill the Montreal Canadiens’ coffers with the type of young talent that hasn’t flowed through the organization in over a decade.
So when you try to identify the top five prospects for the Canadiens, you’re forced to omit some players who you know have the potential to not only reach the National Hockey League, but to one day excel at that level.
Also not featured here: 20-year-olds Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury, who have spent the first 11 games of the season on the Canadiens’ NHL roster.
Without further ado, our list ranks these Canadiens prospects by which ones have the highest ceilings. We see five players with NHL futures, but the hierarchy is based on which one we expect will have the biggest impact over the course of his career.
1. Cole Caufield
Age: 18 years old
Drafted: 15th overall in 2019
Team: Wisconsin Badgers (NCAA)
GP: 6 | G: 7 | A: 2 | P: 9
A true freshman leading the NCAA in goals through the first six games of the season is rare, but it’s anything but surprising for a player who shattered the United States National Team Development Program’s goal record previously held by Auston Matthews.
Caufield had 72 goals for the U-18 team last season—or 17 more than Matthews had in 2014-15—and he’s picked up right where he left off.
Why does he top this list? Well, you can’t ignore when his coach (former NHL player and coach Tony Granato) starts putting Caufield’s name in the same sentence as Brett Hull’s, Alex Ovechkin’s and Steven Stamkos’s.
This kid’s ability to put himself in position to score is elite. His ability to put the puck in the net is also elite. And that’s a good combination to consider when you’re trying to figure out whether or not a prospect has potential to be an impactful NHLer.
2. Cayden Primeau
Drafted: 199th overall in 2017
Team: Laval Rocket (AHL)
GP: 5 | Record: 3-2-0 | GAA: 1.99 | SV%: .937
How does a seventh-round pick rise to the top of a prospect pool that’s loaded with NHL potential? Simple: he continues to show he’s going to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL someday.
After two banner years with Northeastern University, Primeau has begun his professional career by posting some of the best numbers in the AHL.
Is anyone surprised?
3. Ryan Poehling
Drafted: 25th overall in 2017
Team: Laval Rocket (AHL)
GP: 10 | G: 3 | A: 2 | P: 5
Let’s just say Poehling wasn’t altogether thrilled to be sent down to the AHL on the eve of the NHL’s regular season.
But after he suffered a concussion and missed eight days of training camp, the Canadiens felt he’d be best served going to the Rocket and playing big minutes under head coach Joel Bouchard.
Poehling started slow, going without a point through his first three games. But since then, the St. Cloud State alum has scored points in five of his past seven games. He’s winning faceoffs, getting to the dirty areas, scoring goals and showing that he’s ready for primetime.
And let’s face it: Had the Canadiens not been at full health and loaded with bottom-end depth to start the season, Poehling would have already graduated.
He ranks third on this list because he will graduate in short order, and once he does, we see a player who’s going to be a strong contributor at both ends of the ice and in all situations. Maybe he’ll start as a fourth liner, but there’s potential for him to one day be a really solid second-line centre.
4. Alexander Romanov
Drafted: 38th overall in 2018
Team: CSKA Moscow (KHL)
GP: 21 | G: 0 | A: 3 | P: 3
That Romanov has a place on the KHL’s strongest team—CSKA leads with 17 wins and 35 points in the standings through 21 games—is something.
It’s rare for young defencemen to earn trust in the KHL, but Romanov appears to be earning more and more by the day. Granted, he’s playing a little under 13 minutes per game, but he’s doing exactly what’s expected of him so far. He’s got a few assists, 28 shots on net, 18 hits and 12 blocked shots.
After last year’s World Junior Championship Bergevin said that he felt Romanov appeared as though he was ready to play in the NHL right now, so the sense is he’ll be in the Canadiens’ fold by next fall.
The Moscow native might not have high-octane offence to his game, but he’s a smooth-skating, hard-hitting player who projects to one day be a top-four defenceman.
5. Josh Brook
Drafted: 56th overall in 2017
Team: Laval Rocket (AHL)
GP: 10 | G: 1 | A: 0 | P: 1
You have to see the forest through the trees with this player.
Yes, Brook had a rough training camp with the Canadiens. And yes, he’s off to a very slow start with the Rocket. But none of that has changed the fact he’s an elite skater who has the offensive ability to potentially blossom into a power-play quarter back and a top-four defenceman at the NHL level.
What’s clear is that it’s going to take Brook some time to adapt to the game at the professional level. But he’s in the right place, under Bouchard, to undergo that process.
Mattias Norlinder: The 19-year-old defenceman who was drafted 64th overall in 2019 is off to a great start with Modo in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league. He has six goals, including this eye-popper:
Jesse Ylonen: The 20-year-old right winger who was drafted 35th overall in 2018 has four goals and 10 points in 16 games with the Lahti Pelicans in the tight-checking Finnish Liiga.
Jordan Harris: The 19-year-old defenceman who was drafted 71st overall in 2018 has five points in his first six games with Northeastern after scoring one goal and adding 12 assists in 39 games with them last season.
Cam Hillis: The 19-year-old forward who was drafted 66th overall in 2018 has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 12 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season limited him to just 33 games.