Things change quickly in this business.
Two years ago, it was the general consensus that the Montreal Canadiens had one of the weaker prospect pools in hockey. With players picked in the first round not developing as expected—and with picks having flown out the door on a consistent basis in order to obtain players for playoff runs—the organization had fallen short on A-level options.
But the work done by assistant general manager Trevor Timmins and his scouting staff in 2017 turned the tide — two of the top five prospects on our list were selected that year in Chicago.
Three of the other five players the Canadiens chose in the windy city are right on the bubble of our list, with Joni Ikonen, Cale Fleury and Cayden Primeau all impressing in their first year with the organization.
A 28th-place finish in last year’s standings and a fortuitous bounce in the draft lottery landed the Canadiens the third overall pick in 2018. They used it on the guy who finds himself ranked first on our list, and they added some more premium talent in Dallas by taking six other centres, two defencemen and two wingers.
As a result, you won’t find too many prospect gurus out there ranking the Canadiens’ prospect pool outside of the NHL’s top 10.
Here’s our list of the top five Canadiens prospects today:
1. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 18, Montreal Canadiens, Centre
Drafted: Round 1, 3rd overall, 2018
Season to date: 8 GP | 0 G | 3 A | +2
At six-foot-two, but weighing only 184 pounds, there were legitimate concerns about whether Kotkaniemi could make the jump to the NHL level straight out of the draft.
The kid has all but erased those worries with the way he thinks his way around the ice.
We’re talking about a cerebral hockey player who is well-positioned at all times and makes the right play with the puck on his stick at a remarkable rate.
Kotkaniemi isn’t having any issues keeping up with the pace of play at this level and he’s handling the physicality just fine.
He has a wicked shot but, as one member of the Canadiens’ executive group noted to Sportsnet, he could stand to use it more often. Kotkaniemi still also needs to get stronger, which is a process that will take its natural course over the coming years.
Time with the Canadiens is a luxury that will be afforded to Kotkaniemi.
When head coach Claude Julien was asked on Monday about the young Finn approaching the nine-game mark that will kick-start his entry-level contract, he said it hasn’t even been a discussion point with general manager Marc Bergevin.
“You can take that as a good sign,” Julien said.
Translation: Kotkaniemi isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
2. Nick Suzuki, 19, Owen Sound Attack (OHL), Centre
Drafted: Round 1, 13th overall, 2017
Season to date: 10 GP | 7 G | 9 A | 16 P | +7
Bergevin said Suzuki was “the key piece of the deal” that saw a 2019 second-round pick and Tomas Tatar also traded to the Canadiens for former captain Max Pacioretty.
We had a strong sense for why that was the case when the deal was made on the eve of Canadiens training camp, but it’s a fact that’s only been reinforced by Suzuki’s impressive start to the OHL season.
Just like Kotkaniemi, Suzuki’s hockey sense is what stands out most about his game. The fact he takes as much pride in his defence as he does in his offence is what should give Canadiens fans hope that he can develop as a future NHL centreman.
There will be plenty of opportunity to see Suzuki on the big stage this year, with a spot already locked up on Team OHL for the CIBC Canada-Russia series and a spot on Canada’s world junior team likely in his future.
3. Ryan Poehling, 19, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCAA), Centre
Drafted: Round 1, 25th overall, 2017
Season to date: 4 GP | 1 G | 4 A | 5 P | +3
In what figures to be Ryan Poehling’s last season in the NCAA, he’s out of the gate as expected.
The points are fine and dandy, but Poehling earns his keep as 200-foot player and is recognized as a leader. At six-foot-two, and over 200 pounds he projects to be a very reliable professional.
Poehling’s playing on a team that could very well be competing for a national championship later this season. Whether the Huskies win or not, don’t be surprised to see him forego his senior year to sign an entry-level contract with the Canadiens when his season wraps up.
With Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and Poehling quickly rounding into form, Montreal suddenly has the depth at centre they’ve been dreaming of for the better part of two decades.
4. Josh Brook, 19, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL), Right Defence
Drafted: Round 2, 56th overall, 2017
Season to date: 7 GP | 4 G | 7 A | 11 P | +3
A six-foot-one, 192-pound defenceman who skates like the wind, shoots hard, defends well, and makes plays at an elite level is going to eventually be a heck of a complement to what the Canadiens already have on the right side of their defence.
With Shea Weber and Jeff Petry locked in long-term and Noah Juulsen graduating from prospect to player, Brook is going to force Canadiens management into some tough decisions down the line.
He currently ranks ninth among WHL defencemen in scoring.
But Brook’s skating is what stands out most.
You can see it for yourself when it’s on display for team WHL on Nov. 5 in the CIBC Canada-Russia Series, which will be broadcast nationally on Sportsnet.
5. Jesse Ylonen, 19, Lahti Pelicans (Liiga), Right Wing
Drafted: Round 2, 35th overall, 2018
Season to date: 13 GP | 3 G | 0 A | 3 PTS | Even
The numbers might not be there yet for Ylonen, but Finland’s top professional league is known for how stingy it is.
It’s also a big jump up for a young player, which is why Ylonen’s ice-time has been limited thus far.
But this kid has top-end scoring ability. So take his modest debut with a grain of salt because his speed, hand skills and shot are going to prevail in the long run.
Those are some of the skills that have the Canadiens feeling good about picking Ylonen early in the second round of the 2018 Draft. It’s also why it’s likely we’ll see Ylonen, the son of former Phoenix Coyote Juha Ylonen, with Finland’s national team at the World Junior Championship this year.