At the 2017 draft, the Montreal Canadiens put a heavy focus in furnishing their defence pipeline by selection four defencemen out of the rugged WHL: Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Scott Walford, and Jarret Tyszka. They varied in their puck-handling abilities, but they were all defenders with size and mobility.
This year, the Habs went with a different strategy, focusing on forwards. With the big club’s well-known needs at center, Montreal selected seven players with experience down the middle: five of them out of Canada’s Junior leagues, and two Europeans.
All of those players possess their own unique skills. There are many very good playmakers in the 2018 crop, and exceptional handlers too. But to get those players in the latter rounds, a compromise had to be made somewhere. There are some concerns with size for some of them — Cam Hillis, Cole Fonstad, and Brett Stapley are listed at 5’10” — but that is no longer a major worry in today’s NHL. The main deficiency with the players selected this summer is skating ability.
This could come as a surprise after all the talk by Montreal’s management of wanting quick players for their selections. Playing the game fast come down to more than just quick feet, but having those definitely helps achieve that goal.
There is no knock-kneed skater in the 2018 centre crop, and none of those prospects have any difficulty getting around in their respective junior leagues. That being said, the NHL is on another level in terms of game pace. Even if some of the centre prospects could be relatively average skaters in the top league right now, it is only getting faster, and it will be important for them to be able to keep up with the curve.
Allan McShane and Samuel Houde are probably the forwards who could benefit the most from improving this aspect of their game. They can pack some speed when they get going, but, due to somewhat similar deficiencies in their skating, it might require more effort out of them.
Let’s take McShane as an example.
In the two-on-one opportunity in the clip above, the forward didn’t fully utilize his edges and his weight to gain speed. Even if the overall odd-man exchange could have been played better, McShane’s teammate had to slow down as he entered the offensive zone to wait for him, ultimately delaying the pass, and missing on it.
McShane’s acceleration drove his momentum mostly upward instead of quickly in the direction he wanted to go. He got lower on his skates after his first few steps, but it looks like he was bending from the lower back, not the hips, and as a result hunched over while catching up in forward strides. This didn’t allow him get the maximum out of his pushes.
The prospect could get speedier by improving those details, getting more out of his first few steps and correcting his stance in forward skating, elongating his strides. In the end, it can make a big difference in a play, especially if it develops along the length of the ice like the one above.
Better skating would also translate into more involvement in the play for the forward, on whom there were reports of fluctuating effort. Those are always to take with a grain of salt, but he likely could expend less energy catching up with a bit of work, and it could become easier for him to maintain a high performance level through a shift.
The same thinking can be applied to other CHL prospects like Hillis and Fonstad. For the latter, improved mobility might come with added strength. While not being overly quick, he possesses good overall skating mechanics. He shows at times that he is able to drive through the neutral zone to effectively push back the defence, creating space for his teammates in a drop-pass position. This could become more frequent as he gets more powerful.
As for Hillis, he could already see quite a difference in his skating as soon as next season. He isn't a bad skater right now, especially considering how he can slip away from defenders, but working with Barb Underhill this summer, a plan he revealed in his post-draft interview, could do a lot to make him even better.
Underhill isn’t the only skating coach around, but she is one of the most talked about right now. She has brought real results to players, including Brayden Point, who are now making an impact in the NHL, and her experience has served the Guelph Storm for close to 10 years now.
Hillis, the number-one centre of that team, will have an opportunity to break down the mechanics of his stride to build it back up. It takes hard work, but it would mean becoming more efficient with his movement, directly contributing to speed.
A few things stand out when watching Hillis skate. He has a tendency to raise his feet a bit too high as he brings his skates back under his body after a push. This contributes to slowing him down as it adds recovery time; the next push is delayed. He also varies in his skating posture, sometimes displaying a good knee bend, staying low on his skates, and having a good forward lean, but in other instances he gets higher and hunches over too much, which contributes to the kicking motion of his feet.
There is also the potential for Hillis to better separate from defenders by adding a strong acceleration to his elusive qualities, working on exploding out of the abrupt changes in direction he can make. It’s another thing that can be honed during the summer.
In the sequence below, Hillis drives to the corner to pick up a loose puck and opens up his skates in a 10-and-2 position as he gains possession, rotating his body to face the front of the net to look for a passing option. He doesn’t find any, so he skates below the goal line.
As he feels defensive pressure getting onto him, he protects the puck with his knee and drills the outside edge of his right skate in the ice to turn the other way, evading the defender’s poke check.
This is where Hillis had an occasion to escape the opponent that he didn’t take, instead continuing to twist against a defenceman that he had already beaten. He could have put even more pressure on the defence by freeing himself from his coverage completely with a quick burst and attacking the open space, potentially creating a more dangerous scoring chance.
Hillis is clearly an agile skater and a good playmaker who will learn to recognize the opportunities he has as he gains experience, but working on his skating, not unlike McShane, will also contribute to getting more out of his offensive chances.
Sometimes the grind of repeating the same exercises and drills to correct form might seem meaningless in a vacuum, but the ultimate goal is to give the player the best tools to be able to create on the ice, and, as an end goal, actualize their great skills into an NHL career.
We never know what is exactly going on behind the scenes, but it might be time for Montreal to get more involved in the finer details of player development, pushing for specialized training, like that provided by skating coaches, for all their prospects.
For a few of their 2018 drafted forwards, it could be what makes or breaks their chance to wear the bleu, blanc, et rouge.
Part 4 will be focused on the third overall selection of the Montreal Canadiens, Jesperi Kotkaniemi.