Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs' prospects playing at the junior (OHL, WHL), collegiate (USHL, NCAA), and professional (ECHL) level.
This is the “at least our prospects are playing well” edition of Catching the Torch. While the Habs are driving themselves off of a cliff, Ryan Poehling and several other young Montreal Canadiens prospects are directly responsible for their team's success. If watching NHL hockey is making you miserable, there's fortunately some bright drafted talents at the junior level to pay attention to.
Ryan Poehling #11, C, St. Cloud State Huskies
With a four-point performance in St. Cloud State’s back-to-back games against Boston College, the sophomore is now the second-most-productive player on his team, only trailing Jimmy Schuldt, a 22 year-old left-handed defenceman who was never drafted. (Those words should spark the interest of Habs fan everywhere in this time of need.)
Friday's game was the quieter of the weekend for Poehling, but it doesn't mean he didn't stand out. His first assist of the game was an impressive display of one of his primary qualities: the fact that he never quits on a play.
On his knees in the corner after being pushed to the ice by a defender, he extended his reach to slide the puck back to his blue line. The resulting shot from his defenceman escaped Boston's goalie and was pushed in by linemate Kevin Fitzgerald.
However, his best shift came a bit later on the penalty kill and showed the same quality. He was relentless in his forechecking pressure, not letting any of the opposing players get out of their defensive zone with a lazy pass. It wasn't graceful, but his work managed to take precious seconds off Boston’s power play in a tied game.
On Saturday, Poehling had both of his points in the first period, setting the tone for the rest of the match. His goal was prepared by Mikey Eyssimont, who protected the puck until he found Fitzgerald behind the net. Poehling escaped his coverage and skated to the crease where he tipped his linemate's pass behind the goalie.
His assist just a few minutes earlier was a more subtle great play. Instead of engaging in a 50-50 stick battle with a defender, Poehling used his body to prevent the puck from being hit away. It allowed Jack Ahcan, a defenceman, a clear lane to the net and Ryan’s brother, Jack, got the goal off of a rebound.
Poehling now has eight points in five games. After only getting two shots on net in his first three games, he now has 11 recorded. Those shots weren't always from high-danger areas, but it's still a step toward becoming a more complete offensive player.
It's quite incredible that the Habs’ first-round pick is likely just a few games away from beating his point total from last season (13 points). He doesn't look like a different player on the ice, but he's using the skills he showed sparsely last year a lot more often. And it's paying off heavily for him right now.
Scott Walford #7, RD/LD, Victoria Royals
I have little doubt that Walford will become a reliable defenceman, solid in his own end and able to make a good first pass. The Royals blue-liner positions himself well, and it's hard for the other team to enter the zone cleanly on his side of the ice when he has the appropriate support of his defensive partner.
He doesn't have the stick work of Victor Mete — he can't knock the puck away only to take it back himself in the same sequence — but he's still effective as a blue-line guard. At 6'2'', playing on his off-side (RD), he has the one-handed reach and the physicality to make opposing forwards think twice about challenging him one-on-one to enter the zone.
He doesn't look for the big hits like Nikolas Koberstein seems to do regularly, but he has the strength necessary to knock players onto the ice in board battles and retrive the puck to start a breakout.
He makes the simple plays that don't always get noticed, like anticipating the other team's passes, tying up sticks to prevent a pass reception, and using his body to shield the puck from opposing forwards. Walford is a very useful presence on the Victoria blue line because of those abilities, and especially because of his game sense.
That being said, he doesn't contribute much to the team's offence. He gets some power-play time and picks up a few secondary assists, acting as the pivot at the point, off of great shots or two-man passing plays from his teammates, but he doesn't add much more than the average defenceman. He often just limits his involvement to circulating the puck.
This side of his game is a work in progress. Watching him play it feels like his awareness, the fact that he always has his head up looking for options, should lead to fewer intercepted passes and more creative attempts in the offensive zone, but it's not the case. His execution is lacking at times.
But his awareness, his vision of the ice is why he was selected before other players like Jarret Tyszka who show more offensive skills. Walford is already playing a game that with refinement, could translate very well to the next level, which is not the case of Tyszka right now.
There's no doubt that he has a strong base of attributes on which he will build. If he keeps getting power-play time and works on his puck-handling skills, he should put up an increasing number of points as the season goes on.
Cale Fleury #4, RD, Kootenay ICE
Cale Fleury was the first star on Saturday with two power-play goals. It has been a difficult season for him, only recording four points in nine games, and serving a suspension that left him out for a week. But,versus the Swift Current Broncos, he was at his best.
He was back to the Cale Fleury of last season, rushing the puck up the ice on a couple of occasions. His first goal was exactly that: he gained the zone by skating up with possession, made a precise drop pass to one of his forwards, then circled all the way back to the point to one-time the puck past the screened Broncos goalie.
Walford would benefit from watching how the other Habs’ 2017 third-round pick plays on the offensive blue line. The ICE had six power plays during the game, and that meant a lot of time for Fleury to express his talent.
Exceptionally creative plays are rare from him, but he's effective in what he does. Always in motion, the Kootenay defenceman makes sure he uses all the space available and doesn't hesitate to get the puck on net. He's challenging the opposing defenders every chance he has, looking for an occasion to free one of his teammates for a one-timer. He routinely uses deception with his stick and body movements, faking multiple shots to try and freeze the defence before executing his pass.
His second power-play goal of the night was a wrist shot through heavy traffic that deflected off an opposing defender. Instead of walking up to the slot, he unexpectedly fired as soon as he got the puck at the blue line. It tied the game in the third period and the ICE went on to win in overtime.
Fleury is very fun to watch when he's on top of his game. With only one assist on the season, he's bound to pick up more with what he does offensively for his team on the ice. A great game like he had on Saturday can do wonders for his confidence, and I fully expect him to carry the performance into next week.
Weekly CHL performances
William Bitten recorded two assists in a shutout win versus the Ottawa 67's. The Hamilton Bulldogs are third in their division and on the rise, contrary to the Sudbury Wolves and Michael Pezzetta for whom the wins are less common. Still, the Habs’ sixth-round pick is closing fast on his last season's total of 19 points, with 11 in 12 games.
CHL season to date
Weekly NCAA/USHL performances
|Jake Evans||C||Big Ten||Notre Dame||2||0||0||0|
|Ryan Poehling||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||2||1||3||4|
Jake Evans did not record any point this week, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. Notre Dame was upset 6-4 by the unranked Sacred Heart on Thursday. Late in the game, Evans came close to tying the score a couple of times.
The Irish came back on Friday to win 3-1, splitting the back-to-back games. Andrew Oglevie barely missed the net after a saucer pass from Evans on a two-on-one.
NCAA/USHL season to date
|Jake Evans||C||Big Ten||Notre Dame||6||3||5||8|
|Ryan Poehling||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||5||2||6||8|
Weekly goaltending performances
Let's just say that this wasn't a great week for Habs goalies all around. Michael McNiven didn't rebound from his first start, and Cayden Primeau had it especially bad on Friday when he allowed six goals on 15 shots, and was in net for the whole game.
Season goaltending stats
Next week the spotlight will be on William Bitten. The Bulldogs face the Barrie Colts and the London Knights. Mete's junior team has been really struggling since the departure of their top two defenceman, and it should be an occasion for Bitten to showcase his offensive skills.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.