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.
It seems like every week we have to mention the exploits of one of the Montreal Canadiens’ forward prospects in the American collegiate system. Ryan Poehling is soon going to surpass his point total of last season, and Jake Evans — Montreal's seventh-round pick in 2014, is now the top scorer in the NCAA. The seven assists he picked up in Notre-Dame's back to back game versus Omaha-Nebraska propelled him there.
Jake Evans #18, C, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Habs have had trouble getting the bounces to go their way since the start of the season, but it's quite the opposite for Evans. On Thursday, it seemed like every time he touched the puck in the offensive zone his name went on the scoresheet.
Deflections, missed shots, and passes hitting opposing players' skates, they all ended up creating great scoring chances. Everything was going Evans' way.
His best play of the night was a pass to Bobby Nardella, who joined the attack and beat Omaha's goalie to put Notre Dame on the board in the second period. Evans once again showed his patience with the puck, keeping possession under pressure as he circled back in the offensive zone. As he made his way along the half-wall, he spotted his defenceman in an attacking position, then waited for a second checker to come at him before sliding the puck across.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame fell short, losing 6-4 against Omaha. Evans was given a few different linemates during the game, but it didn't seem to affect his play. He factored in on each of his team's four goals.
While he never overly impresses with his defensive play, he has shown that he can be a net-positive player every night for Notre Dame playing against the other team's top lines. The captaincy suits him well for this reason.
However, Evans would gain from not putting so much of the load on his shoulders. Too often this season he has lost the puck trying to dangle multiple players when his team is down a goal or more. This is not what he does well. His success is tied to an ability to create for his teammates, and forcing his way into the offensive zone through a wall of defenders rarely ends up creating anything more than a turnover, even for players with far superior skill than Evans.
Notre Dame managed to edge out a 5-4 win on Friday to tie their series against Omaha, in a game that became another stage for Evans to showcase his talent. He added another three assists, one of those being a diagonal pass through traffic to Cam Morrison, who beat Omaha's goalie with his backhand.
The Fighting Irish are now ranked seventh in the US. Next week they face Ohio State, an unranked college. Another strong offensive performance is to be expected out of Evans, especially if he gets regular ice time with Andrew Oglevie.
The Habs’ late-rounder has truly become the prospect to watch. This is the last year the organization has to convince Evans to sign with them. It is a possibility that we could see the current NCAA top scorer late this season with the big club, especially if the Canadiens keep posting a losing record; playing a few NHL games in April could be a great incentive to get a commitment out of him.
Of course, that will depend on how far Notre Dame gets in the Frozen Four. Despite some early-season struggles, it can’t be ruled out that they may be playing past the end of the NHL’s regular season.
Michael Pezzetta #13, RW, Sudbury Wolves
I am discovering a different Michael Pezzetta this season. I admit I didn't get to watch him much before, but he is playing well above expectations. He isn't a model of consistency, but with 14 points in 15 games, he is just five away from beating his total from last year. He could reasonably accomplish that in around 40 fewer games.
An even more surprising fact is that he has just been named team captain. Despite his rugged behaviour on the ice, this speaks volumes as to how he is perceived by the coaching staff and his teammates. No matter how he looks from an outside perspective, with the repeated suspensions, he seems to be a key element of the Sudbury Wolves, bringing energy to the team and rising as a leader off the ice.
Though it could also be a way to give him motivation to stay out of trouble.
On Saturday, he turned a two-on-one chance into a cross-checking to the head penalty. So leading by example will be a learning process for him. But being nominated in a position where he is forced to do so could definitely spark the necessary changes.
Pezzetta got a hat trick in that game, the first of his OHL career. With his mean streak and his quick release, he is the perfect guy to fight for rebounds in front of the net and his play in that position on the man advantage netted him his first goal. His second and third were empty-netters: one from behind his own blue line, and the other coming after his team created a turnover in the offensive zone.
The doubts surrounding the Habs’ pick of Pezzetta in the 2016 draft were plentiful, and with the history of the player, it's quite understandable. This is the last season the Habs have to sign the Wolves player before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, sp this is his time to play for a contract.
Watching him, his puck skills are inconsistent and his awareness is sometimes lacking. This leads him to lose possession attempting one-on-ones, and to miss connecting on passes. He is also prone to being dragged out of position at times in the defensive zone due his very aggressive nature.
But this season, for each dangerous giveaway there's a steal of the puck that leads to a great scoring chance; for each failed takeaway there's a blocked shot that turns into a breakaway or a two-on-one.
He has a lot of qualities that could make him an NHL role-player one day. It's a long road ahead, but it's too early to count him out. His skating alone makes him a potential asset for any team. He is both quick and powerful, and this is the aspect of his play that never fails to impress.
He has a crafty stick work that he could use more often to steal the puck, but using his body every chance he has and finishing his checks has always been the way he plays the game. It's quite effective in making his opponents dread playing against him, especially with his pinball style of forecheck.
I have no doubt that the Habs management are looking at him with interest. Will it be enough to get him a contract? It probably comes down to how often he's able to showcase his powerful wrist shot, getting in areas to make use of it to promote himself as more than an energy player going forward.
William Bitten #14, RW/C, Hamilton Bulldogs
Bitten didn't have a great week. He was a combined minus five and fell below the point-per-game average he should aim for this season, only recorded an assist on Sunday.
Still, every time I tune in to watch him, the Habs’ third-round pick stands out on Hamilton’s top line. He was moved back to right wing which is, in theory, a position that fits him better.
Bitten likes to carry the puck up the ice. At the start of the season, he was often waiting for the breakout pass high in the defensive zone even though he was playing the centre position.
Now, Bitten and Matthew Strome have Mackenzie Entwistle centring them. It's a lot to ask of Entwistle who only managed 25 points in 54 games last season. A lack of chemisty could explain some of the line’s recent struggles.
That being said, Bitten had a great game the Sunday before last that is worth talking about. He managed two assists against the Ottawa 67's: the first when he started a quick passing play on the power play, and the second one a cross-crease feed to Strome on the rush (the clip above).
From the same game, the above shift encapsulates his style very well. Not unlike Brendan Gallagher does for the Habs, Bitten likes to go to the front of the net when his team has possession in the offensive zone, but he doesn't aimlessly try low-percentage shots, or fighting to push both the puck and the goalie in the net like some others do in that position.
Even six feet from the goal line, he often tries to feed the puck back to a teammate who has a larger opening, or keeps possession and circles higher in the zone to find a better play. And when he does give the puck, he immediately skates in an area where he becomes an option for a return pass.
That being said, if there's one thing Bitten has to improve, it's his finishing ability. The number of breakaways and scoring chances from the slot he has gotten since the start of the season, but failed to score on, is astonishing. The fact that he is 10th in the OHL in high-danger shots, with 12, is a good sign of what is to come if Bitten starts capitalizing.
Weekly CHL performances
Scott Walford (#7) made a great play to record his first assist of the game on Saturday. On the faceoff, he anticipated a pass from the other team, stepped up to steal the puck, evaded a bodycheck from a defender, and passed to Matthew Phillips, who prepared the Royals’ first goal of the game. Walford added another secondary assist later in the match.
CHL season to date
Cale Fleury (#4) keeps producing on the power play. He had two assists with the man advantage on Tuesday and once again showcased his ability to freeze checkers and give time to his teammates to fire the puck from his passes. His second point of the game came from a hard one-touch feed to Colton Veloso.
On Sunday, the Habs’ third-rounder had another performance of two goals: a rebound he put in very early in the game, and yet another power-play one-timer to win the match for his team in overtime.
Weekly NCAA/USHL performances
|Jake Evans||C||Big Ten||Notre Dame||2||0||7||7|
|Ryan Poehling||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||0||0||0||0|
The St. Cloud State Huskies and Ryan Poehling had the week off. Nikolas Koberstein has picked up his second point of the season on Friday, when the Alaska Nanooks faced the Bowling Green Falcons. Casey Staum has yet to record a point in five games.
NCAA/USHL season to date
|Jake Evans||C||Big Ten||Notre Dame||8||3||12||15|
|Ryan Poehling||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||5||2||6||8|
Weekly goaltending performances
Canadiens management leaves all on-ice decisions regarding their ECHL affiliate to the the staff of the Brampton Beast. For that reason, and because of a difficult start to the season, Michael McNiven seems to now be the third string goalie, playing behind Ottawa Senators prospect Marcus Hogberg and the ECHL-contracted Andrew D'Agostini. The only time he was between the posts in the past week was when he came in relief of Hogberg on Friday. He faced three shots.
Season goaltending stats
McNiven's playtime is an issue Montreal will have to fix in the near future. They can't have one of their best goalie prospects sitting on the bench. He deserves better no matter his early struggles adjusting to the professional game.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
Bonus clip of the week: William Bitten teaching his teammate to always have his head up.