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Catching The Torch: Canadiens’ centre prospects stealing the show this season

Stats, highlights, and updates on the Montreal Canadiens prospects from the past week.

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Denver vs Notre Dame David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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.

During St. Cloud State's game versus Minnesota Duluth, Ryan Poehling was featured in a segment where Bob Motzko, the Huskies head coach, described the kind of player the Habs prospects was trying to be last year.

“He played cautious at times, because he wanted to please his teammates. [...] There's no me type of attitude in him. It's all about the team.”

The youngest player in the NCAA last season, Poehling was not willing to overdo things and risk putting his teammates into trouble. But this year, he is pushing his offence to the next level, leading all team forwards in points with 10 in seven games.

As the Habs brass reputedly made the trip to see him on Friday, he had another multi-point performance and was all over the ice trying to make the scouts realize that maybe his path to the NHL will be shorter than some expected.

Prospect Spotlights

Ryan Poehling #11, St. Cloud Huskies

It was rare last season to see Poehling keep the puck on his stick for more than a few seconds. He had the playmaking ability, but often limited himself to the passing lanes that were available in front of him. The one-touch passes through traffic are still a big part of his game, but now he isn't afraid to skate with possession in the offensive zone, waiting to see what the opposition will let him get away with.

Coming from behind the net to attack the slot, taking advantage of the fact that the opposition is busy covering the passing lane, and using the threat of a pass in a high-danger area to create space for himself are things that would probably not have happened last season.

That being said, it's clear that this is not the preferred option of the St. Cloud centreman. Once again this weekend, he showcased his impressive playmaking ability, creating opportunities that his teammates often just missed.

He's able to scan the ice incredibly quickly to find his next play. He's displaying an ability to transition the puck with his teammates close by, predict the opposition's pressure, and give the puck up after attracting the attention to create a free lane to the net for someone else.

Poehling still needs to work on his awareness when he has the puck in a tight spot. He has a tendency to not account for backchecking players, especially when he wants to delay the play as the enters the offensive zone. He tends to turn into pressure, and be immediately stripped of possession.

His goal on Friday was another impressive display of hand-eye coordination: leaving his stick on the ice, making his blade a target for Will Borgen, and quickly adjusting to the puck's trajectory to deflect it between the goalies pad.

His assist in the third period of the same game came from recognizing a lapse in coverage in the opposition's defence. He found Kevin Fitzgerald in the slot as they both entered the offensive zone, and Fitzgerald scored on his own rebound.

St. Cloud State remains undefeated. Their power play — on which the Habs prospect once again features in front of the net — is red-hot, and they have some great goal-scorers that will continue to profit from Poehling's great feeds.

It's perfectly reasonable to expect the Habs first-round pick to keep the production pace he has set. He should only improve as the season goes on and could soon surpass his point total of last year.

William Bitten #14, Hamilton Bulldogs

Mackenzie Entwistle, William Bitten and Matthew Strome’s centre for the last few games, is injured. Bitten is now back in the middle for the Bulldogs, a position in which he’s found more success this season, with eight points in eight games, compared to six in nine on the wing.

Hamilton has struggled a lot this year. They are dead last in the OHL in terms of goals for with 42; 14 less than the Kingston Frontenacs immediately ahead of them. That means that Bitten has participated in exactly a third of their goals with his 14 points in 17 games.

In short: they can't score.

The good news is that they are just three points removed from the top of their division, despite those early struggles. The trio of Bitten, Strome, and Kaliyev was working decently well at the very start of the season and are now back together for the foreseeable future.

It's hard to not like the idea of Bitten at centre, even if he seems to fit more naturally on the wing. It has been an organizational need for a while now in Montreal and the prospect's tenacity, skating, and passing ability makes him an interesting option there. Plus, he brings the same energy no matter where he plays.

However, this energy seems to now be mixed with a slight frustration tied to his inability to put up the numbers that are expected of him. After recording 57 points last season in 65 games, it's reasonable to want Bitten to be at least a point-per-game player this year. There's still a lot of hockey left to be played, but right now, he is falling below that mark.

The fault can't only be attributed to him, as the Bulldogs have a general scoring problem. That being said, he has a supporting cast that should allow him to score more goals than the meagre three he currently has.

It all comes back to his finishing ability. He has the chances. He just can't seem to get the puck past the goalie. Matthew Strome usually finds him with a a few passes in prime scoring areas per game, but those rarely turn into goals.

Bitten might have to change the way he fires the puck to gain more accuracy. He prefers using snapshots or half-slappers to get the puck on net quickly even when he has time to receive it and move it into position for a wrist shot. It has proven quite ineffective since the beginning of the season.

Selecting the way to release generally comes down to personal preference, but that's something he has to evaluate when he's posting a 6.38% overall shooting percentage. Some of that remains attributable to bad luck though, as he stood at 13.4% last year. However, even that last number can be considered low for top players in the OHL.

Bitten has a lot of elements that are very exciting in his offensive game. He's a playmaker that is skilled at protecting the puck, and he's also never afraid to drive the net. He's able to out-skate or out-manoeuvre defenders, and has a mean streak that serves him well in board battles.

Despite already being asked to carry a lot of the offensive weight for the Bulldogs, he's capable of a lot more than his point total suggests right now. The effort is always there, he just needs things to start going his way. Any productive game for Bitten next week could easily trigger a streak with the way he has been playing.

William Bitten will face the Russian National Junior Team this week as he was selected to be a part of Team OHL along with other stars of the league. This is a classic that will give Bitten the chance to step away from his struggles in Hamilton and play with some very skilled linemates.

Weekly CHL performances

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 3 0 1 1
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 3 3 3 6
Cale Fleury RD WHL Kootenay 3 1 0 1
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 2 0 1 1
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 2 0 0 0

Michael Pezzetta’s six points in three games this week bring his season total to 20. It took him just 18 games to beat last year's full-season total of 19. The majority of his production comes from his play in front of the net: acting as a screen, battling for rebounds, or tipping the shots of his defencemen.

CHL season to date

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 17 3 11 14
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 18 10 10 20
Cale Fleury RD WHL Kootenay 15 6 3 9
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 14 0 11 11
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 19 0 8 8

Cale Fleury is a new player since scoring two goals versus the Swift Current Broncos a few weeks ago. He's scoring at a point-per-game pace since then with most of his production still coming from the man advantage.

His goal this week was again on the power play. He challenged the opposing forward, freed a teammate for a pass, and scored on a quick one-timer from the blue line.

NCAA/USHL weekly performances

Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Jake Evans C Big Ten Notre Dame 2 1 2 3
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 2 0 0 0
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 2 1 1 2
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque 1 0 2 2

Jake Evans remains the top scorer in the NCAA with 18 points in 10 games played, two ahead of the next best. He had a goal and two assist in Notre Dame's victory over Ohio state on Saturday.

NCAA/USHL season to date

Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Jake Evans C Big Ten Notre Dame 10 4 14 18
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 10 0 2 2
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 7 3 7 10
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque 6 0 2 2

Casey Staum finally put his name on the board with two assists versus the Omaha Lancers this week in the USHL. Staum was supposed to start his NCAA career playing for the University of Nebraska-Omaha this year, but decided otherwise for reasons unknown. He will finish the season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Weekly goaltending performances

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 0-1-0 2.00 0.943 0
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 1-0-0 0.00 1.000 1
Michael McNiven ECHL Brampton Laval Rockets

Michael McNiven has been recalled to back up Zachary Fucale in the AHL. This is good news for him as it takes him out of a tough situation in the ECHL where he recently fell to the third-string goalie position.

He might get a game as soon as this week if Carey Price remains out and Charlie Lindgren is still needed with the Habs.

Season goaltending stats

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 5-3-0 2.45 0.908 1
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 1-1-1 2.97 0.850 1
Michael McNiven ECHL Brampton 1-1-1 2.55 0.886 0

Cayden Primeau made 19 saves in relief of Ryan Ruck this week, including 14 in the third period. It was a good bounce-back performance after the six goals in 15 shots he let in in his previous start.

Next week we take another look at Poehling, as St. Cloud State, the #1 team in the NCAA, faces the #3 Denver Pioneers. The Huskies took the spot after the Pioneers lost to an unranked team this weekend. Knowing that, Denver will be more than ready to show the nation that they are still on top.

It should be the biggest challenge Poehling and the Huskies have had so far.

Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.