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Catching the Torch: Playmakers Will Bitten and Jake Evans led the forward crop of Habs prospects this season

Recent signee Antoine Waked also had a strong over-age season in the QMJHL.

(Matt Dewkett) Jake Evans University of Notre Dame Matt Dewkett/SB Nation College Hockey

It was mentioned in the first instalment of this prospect review how most of the Montreal Canadiens’ prospects had taken steps in their development this season. That development can take many forms. Progression can be looked at as an uptick in statistics, or an improvement in physicals tools like skating or shooting.

Ideally, progression occurs in both of those areas. With physical tools and skill set being the input (inherently more subjective), the output is the statistics, or the results.

A player with an abundance of skill can have a notable lack of production in junior hockey. Similarly, a player with notable production can lack the necessary skills to become an NHLer. However, it’s important to mention: scorers at the junior level are far more likely to become an NHL players, whatever their role in the majors becomes. Ideally a prospect has both the required inputs and the required output to make the NHL.

And that’s why this season review takes both the scouting aspects and the statistical aspects into great consideration. Although, it’s important to think: if a player does significantly improve a tool, but their numbers don’t change, is it really a significant improvement?

Statistics used in this article are from the brilliant

A Quick Glossary

A1: primary assists
P1: primary points
e5v5 P1/60: estimated 5v5 Primary Points per 60 minutes
MD + HD SOG/GP: SOG from the “home plate” area
TM INV%: percentage of goals scored that player had points on (adjusted for games missed, of course)
GF.Rel%: relative goals-for percentage; the difference between the team’s GF% with the player on the ice versus off

Jeremiah Addison

Perhaps the most perplexing prospect in the organization, Addison continued to hone his skills, but the production has stagnated, with an underwhelming regular season performance for an over-age player.

Addison’s skating improved quite a bit this season, as his first few steps and edge work are quicker (10-2 stride along outside is more common). He connected with high-skill passes more often than in previous seasons, and his stickhandling is much more precise than it was on draft day.

Despite this, the production remained unchanged from last season. Windsor was, admittedly, a bit of a mess this year, and Addison suffered a variety of injuries, including a bruised lung. Also, Windsor’s top guys all struggled on the power play, especially later on. Addison recorded just five power-play goals all season after tallying 12 last year.

However, this can also be spun positively, as his even-strength goals per game increased from 0.19 to 0.35; a rate that puts him on par, or ahead, of top-flight talents like Michael McLeod and Petrus Palmu.

Addison seems to utilize his potent shot and explosive release for hunting goaltenders’s chest protectors rather than seeking twine. That lack of finish aside, if he’s getting these chances, it means he’s adept at finding quiet ice. He’s also somewhat physical, strong in puck battles, and decent in his own zone — essentially a capable grinder with a dash of skill.

What’s Next

Addison is currently participating in the Memorial Cup, and potted the opening goal in the first game of the tournament. It will be an opportunity for Addison to continue his strong post-season.

Next year he’ll be turning professional, where it seems likely that he’ll hold down a bottom-line role for the Laval Rocket. The ECHL could also be an option, but I think it’s unlikely he spends any significant time there.

Will Bitten

While there wasn’t much statistical improvement, Bitten’s season definitely saw plenty of change. Most notably, he didn’t record a single breakaway goal this season, after scoring half of his 30 last year in that fashion.

Hamilton’s structure focused on a full-team breakout and collapsing defence, whereas Flint’s was focused on the quick counterattack. Bitten also spent a fair bit of time at centre, which further decreased his opportunities to fly the zone.

Additionally, Bitten struggled to find chemistry — at least for an extended period of time — with any of his teammates. Last season, Bitten and Ryan Moore formed a formidable speed-based duo. This season, Bitten’s production never took off, even while playing with highly-skilled players. Despite being Hamilton’s top play-maker, he was utilized as a net-front presence (the second piece in a dual-screen system) or high-slot shooter on the PP, which I felt was rather wasteful.

Statistically, Bitten was between second and fourth on Hamilton in every major category. While he was less involved in his team’s offence (TM INV%), he had a positive goal differential for the first time in his career. Last season’s 20%-plus shooting percentage (which isn’t outrageous for the CHL) dropped to a more sustainable 13.4%, while his shots on goal per game saw a dramatic uptick.

So given these conditions, it’s important to see how a player changed and adapted, and Bitten performed quite well in a new environment. He used his quick hands, strength, and determination to make skillful, blue-paint finishes for the majority of his goals. He continued to showcase deft playmaking, but it seemed like even his most skilled teammates were caught off guard by his through-three-players-and-on-the-tape saucer passes.

Bitten improved his forechecking ability, along with his defensive-zone coverage. He continued to add to his legitimate mean streak by throwing cataclysmic hits every chance he got. His improvement was less skill-based this season, but I did notice he added a powerful slapshot to his arsenal, with which he nailed a few posts.

What’s Next

He’s a bit rigid in his stickhandling and straightforward in his skating, which means that he struggles to beat defenders one-on-one. By changing angles when he approaches defenders, his success rate would improve. While it seems like a minor change, it could take his offence to the next level in the OHL.

Matt Bradley

Upon a quick glance at the stats, and it would appear Matt Bradley improved a ton this season. His points per game increased by 0.36, primary points per game by 0.31, and he finished top-15 in even-strength goals per game. In fact, his 0.35 ES G/GP clip was tied with the WHL’s leading point-getter, Sam Steel, and ahead of 50-goal-scorer Tyler Steenbergen.

However, Bradley was mostly a secondary scorer on the WHL’s second-best offence (Medicine Hat averaged 4.83 G/GP). His TM INV% marginally decreased this season (despite the uptick in production), and is roughly at the rate of defencemen Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque.

That isn’t to say that Bradley didn’t improve. He went from being a decent shooter to owning a tremendous release/power combination in his wrister. He made high-skill plays with consistency, where in previous years it was only flashes. And he continued to be heavily leaned upon for defensive-zone starts and top matchups.

The issue is that Bradley isn’t a dynamic player and has a tendency to disappear into the background. He’s best with limited puck touches, even if those touches are often pretty. He doesn’t consistently create shooting or passing lanes, and instead relies on his linemates to create space for him.

What’s Next

Bradley has yet to sign with the Canadiens, and his rights expire on June 1, 2017. If he’s not signed within the next two weeks, Bradley can re-enter the draft. It wouldn’t be a significant loss by any means, but he definitely has the skill to become a solid professional player.

Jake Evans

After 2015-16’s breakout campaign, expectations were high for Jake Evans. While his progression wasn’t as significant this season, he took several important steps forward.

Firstly, Evans’ skating, particularly agility and acceleration, saw decent improvements. He had a better hop in his step while carrying the puck, and was also noticeably stronger and balanced in puck battles.

Secondly, his shooting improved. He’s still pass-happy (and that won’t change given his high-end vision and playmaking skills) but it’s important that he continues to become more multi-dimensional. He doubled his previous season in total SOG output, while occasionally showcasing an above-average shot.

Thirdly, the late-season dry spell that marred his first two NCAA years was no more. Evans actually improved as the season wore on, and looked increasingly strong as Notre Dame went all the way to the Frozen Four.

Finally, the biggest improvement of all came in Evans’ game-by-game consistency. He was more involved offensively and a dangerous threat in nearly every viewing I had. He was heavily involved on both sides of the puck.

This is reflected in the numbers. Evans went from having at least one point in 56.8% of games in 2015-16 to 75% this past season. In fact, he led Hockey East in games with at least one point (30) and was fifth in the entire NCAA.

What’s Next

There are two options. The most likely of them has Evans returning to Notre Dame for a senior year, where he will continue to be their top centre (and top forward if Anders Bjork turns pro). Or he could sign with the Canadiens, forgoing his NCAA eligibility, and join Laval, which probably isn’t a very enticing alternative. Either way, it’s crucial that Evans continues to hone his shot as well as improving his skating and strength.

Michael Pezzetta

This was a disappointing year for Michael Pezzetta. He racked up 16 games in suspensions this season, and failed to improve upon his mediocre offensive totals. In fact, Sudbury improved significantly this season, but Pezzetta saw him TM INV% drop and his GF.Rel% crater to -16.1%, by far the worst on the team.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all is that Pezzetta is skilled enough to be a junior-level scorer, but instead found himself demoted to the fourth line for a stretch.

His powerful — albeit erratic — wrister was rarely on display. He’s a decent skater with a fast top gear, but uses it to hunt bodies rather than the puck.

In the playoffs, Pezzetta strung together some solid performances. He scored a goal with a laser beam shot that picked the top corner. He created chances with his speed and vision, and was excellent defensively and on the penalty kill by virtue of playing less in his own zone.

What’s Next

Pezzetta needs to bounce back from regression next season. It starts with improving his discipline, but he also needs to improve his puck skills and start making plays with the puck. Even fourth-line NHLers were usually scorers in junior, something that Pezzetta hasn’t shown to date.

Antoine Waked

The most recent addition to the prospect pool, Antoine Waked is likely the player who improved the most this season. His 80 points and 225 SOG were more than his previous three QMJHL seasons combined. Waked went from a complementary player and PK specialist to Rouyn-Noranda’s top even-strength scorer and primary point contributor. After spending last season as a negative GF.Rel% player, he really pushed the needle for Rouyn-Noranda with an impressive 67.6 GF% and 10.89 GF.Rel%.

A tactically aware player, Waked is proactive in picking up assignments, clogging lanes, and forechecking. Strong and balanced, he powers through checks and antagonizes the puck carrier every chance he gets. He’s a straight-line player in transition, but lacks a bit of creativity and resorts to uncontrolled entries too easily. Once in the offensive zone, Waked’s puck skills suddenly improve.

Waked takes direct routes to the net, and is a strong support player. However, he also makes high-skill plays deep in the zone, such as a tape-to-tape pass through several opponents or a lethal toe-drag and shot combination. He complements his in-tight skill with a powerful first step and an aggressive mentality to pounce on loose pucks and create chances. He’s unlikely to be dynamic at the professional level, but the skill level took a monumental step forward this season.

The projection concerns with Waked lie in his over-age status. While he’s only played four QMJHL seasons (instead of the regular five), the list of over-age players making the NHL is extremely small. Tools-wise, Waked shares a striking similarity to fellow Habs prospect Jeremy Grégoire, who has struggled to translate his scoring to the AHL. However, there is one major difference: Waked is a better skater.

What’s Next

With junior eligibility expired, Waked will turn professional next season. It seems likely he will spend the season with the Laval Rocket. The ECHL could also be an interesting option, as the three-forward-line league would give Waked plenty of ice time.