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Catching the Torch: Mikhail Sergachev remains the most promising of a deep group of young defencemen

Our season review of the prospects also looks at the pro-ready Noah Juulsen and underrated Victor Mete.

Arizona Coyotes v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The final instalment in the season review of the Montreal Canadiens’ prospects looks at the strongest position in the organization: the defence. The Habs have both quantity and quality among their blue-line contingent, with a variety of different skill sets.

These reviews focus on not only the statistical outputs of the players in question, but also the inputs of underlying skills and strengths, and offers an outlook on what to expect from the defenders next season.

Statistics used in this article are from prospect-stats.com.

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

Simon Bourque

Although Bourque’s offensive breakout occurred last season, the majority of his production was secondary assists and power-play points. This season, his five-on-five primary points per game shot up from 0.08 to an impressive 0.27; sixth among QMJHL defenders. His relative goals-for percentage also skyrocketed to 12.52%.

The responsible defenceman improved his skating, which has enabled him to establish his gap sooner (typically in the neutral zone) and bounce back from mistakes. His pivoting is still stiff, but he’s generally positioned smartly enough that it’s not an issue. Not a punishing defender by any means, Bourque does a solid job protecting the slot.

His shot has improved since draft day, and is his best offensive tool. He can blast home one-timers in difficult positions, and does an equally good job shooting for redirections and rebounds.

Despite these gaudy offensive totals, Bourque’s offence remains tricky to project to the next level. Following the trade to the Sea Dogs, Bourque showed a bit more in terms of offensive-zone ability, such as creating lanes, but that has since dissipated in the playoffs.

What’s Next

The two-time QMJHL Champion returned to the Memorial Cup this week, after he played a huge role in Saint John down the stretch. Next season, Bourque will most likely play for the Laval Rocket, where he could step in immediately and be a solid player.

Noah Juulsen

Juulsen followed up his 52-point draft year with just 28 points last season, which drew the concern of many observers. However, a closer inspection saw that Juulsen’s 5v5 P1/GP remained the same (0.22 -> 0.21), but his secondary assists and power-play production evaporated with the loss of several of the more skilled members of his supporting cast.

This season, Juulsen’s 5v5 P1/GP improved to a career-high 0.31, landing him seventh among all defenders in the WHL. He even ranked ahead of top WHL offensive defencemen like Jake Bean, Brennan Menell, and Parker Wotherspoon. Meanwhile, he saw increasingly tougher minutes and a heavy shift toward defensive-zone duty as Kevin Davis took over in key offensive situations.

Although Juulsen had just 12 power-play points, he was used as the quarterback on the second unit; a change from previous years. Davis racked up 34 points playing with Everett’s loaded first unit, essentially assuming the role Juulsen had two seasons ago in his 52-point campaign. This was likely to spread the wealth out, and is not an indictment of Juulsen’s man-advantage ability (personally, I think he’s a power-play guy at the next level).

Entering this season, I had two major concerns regarding Juulsen’s game: slot protection and puck decisions around his net. He’s far more aggressive and mean on attackers now, but most importantly his stick is always to the inside, and he proactively ties up assignments. Near-net puck decisions have also improved, thanks to his greatly improved edgework and patience.

Those two improved areas have translated into the offensive zone, where he’s become far better at creating and finding shooting and passing lanes. He remains a big-time shooter, often hitting the double-digits in shot attempts. His variety of shots (i.e., wrister & slapshot, high for a goal & low for rebound/redirection) separate him from many junior defenders with similar tools, and give him a solid projection for the next level.

What’s Next

After being named to the WHL First All-Star Team at the end of his final junior year, Juulsen will turn pro next season, likely playing in the AHL. I expect him to make an immediate impact on the team, and I wouldn’t be shocked if next season is his only full year in the minors.

Nikolas Koberstein

Since being drafted in 2014, Koberstein has done nothing to indicate any NHL (or even professional) upside. This season saw Koberstein take significant strides, but the fact that he’s still not a factor either offensively or defensively is a testament to how far behind the curve he was entering the NCAA.

If there is any encouraging news, it’s that Koberstein’s skating has gone from below-average to above-average in the span of a season. In fact, his skating might be the biggest single-summer skating transformation I’ve seen (among Habs prospects) since Michael McCarron in 2014-15 or Jeremy Grégoire (after being outfitted with orthotics) in 2013-14.

Although Koberstein racked up the PIMs in the AJHL and USHL, he’s not really a physical presence, and is actually quite soft on players around the boards and net. His defensive-zone coverage is spotty, but I’ve noticed improvements with his rush defence.

Koberstein has decent puck skills, notably a hard shot and somewhat quick hands, but they haven’t translated to points at any level. He can carry the puck out his zone quite well, but loses his puck-handling ability in the offensive zone.

What’s Next

Koberstein’s skating was a monumental leap forward, and now it’s time for the rest of his game to catch up.

Victor Mete

What a season Victor Mete had. He planted himself firmly among the OHL’s elite, both offensively and defensively. The elite skater continued to be London’s go-to in crucial defensive situations and on the PK, while establishing himself as a first-unit power play regular.

Already a rock-solid defensive player last season, Mete’s most important growth came offensively this season. His huge uptick in offensive production can largely be explained by his greatly improved ability to create and locate shooting lanes with his elite edgework and quick hands. He also used his explosive stride to move deep into the offensive zone, making himself a backdoor option, which is where he scored many of his goals.

These two abilities — lane creation and exploitation, and blue-line activation — were the driving force behind his expanded offensive role this season, especially down the stretch. This is reflected in his tremendous statistical growth. Mete finished third in G/GP among OHL defenders (0.3) and sixth in P1/GP (0.58). His P1/GP jumped up by 0.26, and 5v5 P1/GP by 0.20. Mete was involved in nearly 21% of his team’s goals, and was a driving force with a 9.52 GF.Rel%.

However, there are questions going into next season. Even considering the location of his goals and shots, his 13.50 SH% (third highest in the OHL) seems unsustainable given the league average among blue-liners at 5.42%. To further the point, Mete still has to improve his lane creation for shooting purposes, and generally shoot more at even strength.

What’s Next

Not eligibility for AHL action until 2018-19, Mete will return to the London Knights next season. As discussed, there are offensive sustainability questions, and he should demonstrate more patience to locate controlled exit options. There’s no doubt that Mete is going to be among the OHL’s best next season, and there’s a great chance he will represent Team Canada at the World Juniors.

Mikhail Sergachev

Apart from a slow start after returning to Windsor and average performances on the big stage (WJC and playoffs), the other 75% of Sergachev’s season was highly positive.

At the World Juniors and in the OHL post-season, Sergachev tried to keep his game simple. Gone was the elite offensive ability, and in were simple plays and occasional mistakes. When Sergachev kept it simple, he quit moving the puck in a skilled manner almost entirely, limiting his high-end transitional ability. Instead of actively attacking forecheckers, he let them attack him.

That’s an area he will need to work on, finding the balance between the high-risk and safe styles of play, but the coaching/usage context cannot be ignored.

Sergachev was a secondary power-play option at the World Juniors behind 19-year-old Yegor Rykov, but the go-to penalty killer ... which seems a bit backward. In the post-season, Windsor changed their power-play structure to have Logan Brown (who dealt with wrist injuries all season) as the shooter, making Sergachev the setup man. While Sergachev embraced this role, it was clearly a waste of both players’ best assets (Sergachev’s shooting and Brown’s playmaking).

Sergachev demonstrated improved defensive acumen, particularly with regard to his slot protection. He’s more aggressive on forwards now, and also gets his stick involved. His man-to-man coverage is noticeably better, and he has become quite the penalty killer for Windsor.

Defensively, there are still concerns. For example, he doesn’t always track the puck well, which he reacts to by stopping, making him useless. (This is a problem that all three NHL draft picks on the Spits’ blue line have.) But it’s important to remember: Sergachev is highly effective because he spends a huge portion of his time attacking, and then uses aggressive gap control that often begins in the opposition’s offensive zone to obtain possession as soon as possible.

On top of defensive growth, the statistical improvement was significant. His team-leading 13.17 GF.Rel% means that he was truly pushing the needle. While his G/GP dropped, he scored just one less even-strength goal than last season. He racked up 43 shots on the man advantage, with none of them finding twine; a stark contrast to his seven power-play goals in 2015-16. He led all OHL defenders in 5v5 P1/GP with 0.44, and was fourth in 5v5 P/GP with 0.58; both significant improvements over his rookie season last year.

He attained this growth while his shooting percentage was cut by nearly half, to a slightly-above-average rate. A 5.81% conversion rate seems a bit low for a player with an innate ability to improve his shooting location and one of the best shots in all of junior hockey. Essentially, he wasn’t as lucky as last season, and still posted a season of positive growth.

What’s Next

Sergachev got back into game action in the first game of the Memorial Cup on Friday, recording two assists in a win. Next season, it’s either the NHL or the OHL. The big question is about the pace that Sergachev plays at. There’s certainly a level of control Sergachev plays in; that is, he intentionally waits to make a decision when he has time. But this is a delicate balance. Even in junior he sometimes waits too long and gets forced into a poor decision. His ability to adapt to the NHL pace of decision-making won’t just be a determining factor in where he makes his home next season, but also his long-term NHL success.

Casey Staum

While Staum didn’t produce in his USHL rookie season, I came away from nearly every viewing fairly impressed. He was bounced up and down the Fighting Saints’ depth chart as they dressed eight defenders most games, but managed to establish himself in the top-four by February.

Staum’s defensive game steadily improved over the season. His agility and assertive gap control make him difficult to beat off the rush. His defensive-zone coverage improved, particularly slot protection and puck tracking, but both are areas that will need considerable refinement.

Offensively, Staum is inconsistent. One shift he’ll create a lane for a high-difficulty pass with his shiftiness and connect; the next, he’ll panic under pressure and give the puck away. He’s extremely hesitant to shoot, which makes his offensive-zone play one-dimensional. He has the vision and skill to be a power-play threat in the NCAA, but he will need more time to work on his decision-making.

What’s Next

Staum will head to the University of Nebraska-Omaha next season. It’s likely that he will be a regular off the hop, as the program’s top two defenders turned pro. He’s a player of higher skill than the point totals would suggest, but he’s very much a long-term project.