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.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Michael Pezzetta?
The Montreal Canadiens sixth-rounder certainly has a reputation. For most, the repeated disciplinary measures make him project as nothing more than an enforcer type if he is ever going to have a future in hockey.
Some of his actions through the years have been reprehensible. He hasn't always refrained from roughing up unsuspecting victims and has had a multitude of altercations.
This season, however, this aspect of his game has been secondary. He's found his scoring touch and, for the most part, has stayed away from the things he had become infamous for. For everyone watching — and there have been some important pairs of eyes looking on in what could be his last year as a Canadiens prospect — he is a different player.
Now with an incredibly strong team in the Sarnia Sting, he could very well triple his production of last season and be a part of an exciting playoff run en route to a Memorial Cup.
The fact that contending teams had interest in him at the deadline says a lot about what he can bring. A part of it is his character. This is very much an intangible; something that, while often discarded when evaluating players, is still very important to an organization looking to establish leadership and a winning culture.
Pezzetta had spent four seasons with the Sudbury Wolves. He was a pillar of the team and a major presence in the community. When the general manager of the Wolves talked to the media after the trade with Sarnia, he had nothing but praise for the captain of his team.
“Michael is a leader who brings grit, determination and energy to every game. Michael is one of the highest integrity people and players to ever wear a Sudbury Wolves jersey. He is what our program is about, which is having young players who become gentlemen of character. The entire Wolves organization and family wish to thank Michael for his contribution to the Wolves and wish him the best in Sarnia.” — Rob Papineau, Vice President of Hockey Operations & General Manager
That being said, the Sting didn't just pull the trigger on the move for an improved locker room presence. In his first two games with them, Pezzetta was slotted to the left of Adam Ruzicka, a Calgary Flames fourth-round pick, and Jordan Kyrou, one of the top players in the OHL. He recorded three points in those games: a goal and two assists.
This is an opportunity that was offered to him because there's a real chance that he can complement those forwards with what he does best: play hard and crash the net.
Pezzetta currently leads all Habs CHL prospects in goals. And he outworked everyone else on the ice for the majority of those. Take a look at the shift that led to him scoring his 16th of the season on Thursday.
Pezzetta wears #13
He’s first on the puck every chance he has, constantly in shooting lanes for tips, and in front of the crease to impair the netminder's vision. If the puck falls anywhere near the crease, he’s there trying to jam it in.
That sequence is also a great display of his hand-eye coordination, the main ingredient in his goal-scoring recipe. Added to that, his hard release and an ability to pick his spot also had him beat a few goalies this season.
His 0.43 goals per game this season is much better than in the two previous years where it hovered around 0.15 to 0.20. The fact that he scores a lot from high-danger areas makes his production project better at the next level, unlike some other prospects who rely on shots from the periphery, beating weaker goalies from afar.
So, has Michael Pezzetta merited a contract with the Habs?
When it comes to prospects like Pezzetta, who have just emerged from the rest of the pack in their fourth year in the OHL, the answer is complex. He will soon turn 20 and a certain dominance at the junior level is expected out of older players. The stats are in his favour this season, but it would have looked better for him to have this breakout last year.
The 2017-18 campaign is not over, and there is still time for Pezzetta to impress with his play. It's likely he will get more comfortable with his new team and develop a chemistry that will let him accomplish more on the ice.
But he won't become a totally different player. There are still weaknesses that will need to be addressed if Pezzetta is to have a successful professional career. And it will be on the Canadiens organization to decide if they can bank on him to become a more well-rounded player, one that could fill a spot on their fourth line in the future.
Pezzetta is defensively responsible. He is a frequent penalty-killer that never hesitates to block shots and understands his role in his own end. He shoulder checks more often than not and is aware of his coverage duties.
But to become fully efficient without the puck — what is often asked out of role players at the NHL level — he needs to develop his forecheck. Right now, he is like a pinball machine, using his body and powerful skating to ram opponent after opponent, forcing them to rush their play.
But it's perfectly within his ability to become even more threatening. He needs to use his stick more, placing it in passing lanes or on the puck to prevent being beat by a well-timed move. Big hits eventually wear down the opponents, but an active stick will also create turnovers and more scoring chances.
Added to that, Pezzetta needs to become more creative in his offensive-zone play, and better at protecting the puck. Placing it out of the reach of opponents on the boards, checking for options before making a pass, and not immediately defaulting to a closed-off cycle would go a long way into maintaining the offensive-zone presence of his team.
In the sequence below, Pezzetta lays a couple of crushing hits that are successful in getting his team the puck back. But he is forced into this situation because he previously failed to connect on a pass.
Some of that is being paired with new linemates in Sarnia, but it is also not properly identifying clear passing lanes and checking for the position of teammates.
If Pezzetta displays sizable improvements in those areas by the end of the season (a change of coaching staff could help him work on his game) he could become a good candidate for an entry-level contract.
Another option could be a minor-league deal if he opts out of playing one last season in the OHL as an over-ager.
One way or another, he has already proven a lot of people wrong. Few expected him to put up the numbers he currently has over a full season, let alone the first half of it.
Pezzetta is trending in the right direction, and with the Sarnia Sting having a chance at a long post-season, he will get plenty of games to prove he deserves to keep his spot in Montreal's organization come next year.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL weekly performance
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CHL season to date
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