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Catching The Torch: Nikolas Koberstein in the midst of the best season of his career

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

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.

Nikolas Koberstein is not a name you often hear. He's in the depth of the Habs prospect pool and has been playing all the way in Alaska. His often limited offensive production and conservative style of play also tends to not make the highlight reels.

Even if good puck-handling were part of his skill set in the USHL, he wasn't picked with great offensive upside in mind. In a time when defencemen of size were more popular, his 6'2” frame and decent mobility were likely the most attractive aspects of the player.

That being said, his meagre eight points in 54 games over the previous two years were disappointing, even if the expectations were low from the start. This production was not a sign that the defenceman could be a meaningful contributor to any team at a higher level.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks has not been the strongest hockey program in the NCAA, let alone the WCHA conference. This has likely not favoured his point totals. But, picking the remote University had at least proven a good decision for his ice time, guaranteeing him more of it even through his early struggles.

He is, along with Casey Staum, what Trevor Timmins calls a five-year plan. Those two were prospects drafted off the board with a lot of elements missing from their games, but with some luck and a upward curve in their development, they were looked at as potential roster players in the future.

Where is Koberstein in his path towards that?

The numbers this season are more encouraging than what we've seen in the past. He is currently in his best statistical season in his collegiate career with 11 points in 26 games. Only four of those came from his power-play time and nine are primary (goals or first assists). This season should have him finish with more than double his point-per-game production of previous years at Fairbanks.

Of course, Koberstein is now 22 years old and has the maturity to be more competitive among his peers who, for the most part, now share his age. A certain increase in production is expected.

But the gain is sufficient to be intriguing, and one wonders if this is finally a breakthrough for the defenceman, a sign that at least some of the offensive elements of his game are resurfacing, giving him more dimensions as a player and a better outlook.

Unfortunately, after watching him in a few games this season, it seems that the main skills the scouting team reported Koberstein exhibiting in 2013-14, for the most part, stayed in the USHL when he made the jump to the NCAA.

It would be unfair to try to look at him as a potential driving force of the offence of the Nanooks, but it should be within the range of the third year player to be a little more deceptive on the power play, creating better puck movement when he is given the chance.

Right now, not unlike recent Habs third-rounder Scott Walford, he is limiting himself to transition passes, and telegraphing those as well, therefore not forcing defenders to adjust in any way.

He gets his shots on net, but they seem to lack the power that should come with his size, with the puck being placed too far from his body for him to really put his weight into the release. The long, dragged-out motion also gives plenty of time for the goalies to get set.

He shines a lot more in his defensive game, especially due to his reach. His patience, combined with some good reads, allows him to swat away passes and separate attackers from the puck after they try one too many moves.

His stickwork compensates decently for his lack of agility. Even if he's not capable of the smoothest pivots and can't be praised for a great four-way mobility, he can break up plays with his good positioning.

He would gain from using this tool even more, however. There are a few times where he goes down to block a shot, making himself too easy to go around for a better look at the goal. Staying on his feet, stick on puck would be more effective in preventing the shot from ever reaching the net. That, or better timing on the block.

Koberstein’s mobility issues become more problematic while defending off the rush. His swaying backward skating can lead to free zone entries for opposing forwards if he can't deter them with his imposing size. That being said, he seems to have learned to manage opponents’ speed against his own through the years, and can now cut opposing plays near his blue line, even doling out the odd crushing hit.

The defenceman is relied upon heavily on the penalty kill and to protect leads for the Nanooks. This is also the first year when he's been able to maintain a positive plus/minus record.

The picture is getting clearer for him: if he wants to have a future anywhere in professional hockey, he should focus on honing the skills that have him trusted for defensive responsibilities.

Right now, the odd offensive contribution and the limited abilities he has shown for this aspect of the game won't be enough to make him a two-way defenceman at the next level.

Cayden Primeau, G, Northeastern Huskies

On Saturday, the Habs’ seventh-rounder got his second shutout of the season, facing 19 shots against the University of Massachusetts. The fact that he rarely looked challenged in that game is as much a testament to the strength of Northeastern as it is to the goalie's ability to make things look easy.

The most notable UMass player is Cale Makar, the Colorado Avalanche 2017 pick, selected fourth overall. He only has 13 pts in 21 games this year, but is still very threatening on the offensive blue line, aggressively testing defenders, forcing them to go down, which opens a window for his quick, hard shots on net.

At the end of the first period, Makar aimed for Primeau's blocker side three consecutive times from the same spot, desperately trying to tie the game up at one. Each time, the netminder tracked the puck perfectly and deflected it away from traffic, limiting the possibility of dangerous rebounds.

His rebound control was almost perfect in that game, and his great athleticism covered him in the only instance where he misjudged a shot. He managed to sprawl to his left post just in time.

Overall, Primeau was very solid against chances that were often coming from the slot. By staying on his skates until he was sure of his opponents' intentions to shoot, he stayed square to the puck and sealed the net.

Over the last weekend, Primeau stopped 48 of 51 shots for a .941 save percentage, his best performances in 2018. He still sits in the top 10 of the NCAA with .922 save percentage and a 1.98 goals-against average.

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

NCAA/USHL weekly performance

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 0 1
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 2 0 0 0
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 1 0 1 1
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque Injured

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 24 8 21 29
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 26 1 10 11
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 18 6 12 18
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque 18 0 3 3

Goalies weekly performance

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 1-1-0 2.00 0.913 0
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 1-1-0 1.50 0.941 1

Goalies season to date

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 16-8-1 2.17 0.915 3
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 11-4-3 1.98 0.922 2