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) and collegiate (USHL, NCAA) level.
The Canada-Russia Series is a long-standing event that features the best Junior players out of the three CHL regions. A team of young Russian stars comes over to Canada for six games and three different matchups. They successively play against selected players out of the the WHL, the OHL, and the QMJHL in a tournament that lasts around 10 days.
It has been, in recent years, an event that featured relatively well-matched teams, making it an interesting opportunity for prospects to showcase their skills in a different context. For some, it represents a last tryout for the U20 formation as we get closer to the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Last season, William Bitten was the only invitee of the tournament for the Habs. He was a member of the OHL team and had good performance overall, but he was used mostly in a checking role.
This year, the story is very different. Five of Montreal’s youngsters got the call to play against some of Russia’s best young elements. Josh Brook and Scott Walford faced the Russians in back-to-back games on Monday and Tuesday; Nick Suzuki and Cam Hillis will get their chance when the OHL team plays tonight and on Saturday; and it will be Joël Teasdale’s turn next week as one of the representatives for the QMJHL. Plus, the contest gives us a chance to see the mysterious Alexander Romanov on North American ice for a stretch of games as he guards the Russian blue line.
The first two contests have set the series off on a competitive note. They were rare chances to watch multiple Habs prospects on the same ice surface. None of Brook, Walford, and Romanov wrote their name on the scoresheet, but there were many good moments that showcased the play style of each defender.
We haven’t talked much about Walford since the beginning of the year. He is only up to five points in 12 games for the Victoria Royals; a pace that would have him end up with an inferior production to last season. It’s not what you expect out of a veteran blue-liner in the WHL, especially with the long minutes he plays and the power-play opportunities he has been getting. But, at some point, it might be best to not expect numbers out of the Habs’ third-rounder and look at him for what he is: a solid defensive presence.
Walford is not without tools. He skates well, has size (which translate to a great stick reach), is good one-on-one in close quarters, and tends to make good pass choices that advance the play for his team. Those are all things that make him a highly touted defender in the WHL. It’s probably why he was drafted so high by the Habs, even though it’s likely that the scouts expected more growth in his play.
On team WHL this week, he was paired with Calen Addison, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect who is known for his ability in possession and his talent as an offensive defenceman, but not for his play in his own end. It was then a strategic choice to have Walford on that pair. The coaching staff gave a solid anchor to Addison, allowing him to use his creativity on the back end and burst forward on the attack without as much worry.
Walford’s play doesn’t translate well to highlight reels, but he did his job on both nights. These two sequences in back-to-back shifts illustrate what he is all about.
In the first clip, he starts the breakout from behind the net, passing the puck to a forward striding toward the neutral zone. The puck is turned over, but Walford acts as a safety net, using his reach to poke the puck away from the opposing player who stole possession, and making a quick board pass to spring his team on the rush for a scoring chance the other way.
In the second clip, Walford gives a bit too much space on an opposing zone entry, but manages to follow the play and get his stick on the puck in time to stop the shot. He then skates to the front of the net, boxing opposing players out and tying up their sticks to prevent a tipped shot.
Then, he makes short work of a Russian forward on the boards, once again placing his stick on the puck with one hand, and using his other hand to prevent any cut-back attempt from the opposing player. Team WHL retrieves the puck and breaks out after Walford gets it free.
It’s nothing flashy, but things that coaches around the league recognize and like from a defenceman: simple and effective plays.
There is a very good chance that those earn the Habs prospect a contract at the end of the season, despite what will probably be lacklustre production.
With his qualities, Walford could have been effectively paired with Josh Brook, who displayed his usual offensive confidence against the Russians. Instead of Walford, the Habs’ premier defensive prospect was placed with another top young blue-liner in Ty Smith, making it a pairing to watch closely for the other team. If given room to operate, the two defencemen could do some serious damage with their proven penchant for the attack.
Brook’s best chance came in the second game off of a pass from Parker Kelly. Team WHL entered the zone and Parker cut back to have his coverage overshoot him. Brook had read the play and skated over the offensive blue line, attacking the middle. He received the puck on his forehand, and in one smooth motion while letting his momentum carry him forward, he transferred his weight and released from the top of the circle.
Unfortunately, the goalie had a clear view of the shot which led to a great save, followed by a few others on rebounds.
Overall, Brook didn’t get as many scoring chances as he usually does with the Moose Jaw Warriors. This can be attributed to him not getting nearly as many puck touches. The Warriors tend to funnel their plays through their best defenceman, and it wasn’t needed for a team of all-stars like Team WHL.
The defenceman still displayed other solid elements of his play, like his physicality, many times holding Russian forwards on the boards to let teammates steal the puck in the defensive zone.
Brook is not another one of those light offensive defenceman. He has no problem using his body to prevent others from gaining access to the puck (when he is not injured). This is a quality that will find its use in the NHL.
Alexander Romanov’s performance will be covered in the European Prospect Report on Monday.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL season to date
|Nick Suzuki||2017||C/RW||OHL||Owen Sound||16||13||12||25|
|Cole Fonstad||2018||LW||WHL||Prince Albert||17||5||9||14|
|Josh Brook||2017||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||12||5||10||15|
NCAA season to date
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Hockey East||Wisconsin||8||0||1||1|
|Ryan Poehling||2017||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||8||3||5||8|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||8||1||2||3|
Goalie season to date