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 (NCAA) level.
The majority of NCAA teams have on break since last week, and their CHL counterparts played their last games — until December 28th — on Sunday. This marks the end of the first half of the season. Now, the players who weren’t selected to be a part of their respective national teams for the World Junior Hockey Championship will get some much-needed practice time and rest.
This article will be slightly different than the usual reports and analysis of the events of the past week for Habs prospects. Certain of them have shown improvements in their start to the year, and others haven’t taken the same steps forward. We will take a look at individual prospects and review their performance, which their point totals may not truly reflect.
Of course, this will be my own view on the matter and not a ranking of them in any way. A prospect showing improvement might not have the potential of another one who had a slower start. Hopefully it sparks some discussion.
Nick Suzuki, C/RW, Owen Sound Attack
Suzuki is currently on pace to earn two fewer points than last year. Does it matter? No. A few points, when talking about a production of above 1.50 points per game, is nothing to worry about.
The difference between 100 and 120 points for a player like Suzuki is, for the most part, dependent on the supporting cast. Owen Sound is not a weak team, hanging around the middle of the Western Conference, but the organization hasn’t surrounded the Habs prospect with anyone close to as capable of driving the play like he can.
Even with the emergence of Kevin Hancock in his over-age season, Suzuki’s ability to create is levels above everyone else on the Attack. The chemistry of the duo can’t be denied; opposing defences closely watch them when placed together as the tandem represents the biggest threat of the team. But, when that happens, it is the equivalent of the Attack placing all of their eggs in the same basket. No lineup configuration will push Owen Sound into a contending spot this season.
Therefore, it will likely not be possible for Suzuki to smash his early records this season — unless he gets traded to a powerhouse, which could realistically happen. Despite the production not reaching the high expectations of many Habs fans, Suzuki has still impressed with his play.
His scoring ability now projects even better to the NHL due to the improvement in his shot and the diversity in how he has been putting up goals. This revamped shot has also translated into making him even more dangerous in the offensive zone. He can now wire pucks past goalies and defences alike with a better masked release, or turn this shooting motion into passes to teammates in the slot just as effectively.
Suzuki understands that being a multi-threat player is the key to offensive success, not only in Junior, but also at higher levels. On top of all that, the prospect still displays a solid two-way game and has been spending even more time at centre than on the wing this season; a position he will likely play with Team Canada next week.
Josh Brook, RD, Moose Jaw Warriors
This first half of the season has been the Josh Brook show. The Warriors defender has become one of the very top defencemen in the WHL, giving hope that he will, in the future, be a solid presence on the blue line of the Montreal Canadiens.
He struggled in 2017-18 with consistency being a big issue. Now it is nothing but a distant memory that Brook actively makes everyone forget, pilling up new highlights with every passing game in this first half of the current season. He moves the puck better, and added a slew of very effective tricks to his offensive game. He uses his feet and vision to his advantage, and mastered the shot-pass to create one-touch goals for his teammates.
He is the quarterback and the main defensive presence. His coach relies on him, and that dependability earned him a place on Team Canada’s blue line, offering an occasion to showcase his talents on one of the biggest stages in hockey.
The World Juniors tournament is a rich experience, and a much-needed challenge for Brook after dominating the WHL in this first half, producing at almost a primary-point-per-game rate from the blue line with no other defenceman even coming close to that same mark.
Allan McShane, LW/C, Oshawa Generals
McShane has impressed with a few great performances this season. At the top of his game, he can show many of his skills in quick succession to waltz through a defence and thread the puck to a teammate in a beautifully orchestrated play. McShane is just as capable of scoring with a well-placed wrister, a one-timer, or by freezing the goalie one-on-one. He is very talented and exciting, but, you guessed it, inconsistent.
Players are measured by the performance they can bring every night. But the forward has shown more sequences where he brings it all together to create highlight-reel plays than last season. It’s evident to me that he has game-breaking potential at his level. I’m confident he can turn it on even more in the near future and have his production catch up.
The Generals are loading up with sights on a long playoff run, and if McShane finds chemistry with his new linemates, it could spark him into that gear that we have seen flashes of, but still lies somewhat dormant right now.
Yet to take that next step
Cam Hillis, C, Guelph Storm
I was a pretty big believer in Hillis before the draft. It was even in the title of his pre-draft profile: ‘‘Cam Hillis is a centreman due for his breakout”. This ‘‘breakout’’ prediction was made on a few factors.
Hillis is a late birthday, meaning that he played his draft season as a 17-year-old through-and-through, facing older and more mature opponents, still recording around a point per game even though this draft season was his first in the OHL. He didn’t have the adjustment period of most CHL players, who usually spend a year in the league in a reduced role before scouts really come out to evaluate them in preparation for the draft.
Hillis also had very low shot numbers and seemed to play somewhat conservatively despite his agility and playmaking potential. If he started shooting and using his innate talents more, his numbers would logically rise.
The final factor, one of his main issues, his skating ability, was set to improve with summer work at the clinic of Barb Underhill, renowned skating coach.
Fast forward to this season, and Hillis is still the same skater, and his breakout hasn’t happened. He started the year with five points in 12 games, mirroring his slow start of last year. This time, however, without the excuse of needing to adjust to the league. The coaching staff put him back with Isaac Ratcliffe, and the points started to come: 17 points in 15 games. When Ratcliffe’s left for Team Canada’s camp, Hillis was left pointless in the three games he played without the towering forward.
There is an argument that the players have chemistry and Hillis needs talent around him to produce, which is fair, but the inability of the diminutive forward to produce away from him is concerning. He should be able to create his own offence even with lesser teammates.
Hillis has been shooting slightly more, bringing his totals to 2.13 shots per game versus 1.75 in 2017-18. In the last games I’ve watched, he still had some of the same issues in his playmaking ability, notably the fact that he doesn’t create the space for himself he could with his agility. He seems to struggle against pressure in the offensive zone. If he can’t shake defenders consistently, it won’t enable him to find better options for his passes.
The Guelph Storm got rid of Ryan Merkley, their main offensive force from the blue line, but still look to be buyers at the OHL trade deadline due to their aging core. Those are contradictory statements on a surface. It’s rare that a team trades their best player and looks to acquire others to replace him for a playoff run. It points to a team in an evolving state that might fare better once they resolve issues with their identity.
We can only hope that Hillis’s current injury isn’t serious and he finds his footing in the second half of the season, coming up with ways to translate his talents to the scoresheet more consistently.
Cam Hillis having further testing later this week. No official word yet on how long he'll be out.— Tony Saxon (@SaxonOnTheStorm) December 17, 2018
Jarret Tyszka, LD, Seattle Thunderbirds
Tyszka has been a victim of circumstance. He was injured for the majority of the first half of the season, only coming back to the Thunderbirds in the last few weeks, and still managed an impressive five points in six games in that short time. He was one of the most-improved prospects in 2017-18, and, if he is back to full form, he should hopefully continue to ride this upward curve in the second half.
Cole Fonstad, LW/C, Prince Albert Raiders
Fonstad has had an up-and-down start to the season. He recorded a stretch of 10 points in his first seven games, and is currently on a tear with 15 in his last 10. In between those two productive sequences, the prospect struggled to write his name on the scoresheet despite some blowout performances from his team. He was pushed down in the lineup, and moved to centre, which, despite a relatively solid two-way game, isn’t his main position anymore.
The Prince Albert Raiders have a seven-point lead over their next pursuer at the top of the WHL’s overall standings. They are a powerhouse with a lot of depth. Fonstad contributes to their success, but isn’t a key piece for them, despite what he brings in terms of scoring and setup abilities.
This will probably not be a breakout season for the diminutive forward due to being stuck in the team’s middle six, unless circumstances change in his favour and he gets a chance to move up in the lineup.
Playing for a very strong team will, however, should give him a chance to experience a long playoff run and, if all goes well, a chance to compete for a Memorial Cup.
Samuel Houde, C, Chicoutimi Saguenéens
Another prospect who had a great start to the season, but couldn’t keep it up in this first half. It’s very possible injuries — Houde suffered a concussion — played a part in the recent dip in performance.
He has many tools: his skating seems to have improved, and he is an agile and shifty stick-handler. Plus, he shows a powerful and precise release to score from time to time. But he is a somewhat typical case of the player who can’t put all of those tools together to reach a new level in his play.
There is no question Houde could be a major impact player for the Saguenées. He has the potential, but he needs to better recognize and create opportunities to use his skills. It comes from using his supporting cast more, and learning how to manipulate the defence better to reach soft spots from which his shot would give no chance to the goalie.
Joël Teasdale, LW, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
Teasdale is quite the opposite to his fellow QMJHL Habs prospect. He is a player who has learned to maximize his talents to score at the Junior level. He is continuously finding ways to attack the slot, or sit there uncovered, to earn his goals and assists. Unfortunately, the points won’t come as easily when he reaches the next level.
That said, there is a creative element in his game that remains interesting, and there is something to be said about someone capable of identifying how to find success and using what he observes to attain it.
If I had to guess, I’d predict that Tesdale will join a different organization before the QMJHL trade deadline passes. It would be interesting to see what he could muster in a different environment, and if it brings more diversity to his offence.
Scott Walford, LD, Seattle Thunderbirds
Walford recorded seven points in his last four games to end the first half of the season. He has been jumping on the attack more in recent weeks, and scored a couple of great-looking goals this way. But, overall, he is still the same player; any offence is a bonus, and that, despite the long minutes he gets on the first power-play unit. He remains comfortable in his defence-first identity.
He has good vision and mobility to accompany his size and he can move the puck, but it is either with his feet or with passes from a standstill. Rarely will he combine his hands and feet to find paths to controlled exits that weren’t there to begin with. When the pressure intensifies, Walford doesn’t turn the puck over, but he is not the guy to rely on to beat the forecheck and create odd-man rushes the other way.
There is some progress this season for Walford, but more is required to place him on the level of prospects Jordan Harris and Alexander Romanov who can defend but are also more mobile and have the potential to consistently advance the play for their team, leading to more offence.
Catching the Torch will continue in January when the prospects come back from their Christmas break. The players invited to the World Juniors will receive separate coverage along with their teams during the event.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL season to date
|Nick Suzuki||2017||C/RW||OHL||Owen Sound||28||20||23||43|
|Cole Fonstad||2018||LW||WHL||Prince Albert||34||11||19||30|
|Josh Brook||2017||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||25||9||24||33|