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Catching The Torch: A mid-season review of the Montreal Canadiens’ NCAA prospects

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Checking in on Ryan Poehling, Cayden Primeau, a surprising Brett Stapley, and the rest of the Habs prospects playing US collegiate hockey.

United States v Czech Republic: Bronze Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

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.

This is the second part of the performance review of North American prospects in this first half of the season. In this edition, we focus on the NCAA side.

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.

Risers

Brett Stapley, C, Denver Pioneers

Maybe we should start having high expectations for every prospect drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the seventh round.

Brett Stapley, instead of slowly ramping up his play over his first couple of years with the Denver Pioneers (what would have been a normal development curve for a prospect with his pedigree) immediately displayed an unusual comfort level centering a middle-six line. The coaching staff moved him up to the first power-play unit after a few games, recognizing his ability to distribute the puck, and recently trusted him to centre their first line when they moved their pieces around. It’s an unexpected rise, but a huge mark of confidence for the freshman.

It doesn’t mean Stapley will stay in that position, or that the rest of his season won’t be up and down, but he has already exceeded the expectations that could have been placed on a second-year eligible forward drafted out of the BCHL.

He is decently agile, has great vision and passing skills, and an improving two-way game. He deserves to be on everyone’s radar.

Jordan Harris, LD/RD, Northeastern Huskies

Harris doesn’t spend full games on Northeastern’s first pair, but he features there enough to be called a top-pairing defenceman for the team. Next to Jeremy Davies, he is a defensive presence, a safety net when the very offensive-minded Davies decides to jump on the attack, which is at every opportunity. Harris, with his skating and his natural ability to defend off the rush, can catch opponents in transition and break plays before they become dangerous.

He has also shown offensive flashes of his own. He is mostly on his off-side on this pairing, but from that position has shown that he can use his edges very well at the opposing blue line, twisting and turning against defenders to get pucks on net.

What he has to work on, however, is how and when he gets those pucks on net. He doesn’t fire it very hard or pick his spots very well, seldom waiting for traffic in front. With little changes to his timing and his release, and utilizing his vision more at the point, the defenceman’s point total could rise from his already respectable production for a young first-year player with such responsibilities.

Harris is a long-term project. Time is needed for him to become a steady performer. But he has shown adaptability, and a lot of good tools that could make him a solid defender with a puck-moving element in the long run.

Yet to take that next step

Ryan Poehling, C, St. Cloud Huskies

Poehling is producing at above a point-per-game pace this season; the objective he set himself for this year. This production comes, like last season, from his ability to distribute the puck to his teammates. He is still the same playmaker, but this facet of his game hasn’t improved in any significant way compared to what we have seen previously from him.

This season, he has often tried to do too much in possession of the puck, attacking the middle of the ice and taking on multiple defenders on his own. Poehling is a good stick-handler, but he doesn’t have the deft hands or the skating ability to come out on top in those situations.

He seems to be testing his limits, and that is a good thing, but he would gain a lot more from working on getting a higher volume of shots toward the net, which would make him a more versatile offensive threat.

There was one game early in the season where Poehling showcased game-breaking ability at the level he currently plays. He was seen shifting away from opponents on the wall, challenging the opposing defensive formation, and turning the attention he attracted on himself into golden opportunities for teammates. And he was doing that consistently in the 60 minutes of play. It was an early sign that it could be the season Poehling convinces everyone of his top-six potential.

Up-and-down performances followed that game against Northern Michigan, and there are still questions about the first-rounder’s offensive ceiling. He is racking up points, but some of that is due to the strength of St. Cloud State. Poehling hasn’t shown that he can escape defensive pressure consistently to be an even more dominant play-driver for the team. This is an important facet of projecting his offence to the NHL.

He’s now preparing for the World Junior Hockey Championship, where he should be placed in a position to show what he can do against his age group. He will have very talented line-mates, and the stage will be set for him to perform. It could give a second wind to his season.

Cayden Primeau, G, Northeastern Huskies

Cayden Primeau’s numbers are down from last season. He posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.40 goals-against average in the first half. Those are still respectable stats for a netminder in the NCAA, but we saw him break records with the Huskies as a freshman. With a team that has a different face in front of him, losing experienced defenders and their star in Adam Gaudette, it would have been surprising to not see a slight decline in Primeau’s numerical performance.

He has still been solid most nights between the pipes for Northeastern. The Huskies currently sit around the same spot they were in at this time last season, and their success with a lesser team on paper can be attributable in part to the play of Primeau, who impresses with a few saves on high-danger chances per game.

The next challenge for Primeau will be over the next week as he battles for the starting job for Team USA. He proved he could rise to the occasion before, having usually his strongest performances when it mattered the most for Northeastern last year. He will be a key piece of Team USA if they do decide to rely on him.

Jack Gorniak, LW, University of Wisconsin

Gorniak skates like the Road Runner trying to escape from Wile E. Coyote. His incredibly quick feet and great usage of crossovers propel him over the entire ice surface, enabling him to pressure the opposition in their transitions and catch up to the play if the puck gets past him. It is a great tool for him as he learns to manage the transition to NCAA hockey. Even if he falls behind, he is able to rejoin his teammates and track the play back to his zone.

His offensive game from high-school hockey has not transferred to the Wisconsin Badgers, even if he is given opportunities to showcase what his speed could bring the team while evolving in their middle six. To create more offence at the opposition’s end of the ice, he will have to build on top of his skating ability, as it won’t be enough to drive his offence anymore on its own.

Nikolas Koberstein, RD, Alaska Nanooks

Koberstein, a big, rangy defenceman is in his senior year, and the acting captain of the Nanooks, is on pace for about the same production as he had last season. The offensive flashes, and puck-handling abilities Trevor Timmins saw in the prospect’s draft year never truly transferred to the NCAA game.

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.

NCAA season to date

Player Draft Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 18 2 3 5
Brett Stapley 2018 C WCHA Denver 14 3 9 12
Ryan Poehling 2017 C NCHC St. Cloud State 16 3 14 17
Nikolas Koberstein 2014 RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 18 0 6 6
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 14 1 5 6

Primeau’s season to date

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 10-3-1 2.40 0.918 2