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 level(USHL, NCAA).
There's a new member in the Habs' prospect pool.
Hayden Verbeek, a player for Sault Ste. Marie, just signed an entry-level contract with the club. He is currently ending his fifth year in the OHL and is part of a very strong edition of the Greyhounds, a team aspiring to win the Memorial Cup.
He is one of three over-agers in the organization, the maximum allowed per league rules. And, as is often expected out of older players, he has put up an increased numbers of points this season; with 61, almost doubling his production of last year.
NHL organizations are not new to this over-age phenomenon, and despite the enticing possibility of acquiring a free prospect, they usually approach players in this situation cautiously, knowing the slim chance that they ever become a regular on their ice.
Few have after signing a contract at the end of their junior career.
With each passing year, players mature physically, gain experience and thus, an edge over their younger peers. The playing field is not perfectly leveled in junior leagues, but instead often tipped in favour of veterans.
So what brought Montreal to take a chance on Hayden Verbeek?
A first look at the stats won't wow anyone. Verbeek has scored 30 goals this season, but has not been able to reach a point-per-game mark despite his advantages. He's also 5'9'', which is especially small for a centrer, and playing for the best team in the OHL.
That being said, there are some interesting elements when looking a little deeper into his production.
Of those 30 goals, only 1 was scored on the power play; playing for a very strong team with a lot of talented players also has downsides, as it means that some players like Verbeek don't get much chance to play with a man advantage. But the most interesting stat - and his heatmap says it all - is that 16 of those 30 goals were scored right at the doorstep.
The forward finished fifth in the OHL in high-danger goals this season.
While that says a lot about the kind of offensive player that he is, a goal-scorer he will likely not become at the next level. This is his first year flirting with a production of a goal every other game, so expectations must remain low in that department next year.
No, it's for other reasons that Verbeek has gathered the interest of NHL teams. The main one being hhis extraordinary skating ability.
Verbeek was named the third-best skater in the Western OHL in the recent coaches poll.
He is just not fast. He is a full-on rocket.
Hayden Verbeek wears #38 for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
While his puck-handling abilities sometimes can't follow the ridiculous top speed of his feet, when he can put both together — and he often does — he forces any opposing blue-liners to think twice about how to approach him off the rush. His small stature also contributes to making him hard to stop and enables him able to pull off the odd great play like the one above.
His skating ability also means that he is not at risk of being caught by any backcheckers when flying between blue lines, and can abuse bad pinches or positioning of defencemen easily.
That being said, despite this quality of his, Verbeek doesn't seem to be the primary puck-carrier on his line. As reflected in the stats, most of his offensive contribution comes from being around the net and, without possession, it is where he automatically goes to when he enters the offensive zone, as he looks to pick up a possible rebound.
Verbeek can hold his own in front of the blue paint, but smartly prefers to fly in and out of the slot, waiting for the right moment to beat an unsuspecting defender and connect with a pass to redirect it in the net. This is a skill he has honed through the years and how he is the most effective at the offensive end.
But it would be wrong to assume he is a passive player when his team is trying to establish a cycle. Verbeek plays with an amazingly high amount of energy. What he lacks in size, he makes up by outworking everyone else on the ice.
He could stand to become even more elusive, but he is a good puck-protector as it is, and, even when stuck in an unavoidable one-on-one battle on the boards, he finds ways to slip out of a defenceman's grip with sheer will to continue to battle for possession.
That being said, as he can play at a faster pace than most on the ice at the junior level, he can sometimes simply run circles in the offensive zone while handling the puck, unchallenged, looking for a passing target. He doesn't have the vision of some of his teammates, but can pick seams in opposing defensive formations to feed his linemates.
It all comes back to skating ability: Verbeek is also very quick. His first few steps allow him to create or close a gap between him and most opponents, and be first on a majority of loose pucks.
This is the main reason why he is effective on defence, Added to his overall smart positioning, he barely leaves any breathing room to the opposition. The Greyhounds' coaching staff realizes this and doesn't hesitate to trust him for the toughest defensive missions.
In the clip above, Verbeek is defending a three-versus-five, but he makes it look like there's at least one more Greyhound player on the ice, as he is everywhere. He first pushes the puck out, then puts himself in the passing lane in the neutral zone, comes back across the defensive blue line for a poke check and ends his shift retrieving the puck on the low boards.
Added to the nomination he got for his skating in the coaches poll, Verbeek was also named the second-hardest worker in the Western Conference. And it is fully deserved. He is very aggressive away from the puck and relentless in his pursuit of it.
Verbeek is the definition of a two-way centre. He is not a master on the dot — based on his 51% faceoff win ratio — but he is responsible all over the 200 feet of the ice.
Usually, a small stature for a centre means a change of position at the professional level, but Verbeek might be an exception to that. He is a natural at center.
That being said, even if he's moved to the wing, it wouldn't be a bad thing for him, as he would be able to keep defenders constantly on their toes, threatening to exit the defensive zone with a lot of speed.
Verbeek is a project. His dominant qualities likely shine more due to the situation he is in as a 20-year-old in a junior league. But those qualities could also carry him further than most expect. Being a great skater is not a characteristic all over-agers can boast about. He checks at least this box in his NHL projection. With some seasons in the minors and an even stronger defensive game, he might also find a role with the Habs.
He is more than worth a shot.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL playoffs performance
|Hayden Verbeek||C||OHL||Sault Ste. Marie||3||1||1||2|
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||2||0||0||0|
|Hayden Verbeek||C||OHL||Sault Ste. Marie||67||30||31||61|
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||45||3||29||32|