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).
The NCAA is on break this week as we await the start of the Frozen Four tournament on April 5. The NCAA edition of Catching the Torch will be back for one final instalment next week.
The playoffs have already made their first casualties in Jarret Tyszka and Cale Fleury.
Unfortunately, the Seattle Thunderbirds couldn't get past the Everett Silvertips, losing in five games. Their top defenceman, Tyszka, being forced to miss the final two games didn't help them in this matchup. As for Cale Fleury, the Pats played a nail-bitter of a series, but ultimately came up short.
The end of the season for CHL prospects usually means a chance to play in the AHL with a tryout contract. But as we don't know the status of Tyszka, it seems unlikely he gets a taste of what will await him the season after next. Forcing a return for meaningless games is rarely a good idea. Fleury has to remain with his team to prepare for the Memorial Cup in May as Regina is hosting.
Jarret Tyszka isn't the only player who suffered an injury. Scott Walford has not seen the ice for the Victoria Royals in the playoffs, and he might be done for the year unless his team can manufacture a deep run. They already won their first round versus Vancouver and everything remains possible.
Josh Brook #2, RD, Moose Jaw Warriors
The Moose Jaw Warriors struggled unexpectedly against the Prince Albert Raiders. Most thought that the powerhouse of the West would have an easy first round against a much weaker team on paper, but the Warriors have not gelled like they usually do and have had trouble preventing the puck from entering their net.
Despite recording a shutout last Wednesday, in arguably their best game of the series, Moose Jaw let the Raiders score five goals on them three times. This is not a recipe for success, even considering they have possibly the best offence in the league.
But they managed to get to the second round anyway after coming back to win Game 7 and will now face a much stronger opponent in the Swift Current Broncos.
Josh Brook has had a better showing in the playoffs than at the end of the season. He scored arguably his best goal of the season on Friday to start a Warriors comeback late in the third period.
It was a completely unassisted effort that showcased a lot of the reasons why he was drafted in the second round: his ability to beat opponents one on one, his puck-handling skill, his offensive flair, and, last but not least, his skating ability.
At the start of the sequence, Brook sensed that the forechecker coming at him was getting a bit too eager to take away the puck. By turning the opponent's skates a couple of times and letting him overcommit, the defenceman gave himself a window to accelerate out of a quick turn, reaching the open ice uncontested, with a lot of options.
This is where he showed he has the potential to be a game-breaker.
Instead of going wide like most would do, he attacked the middle of the ice while evading pokechecks, exploiting a seam through the defence to get into the zone. As he gained a step on the last defender, he angled his body against the opponent's and cut hard to the net using uneven skates to maximize his balance and turn rate, leaving no chance that the puck could be taken away from him.
This was a total power move, but not even the best part of the sequence. With the defenceman on his back, Brook still had the awareness to read the goalie's positioning and slip the puck in between his legs.
Here's a breakdown of the same sequence.
Brook has made highlight-reel plays like this a few times this season. They are not part of his everyday game, but the high level of skill he displays, albeit unevenly, will still keep him as one of the top-rated prospect in the organization.
Improving his on-ice play doesn't just mean consistency on the offensive side of the game for him. As has been said a number of times in this series, his defensive game is not perfect yet. He could stand to use some of the tools he showcased in the clip above when battling for the puck.
Brook is 6'1''. Physical play should come relatively easy for him. But instead of trying to gain body positioning over an attacker, he is too often caught lunging forward with his stick. He has a good reach, but he exposes himself to getting beat by the skilled skating and puck-handling of opposing top forwards.
The clip below is a different situation, but one where he has the right idea. He neutralizes the forechecking opponent in a race for a loose puck by making contact and shielding the puck for a teammate to pick it up and start the breakout. He ends up pinned on the boards, but he did his job as the play is rapidly transitioning the other way.
Brook is still a young defenceman. He is playing his complete draft-plus-one season as an 18-year-old, which is not the case for other Habs prospects in the WHL. As he matures. these are the details we should see him apply a lot more, making him an effective player no matter the situation he is put in.
His playoff performance is overall encouraging, and he is playing more like the number-one defenceman the Warriors had at the start of the season. His play is part of the reason why they were able to escape out of the first round.
Here's one of his assists from last Wednesday, where he blocked a shot before springing Brayden Burke for the insurance goal.
Cale Fleury #4, RD, Regina Pats
Fleury's assist on Monday of last week was a great example of his two-way play. He first took away the puck on an opposition zone entry, battled in the corner, and made himself an option on the breakout. By taking the middle of the ice after receiving the puck, he attracted a defender to him in the neutral zone, creating a lane for his teammate to attack wide with a return pass.
Right afterward, Fleury also set up Emil Oskanen for a shot from the slot area by going to the net, forcing defenders to follow him in their coverage, and leaving Oskanen a chance to release uncontested from closer to the net.
His best play of the series was probably an assist on another Oskanen goal. While on the power play, Fleury received the puck at the point and skated up to the faceoff circle, looking like he was going to shoot. But he instead launched a hard feed to Oskanen, who beat Swift Current's goalie under the arm.
Fleury also had a few interesting puck rushes in that same game.
The speed he gains and his puck-handling skill allow him to waltz around certain defenders. Once in the offensive zone, he showed an ability to turn defender skates one way to make space for himself in the other direction, not unlike Brook did on his big play on Tuesday.
The Pats will have a lot of time to practise as a team before the Memorial Cup starts on May 18. Last year, the Windsor Spitfire got eliminated early on in the playoffs only to win it all as tournament host a month later. This is now the hope for Regina.
William Bitten #14, RW, Hamilton Bulldogs
The Bulldogs won over the 67's quite easily in the first round. Hamilton used a line of Braidon Saigon, Robert Thomas, and Will Bitten to wreak havoc on the defence of Ottawa. Bitten recorded seven points in five games, including two goals and a four-point performance in Game 3.
Here are some of Bitten’s highlights from the series.
Those clips encompass the diminutive forward's style quite well: his playmaking ability and his nose for the net.
There's little doubt that Bitten is back to being close to full form. He was everywhere during the series, creating breakaways on the penalty kill, protecting the puck, out-muscling bigger defenders on the boards, and stealing pucks on the forecheck.
A bigger challenges await the Bulldogs in Round Two. They will face the Niagara Icedogs, the fourth overall seed. But with the firepower Hamilton showed in this preliminary matchup, I have little doubt that Bitten's team is up to it.
Hayden Verbeek #38, C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Verbeek didn't have much of a chance to showcase his ability in this first round. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds got rid of the Saginaw Spirit in four quick contests.
Still, when talking about Verbeek, speed is the name of the game. He scored his lone goal in the series by blowing past his coverage on the rush, and deflecting a pass in. It barely took him a few steps to gain a massive separation from the defender trying to catch up to him.
The Greyhounds will face the Owen Sound Attack in the second round. It's unlikely the Attack will fare much better than the Spirit. The Greyhounds are a true powerhouse and have some depth scoring and great utility players like Verbeek. They are the team to beat.
Michael Pezzetta #13, LW/RW, Sarnia Sting
Pezzetta only has 11 points in his last 24 game, which is unexpected as he is playing with a lot more offensive talent with the Sarnia Sting. The good new is he didn't have to contribute too much to see his team advance in the playoffs, as the sting beat the Windsor Spitfires in six games.
Pezzetta scored his goal in that series by jumping on a loose puck and firing it in between the legs of the Spitfires' goalie.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL playoff performance
|Hayden Verbeek||C||OHL||Sault Ste. Marie||4||1||2||3|
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||7||1||3||4|
CHL season performance
|Hayden Verbeek||C||OHL||Sault Ste. Marie||67||30||31||61|
|Josh Brook||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||45||3||29||32|