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Catching The Torch: Jack Smith still adapting to the USHL pace

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The forward is getting accustomed to a new level of play, while Cole Caufield is looking for new methods to create offence.

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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 (NCAA) level.

Jack Smith isn’t the first star high-school scorer to struggle early on as a USHL rookie. Blake Biondi, Mr. Minessota Hockey himself, only managed three points in 10 games with the Sioux City Musketeers last year (that’s the number of points he averaged per game with Hermantown High). And Jack Gorniak, currently in the middle of a breakout year in terms of production with the Wisconsin Badgers, didn’t score in his appearances with the Lincoln Stars in his draft year. He was about the same age as Smith is now.

All this to say that, yes, Smith could already be taking commands with the Sioux Fall Stampede, rewarding the Habs brass’s confidence with immediate results. That was the perfect scenario, but a bit of an unrealistic one. It takes time for players to adapt to the increased speed of the USHL. They are no longer big fish in a small pond anymore; everyone around them is talented.

Actually, in the case of Smith, the players lining up in front of him are often more skilled than the ones beside him. The Stampede currently stands in last place of the Western Conference of the USHL. The team spends a bit too much time playing with a man down and has trouble keeping the puck from entering the net.

Smith can be a big part of the solution for the team. As he pivots one of the top two lines, if he starts generating more consistent offence (and tightens up defensively), we could see the entire team take a leap forward.

I probably overrated his skating in my draft review. I thought it projected as NHL average based on the mechanics, but the zoomed-in cameras of high-school rinks fooled me. In reality, Smith is your typical USHL skater. He hunches over and lacks ankle flexion, which means that he has to expend more energy to get to top speed and maintain it. In this start to the season, Smith has generally struggled to separate from the opposition both in open ice and in close quarters.

Defenders don’t have to retreat when he attacks off the rush. They can close their gap and push him to the outside quite easily. Away from the puck, Smith also misses some scoring opportunities as he can’t quite get around the last line of defence to attack the space behind it. In the first clip above, a slightly faster Smith would have been able to accelerate and then slow down to get in a better shooting position by turning his hips to prepare his one-timer.

This average USHL stride is not something the forward will fix in one season. To create more chances for himself and teammates, Smith will have to rely on his hands and brain.

Good news! Those two elements were the driving forces behind his high-school production.

Of course, the USHL speed of play is a few notches above West Salem’s. In his first few games, Smith’s passing execution wasn’t up to his usual level. He locked himself into suboptimal plays and missed a few open teammates, or hit them a half-second too late, which reduced the quality of the scoring chances.

There are three elements that Smith could work on to improve the dangerousness of his passes.

Scanning the ice more before getting the puck would enable him to not only register all open teammates, but the positioning of their sticks so that he can pinpoint the exact spot to send the puck to, to allow them an easy play.

He should also keep the puck on his forehand when there are no defenders immediately pressuring him. This weekend, ‘‘dusting off the puck’’ or going forehand-backhand needlessly delayed a few of his passes and made them less threatening. The defence had time to close out on his target.

Lastly, he himself needs to exploit space to give better passing options to teammates. He tends to line up with them and attack at the same speed. By slowing down into open ice a few steps behind the carrier, he could give that linemate a larger passing window and target. In turn, he would earn more time to settle the puck and make a perfect next play.

The above video also includes examples from last weekend of Smith one-touching or two-touching the puck to teammates. He has that ability. Trevor Timmins called him an ‘‘elite playmaker’’ at the high-school level last season. From watching the prospect, I very much agree. It will probably take a bit of time for him to integrate the rhythm of USHL play.

Below are the three points that Smith scored in his first seven games with the Stampede. You can see him thread the puck through under the stick of a defender to a teammate attacking the slot for the goal.

The play that is most indicative of Smith’s potential is the first one. He grabbed the puck off an offensive-zone turnover and attacked the goalie one-on-one. Most USHL players would head straight for the net there, but Smith chose a weaving approach. He threatened to cut in front for a back-hand; an idea that slipped in the mind of the goaltender, who didn’t cover the near-post fully. The forward scored by taking advantage of the opening.

At his best, Smith combines precision and misdirection. Hopefully, we see him use those two qualities in the next few weeks and pile up points.

Cole Caufield, RW, Wisconsin Badgers

It wouldn’t be an edition of Catching The Torch without some mention of Cole Caufield, who was named Big Ten First Star last week. The forward took advantage of Wisconsin’s matchup versus a weakened Penn State, a team that lost a few of their top forwards in the off-season.

He potted four goals in the back-to-back matches. The first two, especially, were impressive displays of accuracy, with him dangling defenders and knocking pucks out of mid-air to set up his top-shelf releases.

An injured Wisconsin team then faltered against Arizona State on the weekend. Caufield tried his best to generate offence, but his multiples individual efforts proved unfruitful.

We will delve deeper into the play of the Habs’ 2019 first-rounder in the coming weeks.

NCAA/USHL weekly stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 0 0 0 0
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 0 0 0 0
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 2 0 1 1
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Tri-City 0 0 0 0
Jack Smith 2020 C USHL Sioux Falls 0 0 0 0
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 0 0 0 0
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 0 0 0 0
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 0 0 0 0

NCAA/USHL Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 31 30 22 52
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 31 6 7 13
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 53 29 72 101
Sean Farrell (playoffs) 2020 LW USHL Chicago 6 1 4 5
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon/Tri-City 43 13 21 34
Jack Smith 2020 C USHL Sioux Falls 47 7 6 13
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 18 2 10 12
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 19 6 13 19
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 13 5 4 9
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 25 2 3 5
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 16 6 5 11

Goalie weekly stats

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0

Goalie Season to date

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 26-16-2-1 2.48 0.908 2
Jakub Dobes (playoffs) 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0