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Catching The Torch: Jayden Struble is developing his total game at an impressive rate

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There were a few things Struble needed to work on after his first season of NCAA hockey. Each one has seen an improvement.

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Kevin Light/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), and collegiate (NCAA) level.

Some prospects barely evolve from the time of their draft to their professional career. They build on their strengths and carve themselves a role with a team, but their style, their identity, and what makes them successful remains unchanged. Others, like Jayden Struble, have a world of possibilities ahead of them. Their package of skills is simply too great to slot in any particular category. We can just watch and marvel as each new game brings new discoveries.

Struble projects as an above-average NHL skater, an above-average NHL shooter, and maybe even an above-average handler. If that last term is used to describe his ability to handle opponents physically, then it projects as significantly above average.

The word ‘projects’ is only used as a way to stay conservative here. In reality, the mechanics are already there and the strength is already there; Struble could compete and beat many of the players in the top league of the world in a battle of pure skill alone.

We heard about his rawness, the chaotic nature of his game, and the occasional lapses in decision-making and mental engagement, and those weaknesses are what could prevent him from reaching the NHL. He took quite a leap in fixing those issues this off-season, however, reinforcing multiple areas of his game, ranging from the technical to the tactical. Those improvements, combined with more power-play time and ice time in general, have translated to impressive production. The defenceman already has seven points in six games — as many as he scored in the first 17 games of last season — and, as is always the case with him, it all still feels like scratching the surface of his potential.

Let’s start with his offence. Three elements have combined to make Struble more effective with the puck this season: his higher pace of play, his usage of teammates, and his offensive manipulations.

Struble’s motor has always churned high, at least in possession. Even in his freshman season, he sprinted up ice whenever he could on breakouts and carried the puck to the offensive zone multiple times per game. If the opposition didn’t give him a runway, however, he felt stuck, often moving the puck back behind his goal line for his partner to find the exit in his place.

I saw no instances of that in recent games. Struble looked for a quick, controlled way to move the puck. As his awareness of outlets developed, his short passing game improved. He now more often hits targets through opponents, looks off his chosen target to prevent the opposition from closing lanes to it, and uses the wall as a play-driving tool, a way to bypass multiple opponents and reach teammates in open space.

His physicality is ever-present. He walls off the puck from the opposition, leading forecheckers to slam against a Struble wall as they try to pursue Northeastern's puck-carriers. When no exit path presents itself, the defenceman can bulldoze one through opponents.

Overall, Struble is more diverse and more inclined to use available options, like kicking the puck to teammates as the defence collapses on him off the rush, exchanging with them in the offensive zone, using them as screens to shake defenders, and connecting with them near the net.

He enthusiastically activated in the offensive zone in his first year as well, but now, without losing an ounce of his spirit, he moves more purposefully, patiently, and economically, surveying shooting lanes before firing, letting defenders take an extra step toward him to better explode around them, and using more fakes to freeze them and threaten the slot.

The first sequence in the video below is especially impressive — almost Mattias Norlinder-like. Struble descends from the top of the zone to meet the puck coming off the stick of a teammate on the half-wall. His blade doesn’t stop it in front of him; a defender is coming right at him, and catching the disc ahead would only expose it to a pokecheck. Instead, Struble receives at his hip in a shooting position. The defender, feeling the threat of a release, gets in a blocking position, taking up space, stick in front of him to deflect the potential shot to the rafters. But the shot doesn’t come. Struble abruptly turns away upon reception, stepping around the planted opponent, cutting him right at the hands to prevent a pursuit. With this move, Struble gains the top of the right circle and fires. His shot, kept purposely low, rebounds in front of the net toward multiple teammates.

His awareness didn’t just expand offensively, but also defensively. He scans for attackers and adapts his positioning to contain them a bit better. He also uses more shuffle-steps to more precisely match the movement of his check in-zone (those steps allow for faster course correction), and generally reacts more quickly to switch to different attackers and block their paths to the front of the net. Boxing out is Struble’s best ability as a defender.

All in all, the defenceman’s game has received slight but noticeable upgrades in most, if not all, of its facets. Don’t expect to see a totally transformed player if you catch him on a game night; the defenceman still at times shows the carelessness, the almost insouciance that characterized his high-school days. He stills floats away from the play, throws pucks to covered teammates, or rapidly skates it into dead ends, but if you do tune in — and you should — spotting #3 in red or white should now be easy.

More and more, the game flows through Struble when he hits the ice. His teammates look for his stick as they know the offence will only grow more dangerous when the puck’s in his control. More puck-touches, more ice time, more experience and confidence, and a better understanding of tactics and his strengths all help Struble push his development forward.

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