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Catching The Torch: Jack Gorniak is benefiting from a more assertive approach

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The junior centreman has unlocked some offence this year. A few adjustments could help him score even more.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 24 Wisconsin at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Montreal Canadiens prospects playing at the Junior (OHL, WHL), and collegiate (NCAA) level.

Last year, if you wanted to see Jack Gorniak’s point total for the season, you had to scroll all the way to the bottom of Wisconsin’s stats page. Now? He’s right there, tied for third on the team’s board. We already know that Cole Caufield will lead the Badgers in points at the end of the season — he added a goal and two assists to his sheet last week — but if Gorniak continues his production pace, and gets luckier, maybe he stays in the mix for that second spot.

It’s a good sign of progression for Montreal’s 2018 fourth-rounder. He again competed on the fourth line in recent matchups; the more defensive trio of the Badgers. However, despite his position, the forward now seems to trust himself to make the plays he wouldn’t in as a freshman or sophomore, and that trust has spread to the coaching staff.

In December, Gorniak received a major bump in usage following the injury to a key forward, top-line centre Ty Pelton-Byce. The Habs prospect played second-line minutes, recording three points in the four games played in his place.

It’s impressive what a little more ice time translating to a little more confidence can do for a player. We often forget that it's hard for players to outperform their position. You play on the fourth line? Better not make too many mistakes; a demotion doesn’t just mean less ice time, but a visit to the press box. Wisconsin often plays with 13 forwards, too. There is another ready option there for the coaching staff if they don’t like what they see out of one of their elements. So it is expected for Gorniak to not feature on the scoresheet as much as some of the complementary top-six players. His situation doesn’t lend itself to high production.

The good news for Gorniak is that his defensive pressure probably provides too much value to Wisconsin for Tony Granato to ever take him out of the lineup completely. He has become a staple on the Badgers’ penalty kill, harassing attackers as they try to rush up ice and install their offensive presence, and jumping from one opponent to the next in-zone to force them to rush their plays. This established role could help him step up offensively in situations where he might have immediately reloaded defensively in years past.

On Saturday, Gorniak scored a great goal. It came off a sequence where he won a race to a loose puck by bodying an Arizona State player off the puck before attacking the slot to receive a return pass from a teammate, a pass that he deflected into the cage before the goalie could reposition.

His off-puck reads and decision-making have improved this season. He identifies space and supports plays better. That being said, this area of his game is still more of a weakness than a strength. He misses many offensive opportunities each game.

In the video below, I highlighted some of his decisions from Saturday: the good ones, the sequences where he supports plays well and moves the play forward toward scoring chances, and also the shifts where he kills the play due to poor positioning or puck movement.

Decision-making is a complex element to evaluate; many different issues can lead to bad choices: poor scanning habits, not knowing what to look for, a lack of anticipation or self-awareness (a player misjudging his skill), etc. Gorniak knows what his strengths are and how to use them, but on Saturday, many of his plays failed because he didn’t look at the ice sufficiently before receiving the puck or sending it away. In other sequences, he didn’t anticipate the plays of his teammates. He can’t know what they will do at all times, but many on-ice events are predictable because they are drilled in practice and follow certain systems. I tried to pick the sequences where Gorniak could have realistically known what was coming next.

One specific thing the Habs prospect could work on is spacing. He tends to get too close to teammates when he wants to get the puck, so defenders have an easy time congesting the area he is in. So when the puck does come to him off the cycle, for example, containing him becomes easy. He does the same thing in possession, too. He skates toward a teammate before feeding him the puck, telegraphing his play and bringing his own defender closer to that teammate, complicating his next play.

Here are a couple of other examples of rush plays by Gorniak, one where he makes a great read — his teammate drives the net, pushes back the defence, and he immediately takes the opportunity to cut to the middle — and another one where he simply tries to outskate the defender in the wide lane. If he had cut to centre ice in that other sequence, he could have created a two-on-one against a defender with his teammate, giving him a better opportunity at a scoring chance after entering the offensive zone.

Next year, when Caufield leaves the team, Gorniak will likely be asked to fill a bigger role, especially since he will be a senior. Improving his scanning, his anticipation, his skating routes, and his spacing would give him a significant offensive boost and open up the ice to use his skills: his way above-average NCAA quickness, his hands, and his ability to weaponize his body in close quarters.

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