Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is faring week by week. This edition will gravitate around the Habs’ prospects in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL), which hold four of the team’s future pieces in their programs.
The first player up is the only WHL prospect the Canadiens own after the team selected him in the first round in the 2020 draft.
Kaiden Guhle, LD — Prince Albert Raiders, WHL
Guhle’s performances so far have been up-and-down with the added minutes and responsibilities he has faced. In his first game back after missing the team’s season start for the Habs’ training camp, he earned two primary assists and was the game’s first star, shutting down the opposing team multiple times to preserve the 3-2 Raiders win.
The two games that followed, however, were less impressive: no points, three minor penalties taken, and a -3 in a 4-1 loss and a 3-2 shootout win.
In the two games since, Guhle has been trending back up with more controlled defensive reactions and better breakout passes, but he has yet to show a level of dominance since his first game. The Raiders’ captain currently sits at four assists in five games, which places him fourth in team scoring behind three forwards, and 18th among defencemen league-wide.
He has earned his fair share of power-play opportunities as well, as seen below, where he earns an assist on the man advantage. This will help Guhle get more time on the puck in order to fine-tune his pass receptions and small-ice distribution.
If he could improve upon his tendency to rush the play up the first avenue he sees when pressured, Guhle would maximize his chances of reaching the NHL and sticking to it. A defence prospect’s ability to make smart decisions with the puck under hard pressure and forechecks is key to their projection as NHL players as those are unavoidable elements of the type of hockey that awaits them at the next level.
Guhle could still reach the NHL without ironing that wrinkle out, but it would be an extra hurdle in his quest for a top-four role with the Canadiens and his general ability to maintain good performances over the span of his career.
Jan Myšák, C/LW — Hamilton Bulldogs, OHL
Myšák’s production so far of seven points through seven OHL games places him second on the Bulldogs’ scoring list behind undrafted 19-year-old Logan Morrisson. Compared to his performances in 2019-20, when he earned 25 points in 22 games playing in the same league for the same team, the lack of scoring progression within those two years could be a cause for concern.
Usually, a future core player will earn well above a point per game in Juniors by their second post-draft season, and with a bunch of games left to play, Myšák has the opportunity to catch up and earn points above his current 40th league-wide scoring pace.
Despite the lack of high-end production, Myšák has been doing a lot of small things better; he’s been winning board battles with smart positioning and stick lifts, has been effective in connecting with his linemates in transition, and generally managed to keep possession of the puck under pressure with quick edgework and stickhandling in tight spaces.
I’d like to see Myšák use the opposite flank more often, rather than force the play up his side. His shot selection could also use some fine-tuning but the Czech forward should be able to bring his production up to a rate that matches his talent over the next few weeks.
Arber Xhekaj, LD — Kitchener Rangers, OHL
Xhekaj’s story remains one of the most intriguing ones in the Habs’ pipeline. The prospect began his junior career as an undrafted free agent with the Kitchener Rangers, earning a spot out of camp. He then gradually went from the team’s group of depth defenders to the top pair within a season and a half.
During the pandemic, he worked at Costco, before accepting an invite to the Canadiens’ rookie camp and looking every part of a pro player. The team signed him to an entry-level deal on October 4th and promptly loaned him back to Kitchener to continue his development. The prospect now has five assists through seven games from the backend and has looked as solid defensively as he was with the Canadiens in September. He is used on both special team units and is often the defender out for the last minutes of any given game.
A side-by-side comparison of what poor (61) and good (63) defensive skating looks like: pic.twitter.com/538cctiF3Z— Jack Han (@JhanHky) September 25, 2021
Unfortunately, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenceman has one big issue that has become more and more prevalent within his defensive game since going back to Kitchener — he has little to no discipline in avoiding penalties. Cross-checks, doubty shoulder-checks, and the occasional choke-slam have all been on the menu in Xhekaj’s corner of the ice, which has put his team in unfortunate circumstances on more than one occasion.
After a game against the Guelph Storm, in which he choke-slammed a player to the ice for four minutes in the box, Xhekaj commented on how the team needed a spark and that the player he choke-slammed had been chirping him; “I just let him know who I was” were his exact words.
The Rangers, down 2-0, managed to fend off Xhekaj’s avoidable penalty and within two minutes of exiting the box, the defenceman had added two assists to help tie the game up. He had earned one more by the end of the Rangers’ 5-4 win, in which he was named the second star.
Xhekaj’s jump in offensive involvement compared to his 2019-20 OHL season (17 points in 51 games) shows promise concerning his outlook, but the prospect would be much more serviceable to his team from outside the penalty box. There is a fine line between character and recklessness and Xhekaj will need to learn to toe it carefully if he wishes to be an effective momentum creator at the NHL level.
Daniil Sobolev, RD — Windsor Spitfires, OHL
Sobolev’s season is off to a cold start as the prospect only has one assist through seven games and stands at a worrying -6 at the moment. This includes a -5 performance as his Spitfires lost 6-3 to the Sarnia Sting in his first game back. The team, in general, has started the season poorly as they have lost five of seven so far, but Sobolev has noticeably been struggling to adapt to his new environment.
When COVID-19 shut down the OHL entirely last year, Sobolev was left with nowhere to play after he had chosen to sign with Windsor shortly before the league shut its doors. It might just be a while before he warms up and we see the most of Sobolev’s abilities, but he could definitely be playing better hockey at the moment.
EOTP’s Jared Book wrote a great piece on Sobolev after the draft. The right-shot blueliner, who grew a ton in his draft year to reach 6’0” and 210 pounds, has always had a physical and pillar-like presence on the backend but had some improvements to make on the offensive side and was willing to come to North America to do so as Russian coaches and development programs often heavily discourage offence from their defencemen. The stars didn’t align — quite the opposite — and Sobolev now finds himself in need of catching up.
Hopefully, he manages to find his game in the OHL and develop his offensive side as he could massively improve his career prospects by becoming an above-average stickhandler, passer, and shooter.
OHL/WHL Season To Date
|Jan Mysak||2021||C/LW||OHL||Hamilton Bulldogs||7||3||4||7||2|
|Arber Xhekaj||2021||LD||OHL||Kitchener Rangers||7||0||5||5||22|
|Daniil Sobolev||2021||RD||OHL||Windsor Spitfires||7||0||1||1||4|
|Kaiden Guhle||2021||LD||WHL||Prince Albert Raiders||5||0||4||4||14|