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Catching The Torch: OHL prospects update — Jan Mysak, Arber Xhekaj, Daniil Sobolev, and more

Catching up on the Habs prospects playing in the Ontario Hockey League, and what to expect from them in the upcoming weeks.

NHL: OCT 02 Preseason - Senators at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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.

In this segment, we’ll be keeping up with the Habs’ prospects currently developing in the OHL: forward Jan Mysak, and defencemen Arber Xhekaj and Daniil Sobolev. Their seasons have changed since our last look at their performance as a group, and a review of their game is due.

We’ll statt off with one of the three Habs prospects to represent their nation at the upcoming World Junior Championship.

Jan Mysak, C/W — Kingston Frontenacs

Mysak had started his 2021-22 campaign with bouts of offensive inconsistency. Only three goals and four assists in seven games, as a third-year OHL prospect, was not even on par with his own rookie season in the league, in which he outpaced his current production with 25 points in 22 contests.

Watching him play, it was easy to identify a prospect who was still finding his bearings next to less-skilled teammates than he had before. He was learning to receive pucks in his skates again, and was passing into areas where a player should be, when they weren’t. His shot selection was a result of his linemates’ lack of aid as well, as the prospect often found himself boxed out of the slot with no one to pass to.

Since then, however, the prospect has earned 14 goals and 10 assists in 18 games, increasing his production by 33% after finding his footing and adapting to his new linemates. His adaptation to their habits made him more confident when passing to them, and is an element that is promising when projecting Mysak’s future as a Canadiens player.

His 6’1” frame filled out well as the prospect looks much more stocky than Elite Prospects’ reported 181 pounds. He can shrug off OHL defencemen with little to no effort, and has further tuned his sense for where and how to apply pressure defensively. In the last 18 games, Mysak has been putting these tools to use in ways that he wasn’t previously comfortable executing without putting himself behind the play.

His playmaking and his shot are good enough to make a positive impact against men one day, but his acceleration and speed will need to improve if he wants to maximize his chances of reaching his full potential. Short extensions on both forward strides and crossovers mixed with a tendency to lock his feet when stickhandling make him less dynamic than he could be, and harms his ability to put everything together at the next level.

That’s his only major roadblock, as everything else, especially his mind for the game, is pro-ready.

Arber Xhekaj, LD — Kitchener Rangers

I started off last month’s update on Xhekaj by stating that the prospect needed to make his game a bit less ‘90s-friendly by toning it down a notch in corners. He would regularly put his team in trouble with roughing, boarding, and cross-checking penalties, and would get into fights at less-than-ideal moments. He was suspended for five games earlier in the season for slewfooting.

Well, the suspensions continue, as the prospect got into a brawl with heavyweight Mark Woolley on December 3 and made a gesture which initially resulted in him being being sidelined indefinitely by the OHL (he somehow still played for the Rangers two days later, as the suspension was announced after that game):

As it turns out, the game in which he was meant to return was postponed due to COVID-19 cases on Owen Sound’s side, but he is set to get back into action soon for Kitchener and resume his season. To add context to this fight, the previous game between these two teams resulted in Woolley beating down a couple of Rangers while Xhekaj was out of the lineup, and taunting the opponent’s bench by repeatedly yelling “Who’s next?” while skating to the penalty box.

This fight was a continuation of that sequence of events, and the OHL’s decision to go from an indefinite suspension down to three games must have been a result of a discussion in that regard.

Xhekaj’s 13 points in 16 games as of December 15 represent a 244% increase in his scoring pace compared to his previous season (17 points in 51 games). That, combined with the impressive pre-season showing that earned him an entry-level contract with the Habs, makes for a very decent year to date for the prospect.

The towering blue-liner is known for his ability to stifle opponents’ zone entries and clear the front of the net, but these same abilities have allowed him to ensure that his team gets the puck into the opponent’s zone. From there, he uses his booming slapshot and his lateral distribution to earn himself a couple of points.

I want to see Xhekaj open up lanes a bit more and use his hands to carry the puck up the ice, rather than just to bash skulls with. The validity of the OHL’s decision to suspend Xhekaj is an interesting debate, but at the end of the day, you can’t help your team from the press box. No matter why he ends up out of the lineup, Xhekaj’s regular absences from the Rangers’ roster can’t be helping them much, especially since he is one of their alternate captains and their most prolific defenceman.

Daniil Sobolev, RD — Windsor Spitfires

After only earning an assist in seven games to start the year, despite joining the Spitfires from Russia with the expressed purpose of improving his offence, Sobolev had me doubting his projectability. However, he’s picked up the pace offensively with nine points in his last 13 games, including his first OHL goal against the Erie Otters in a 5-4 loss.

At 6’0” and 209 pounds already as an 18-year-old, Sobolev’s aggressiveness on puck-carriers blends well with his physical attributes, as he stifles offence efficiently and makes the slot a difficult area to access.

His play with the puck has improved slightly, most notably in the possession-driving department, although he still struggles to pass through layers and identify high-danger situations, Sobolev can skate pretty well and has been making short, effective passes to streaking teammates in order to keep the puck out of his zone.

Sobolev will need to be more controlled with his stick- and body-positioning to avoid being caught by inside or outside cuts. He can commit too early and be left in the dust, which doesn’t currently bode well for his potential, as the one thing every defenceman in the NHL needs to have is the ability to react quickly to changes in direction.

A word on Logan Mailloux’s potential return to play

There are indications that Mailloux’s suspension from the OHL might be coming to an end in January. At the very least, there will be a review of his case in order to see whether the league feels comfortable welcoming him back as a member of their hockey product, as the prospect can apply for reinstatement starting January 1.

Mailloux was suspended due to his illegal sharing of sexual images taken of an anonymous victim without her consent while he was loaned to a Swedish third-division team last year, a crime which resulted in the vilification of the victim and her family by many people within their community.

The Habs’ first-round pick in 2021 was fined approximately $1,650 USD by the Swedish judicial system since he was 17 at the time, and the OHL decided to refuse him the right to play in their league for the year. The Knights’ blue=liner himself seemed to have taken a small step in the right direction by asking teams not to draft him in order to give him time to get the help he needs, but he was taken off of that route by the Habs in their quest for a large, mobile, right-handed defenceman.

Whether Mailloux comes back to the OHL this season or doesn’t, one thing is clear: the only victim of cancel culture in this situation is the woman whose reputation was ruined. Mailloux is a first-round draft pick, in arguably the biggest hockey market in the world. History shows that he’ll be fine, no matter what.

Thanks for reading — follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to keep up with the rest of my scouting work!