Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is progressing week by week.
This time around, we’ll take a general look at this week’s news surrounding the Habs’ prospects, as there have been some great storylines to explore of late. First off, two of them have been officially been crested with the C for their respective National Junior Teams, and both fully deserve the honours.
Kaiden Guhle: Captain Canada
Was the suspense ever anything more than a formality? The Habs’ only Western Hockey League (WHL) prospect was recently announced for Canada’s coveted role of team captain, but it has been a long time in the making, with TSN’s Craig Button hinting to it as early as August 16, 2021.
As he mentions, Guhle was Canada’s captain at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and also wore the C for the Prince Albert Raiders up until his trade to the Edmonton Oil Kings at the beginning of December. The prospect’s leadership qualities have been identified and utilized on almost every team he’s been a part of, and his commanding presence both on and off the ice are a reflection of his unyielding demeanour.
Guhle’s ability to single-handedly shut down opposing zone entries and offensive-zone setups makes his game tick, as he regularly breaks up plays and creates loose pucks for his teammates to benefit from. He will likely earn a role on the Canadians’ top penalty-killing pair as a result, as well as benefiting from the occasional power-play shift.
With many offensive-leaning blue-liners to choose from (Power, Zellweger, Cormier, Lambos), Team Canada will have many options to explore for their power play, but Guhle should have the opportunity to place his name above theirs in the pecking order if he plays the position well. These tournaments are so often about who’s hot in the moment, rather than who is more fit for each position. Canada has a long-standing history of weird roster decisions, however (Brandt Clarke will be the first to attest), and could very well go with someone like Ronan Seeley instead to serve as quarterback.
Team practice— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) December 22, 2021
Perfetti - Wright - Bourgault
Johnson - McTavish - Bourque
Neighbours - Greig - Sourdif
Cuylle - Desnoyers - Guenther
Stankoven - Bedard
Power - Zellweger
Guhle - Cormier
Sebrango - Lambos
O’Rourke - Seeley
Pre-tourney game tomorrow
As he stands, Guhle is sharing the second pair with offensive-minded blueliner Lukas Cormier, behind Power and Zellweger who will likely remain glued at the hip for the rest of the tournament. It’s a good spot for Guhle to play, especially if he can feed off of his partner’s tendencies to activate from the point and lead the rush. Cormier is Xavier Simoneau and William Trudeau’s teammate in Charlottetown, so I’ve had more than my fair share of viewings of him, and I can’t think of many better prospects to complement Guhle’s game.
If the two can build up some chemistry and get used to each other’s habits, they could be team Canada’s first pair by the end of the World Junior Championship.
Jan Myšák — Captain Czechia (Yes, that’s what it’s called now)
If you missed the memo, team Czechia has advised organizations and journalists to desist the use of the term ‘Czech Republic’ when referring to the nation’s hockey teams. This includes their World Juniors team, which they recently announced would be captained by the Habs’ 2020 second-round pick for the second year in a row.
As last tournament’s captain, Myšák selection this time around was far from a head-scratcher as his experience has only grown over the past year. He played almost a full AHL season with Laval and has taken over as the Hamilton Bulldogs’ alternate captain in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), becoming a key offensive piece for the team since then. Myšák is still the team’s top forward and should be their leading scorer at this tourney, barring a breakout performance by one of his teammates.
Jan Myšák hopes to lead Czechia to a medal at 2022 World Juniors— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) December 21, 2021
"I play for my country. I'll try & represent my country well. For me, it's an honour to wear the [Czechia] national jersey."
✍️: Russ Cohen (@sportsology) & it's on Rinkside.
: https://t.co/WClu7Hsuwv pic.twitter.com/mJC4bVQp7E
Myšák has 17 goals and 14 assists in 25 games so far with the Habs’ former AHL affiliate, and is the first Habs prospect to play for the Bulldogs after they became a Junior team in 2015-16. He had a shaky start to his season, as we mentioned last week, but it was mainly due to being stuck playing with teammates who weren’t hitting the right spots on the ice and who were sending pucks his way in haphazard fashion.
His lack of separation speed, the only major setback in his game, should be less evident against similar-aged competition than it was last season in Laval, and he should be able to put up a higher production rate than his three points (two goals, one assists) in five World Junior Championship contests last winter. I expect a big step forward from Myšák, who has been vocal about wanting to lead the young guns properly in this tournament:
“I’ve been in this tournament for three years but this year we have a lot of first-year players. We have guys who are able to be drafted this year. I am an experienced guy, and I will try and help them. [...] Some players will have a bit of pressure. I’ll be there for every player on my team.”
— Jan Myšák, quoted in Jan Myšák hopes to lead Czechia to a medal at 2022 World Juniors, EP Rinkside/Russ Cohen, Dec. 21, 2021
(A couple of Czech names you should keep in mind, especially with the Habs’ season being what it is so far: defenceman David Jiricek and forward Jiri Kulich; two excellent draft-eligibles who should be available in the range the Habs are selecting in the first and second round, respectively. Jiricek especially would be an outstanding top-10 pick, with first-pair upside.)
Xavier Simoneau returns from injury
Only 13 days after Simoneau was reported to have suffered an upper-body injury which would sideline him for four weeks, he was back in the lineup for the Charlottetown Islanders. The forward lost no time getting back on the scoresheet, earning an assist on December 17, followed by a three-point game (two goals, one assist) the next day.
Both games were against the Cape Breton Eagles, who currently sit last in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) standings, which was exactly what Simoneau needed to get back into the thick of it. Simoneau’s Islanders are the best team in the league, with a 22-7-2 record so far this year.
A lot of good things happen in this clip, which was Simoneau’s first goal since his return. Mainly, the forward displays outstanding play-reading and intensity to hunt pucks down and keep them heading up the ice. The way he cuts to the middle on the initial zone entry is something that is often a sign of translatable offence in NHL forwards, and his motor allows him to create multi-possession shifts in the opponent’s zone — retrieve, pass, get open, shoot, rinse, repeat.
He’s now up to 46 points in 24 games, a rate which has kept him among the top six QMJHL scoring leaders despite missing seven games so far. His 1.92 points per game are tied for second in the league, and he leads all players in assists with 33, two more than his nearest rival, with six games in hand.
Playmaking is his bread and butter, but don’t sleep on his shot. He can wire pucks and pick his corners with ease.
If this season carries on the way it has so far for Simoneau, there’s no question that he’ll be poised to join the Laval Rocket next year and start making an immediate impact. I’m a big believer in Simoneau’s game, size be damned (5’7”, 180 pounds). When a player shows that much intensity and drive, on top of having an impressive offensive touch, you can’t help but root for him.
He’ll take a puck to the face if it means blocking the shot, and throws his weight around intelligently while also being adept at breaking up plays with his stick. Mindset-wise, he has everything the Canadiens strive for in a player — character, maturity, defensive involvement, consistency, it’s all there. It’s like he was made to be a Hab.
I truly hope it all works out for Simoneau, and that he keeps rebounding after injuries. He can’t avoid them playing the way he does, but his tendency so far to out-pace his expected recovery times indicates that he is able to follow medical advice and is willing to put the effort in to return to the lineup quickly. Coming back two weeks early is one thing, but being healthy two weeks early is another. Simoneau was healthy and thriving that weekend, and the scoreboard reflected that.
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!