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Catching The Torch: OHL update - Jan Mysak gets much-needed offensive support, Arber Xhekaj to Hamilton, & more

An update on the Habs’ prospects developing in the Ontario Hockey League: Jan Mysak, Arber Xhekaj, Logan Mailloux, Daniil Sobolev and Joe Vrbetic.

Terry Wilson / OHL Images

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 be looking at the Habs’ Ontario Hockey League prospects, as the league’s trade deadline brought with it a bunch of interesting changes for their development and success.

We start off with the player who will likely benefit the most from the Hamilton Bulldogs’ pricey shopping spree, which brought two of the Habs’ prospects together to play on the same roster and added arguably the best player in the league in Mason McTavish.

Jan Mysak, LW/RW/C — Hamilton Bulldogs

In the Bulldogs’ game on Tuesday against the Niagara IceDogs, it became abundantly clear how simply surrounding Mysak with high-end prospects makes a major difference in his habits, his results, and his game overall. The OHL team’s addition of McTavish in exchange for two younger prospects and a total of six draft picks has allowed Mysak to play with a first-line centre who can score, and score a lot.

The team also benefited from 2021 third-round pick Ryan Winterton’s return to play in his first game since the U18 World Championship in May, 2021 after a shoulder injury kept him out of the lineup for the start of this season. The three combined for 10 points in the team’s 6-2 win against the IceDogs, with Mysak scoring a goal and adding two assists.

Winterton was bumped up with McTavish and Mysak when it became clear that he could keep up with them, and the three put together an impressive offensive performance, in which Mysak was able to showcase his ability to create lanes and get the puck to dangerous areas.

This play by Mysak is exactly what he needs to keep doing. His crossovers are fluid and allow him to build up speed at an angle while being ready to change directions if need be. When he uses forward strides to make his way up and down the ice, he can lag a step behind due to sub-par mechanics, but the way he uses his toes on his outside edges to give himself an extra push is a small detail that goes a long way in building speed and maintaining agility.

On top of that, the forward delays just the right amount of time, showing decent play-reading and hockey sense by throwing the puck with weight in an area that only his streaking teammate can access. That level of anticipation is there in his game, and now he’s playing with forwards who have both the pace and the awareness to hit those seams and get their sticks ready.

If Winterton-McTavish-Mysak stays a line until the end of the season, there’s no telling how many points the Habs prospect will earn this year.

Arber Xhekaj, LD — Hamilton Bulldogs

The former Kitchener Rangers blue-liner was the second major acquisition of the Bulldogs after McTavish, as the team traded another five picks and Navrin Mutter for the services of the 6’4”, 225-pound defenceman. The Habs’ undrafted signee now joins a serious contender for major honours, which traded a total of 11 picks to maximize its chances this year.

The 21-year-old had a typical night at the office, earning an assist on Winterton’s first goal of the season, taking a minor penalty for a cross-check and firing a puck at the goalie after the whistle, all before the first period was even done. Xhekaj does everything he can to rile up the opposing team, often at the price of a suspension or two.

The main thing that Xhekaj needs to improve to make himself a surefire NHL defenceman is his decision-making. He has a heavy shot and a fluid stride, but the way he chooses his moments to join the rush or step up on a puck-carrier lacks afterthought. His decisions are spontaneous rather than layered, his ideas executed with aggression rather than purpose. If that’s fine-tuned, he might find a support role and stick to it.

Logan Mailloux, RD — London Knights

Mailloux’s return to play for the Knights was officialized when he joined the team for a weekend back-to-back against the Flint Firebirds and the Kitchener Rangers, respectively. The prospect earned two assists in his first game, followed by two goals against the Rangers the next night, using his heavy wristshot while closing down from the point to put the puck in the back of the net on both occasions.

The main thing that concerns me about Mailloux’s on-ice game is his anticipation and hockey IQ. The easiest way to identify those elements in a prospect is by looking at their passes, and the way they execute them. In Mailloux’s case, there isn’t any misdirection, he rarely identifies area-pass options into space, and he often goes for the first lane he spots without absorbing pressure first to free up his receiver.

He can get away with it at the OHL level, where players aren’t as quick to read plays and get in the way, but at the NHL level, he can’t make his intentions as obvious as he does. His passes will likely be picked away in the neutral zone, his shots likely blocked, and his dekes likely read, unless he learns to adapt on-the-fly and predict the right play to make. This was a concern when I watched him in the HockeyEttan, Sweden’s third division, before his conviction, and still was a concern in his first games back for London.

Mailloux also tends to pick up on the wrong threats and take himself out of position due to a lack of scanning off the puck. As opponents’ routes get more calculated and fluid in higher levels, Mailloux could find himself making the wrong reads and missing assignments more often.

In terms of his physical tools, he has some decent attributes. He’s large and has a powerful stride, his defensive body-positioning helps him dislodge pucks along the boards, his puck-protection is above-average, and he has the ability to eat up many minutes a night, but none of that will lead to much without correcting his glaring lack of forward thinking on the ice, which led many scouts to exclude him from the top two rounds in early-season draft rankings last year.

Cupping his hand to his ear after scoring his first goal post-suspension doesn’t scream personal growth, either. I’m not sure how much he’s learned in the four months he spent completing online training sessions and being followed by sports psychologists, but it seems to have convinced the OHL and many fans that he’s ready to move onto better things, while leaving the victim with very little to help in terms of closure.

Daniil Sobolev, LD — Windsor Spitfires

Sobolev’s plan of coming to North America to hone his offensive skills away from the repressive methods of KHL coaches is working out less-than-ideally, as the prospect only has one assist in his last nine games, despite Windsor winning eight of them. One of those wins was a 10-4 victory over the Soo Greyhounds, in which Sobolev was still kept off the scoresheet and picked up a fighting major.

The issue with Sobolev is simply a lack of offensive skills, as the prospect doesn’t show as much creativity with the puck and doesn’t have the high-end vision that leads to regular points at the Junior level.

An interesting talent-acquisition theory is the 10,000-Hour Rule, which stipulates that simply spending enough time practising something will integrate it as part of a person’s skillset and help it become second-nature. Between spending 20 minutes a night on a second pair in Windsor and spending seven minutes a night in the KHL, he’s more likely to reach the development time required to hone those skills and make them strengths in the OHL. Then he can work on elevating those skills to the pro level, once he’s established a more solid baseline. That’s likely the development plan for Sobolev at the moment.

Joe Vrbetic, G — North Bay Battalion

Vrbetic had a rough start on New Year’s Eve, getting pulled after allowing three goals on 14 shots. The Hamilton-native’s next two starts showed his ability to bounce back, as Vrbetic made 71 saves on 76 shots to earn two clutch post-regulation wins against the Mississauga Steelheads and Barrie Colts, respectively. This brought his save percentage up to .904 on the year, to go along with his 2.82 goals-against average in 23 games.

The Battalion’s 15-4-4 record with Vrbetic in goal contrasts massively with his tandem partner (3-7-0), which is always promising to see from a prospect. He covers the top of the net well with his massive frame, but lacks proper technique and footwork when dealing with changing shot angles and pucks that are tighter to his body. He’s been both alert and calm, however, which is often a good combination for larger netminders.

OHL Season To Date

Player Draft Pos. League Team GP G A P PIM
Player Draft Pos. League Team GP G A P PIM
Jan Mysak 2021 C/LW OHL Hamilton Bulldogs 26 18 16 34 4
Arber Xhekaj 2021 LD OHL Hamilton Bulldogs 19 6 12 18 56
Daniil Sobolev 2021 RD OHL Windsor Spitfires 25 1 9 10 17
Logan Mailloux 2021 RD OHL London Knights 2 2 2 4 2
Joe Vrbetic 2021 G OHL North Bay Battalion 23 GAA: 2.82 sv%: .904 Record: 15-4-4

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!