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.
It’s been a busy couple of days for both the Habs’ prospects and the people in charge of drafting them. A lot of things have unfolded in the last week, culminating with the announcement of Kent Hughes as the 18th general manager in the team’s history, but there are examples throughout the organization of how change can often bring improvements.
Speaking of which, the following prospect has benefited greatly from a change of scenery, joining a contender and performing admirably so far with his new team.
Kaiden Guhle: Growing his game, one pinch at a time
Guhle’s trade from the Prince Albert Raiders to the Edmonton Oil Kings has been useful in evaluating what the Habs’ 2020 first-round pick can do when supported by a core of high-end talent. Since Edmonton acquired his services in early December, the 20-year-old played three games for them, captained Team Canada at the World Juniors for a short while, then returned in mid-January to play three more matches, earning seven points in his six games for his new club.
Especially watching his most recent game against his former team, it was clear that Guhle was one of the main reasons the Raiders were as strong defensively as they were at the beginning of the year. Despite a lingering bit of panic in his play with the puck, Guhle has been close to irreproachable without it.
#GoHabsGo Kaiden Guhle has this thing with high-pressure situations that I still want to see him fix. He precipitates his play here and it leads to a bobbled puck. This creates a defensive situation, but luckily he's good at those. Leads to a goal for his team. #HabsProspects pic.twitter.com/Ne6peUDbVp— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) January 19, 2022
To put it simply, when opponents try Guhle’s side of the ice on the rush, they are making a mistake. One big leap in any direction and he either has his stick on the puck or his shoulder square in the carrier’s chest. We’ve all seen how punishing he can be physically, but Guhle’s defensive stickwork off the rush is among the best outside the NHL at the moment.
One promising development in his game since joining the Oil Kings has been the timing and frequency of his offensive activations. Now much less hesitant to step into the play down the wall to create overlaps and overloads, Guhle is beginning to explore and get comfortable with an area of his game that could expand into multiple new learnings.
Love seeing more offensive audacity from #GoHabsGo Kaiden Guhle, coming down the wall to overlap with his winger here. That's something you rarely saw from him in his draft year. Great defensive play afterwards, then spots an opportunity to join the rush. He's making progress! pic.twitter.com/1n9z6oZouv— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) January 19, 2022
When a defender activates down the wall, they usually don’t shoot after taking a few strides, as they’re worsening their angle with each step. Almost necessarily, they learn to look for cross-ice seams, board plays or cutbacks that’ll keep the puck alive in the offensive zone, while also learning to absorb pressure to free up a teammate.
Those elements just happen to be exactly what Guhle needs to improve in order to see his game translate better at the NHL level. If the defenceman can continue making well-timed, explosive runs down the boards rather than anchor at the point, he could develop a side to his game that will benefit him in every zone.
Poise under pressure is a must for top-pair defenders; developing that in Guhle would be a major, but highly rewarding task.
Jordan Harris & Jayden Struble more likely to sign under GM Hughes
The nomination of Kent Hughes as general manager of the Canadiens brings with it some familiarity for the team’s talent playing at Northeastern University: Hughes’s sons, Riley and Jack, are teammates of Harris and Struble. The Habs’ new GM was also formerly one of the lead agents at Quartexx Management and knows the inner workings of contract negotiations better than most, having represented the likes of Kris Letang and Vincent Lecavalier.
Part of an agent’s function is to understand what makes their players interested in one market as opposed to another, which should help Hughes retain as much talent as possible. From a position of influence, he has a chance to not only convince prospects to sign, but make persuading them as effortless as possible by building an alluring product.
It’s far from a guarantee that Harris and Struble will sign under Hughes, but the odds of that happening have certainly risen with this announcement. Given the way that Northeastern has been performing defensively as of late (five goals against in their last nine games), and with Harris and Struble playing a large part in that, the Habs will have much interest in giving them all the opportunities to succeed at the club.
For what it’s worth, Struble broke his cold streak with an assist in each of Northeastern’s back-to-back games against Long Island University earlier in January. He’s been playing well despite the recent drought, making efficient transitional plays on a regular basis and showing the hands to get himself out of tricky spots, while often being an immovable object on defence.
There are holes in his game on both sides of the puck, but he can adjust on the fly and make decisions quickly while showing decent hockey sense when forced to think on his feet. His frame and skating are pro-ready, but he’ll likely need to marinate for another year in order to get used to scanning frequently and matching his opponents’ pace.
In Harris’s case, he could plug into the Habs’ roster right now and likely play comfortably among the team’s top-six blue-liners. Fluid skating, outstanding defensive stickwork, and high-end vision make him one of the more surefire NHL talents in the Habs’ system, although he might need some time to adapt to the league’s intensely physical board play and more dangerous net-front presences. Evading forecheckers, though, that he can do with his eyes closed.
Harris was also named as one of Team USA’s reserves for the Olympics should a defenceman be unable to join the international roster. It would be a great opportunity for him to measure up against top-quality men’s hockey players, but is unlikely to materialize unless something drastically changes.
QMJHL’s return to play postponed again
While many other leagues are getting on with the latter half of their respective seasons, the QMJHL has postponed its activities at least until February, due to an overwhelming amount of positive tests in the province and in the league. Large gatherings aren’t allowed at the moment, which complicates things massively for Junior teams with little revenue to speak of already. There are discussions of pushing back a return to play until at least 50% capacity is allowed.
The Habs currently hold four QMJHL prospects who are sidelined for an indeterminate amount of time: forwards Joshua Roy, Xavier Simoneau, and Riley Kidney, as well as defenceman William Trudeau. The latter might be most affected by this ceasefire, having hit a hot streak prior to the pause with 12 points in his last eight games.
William Trudeau is a smooth-skating, offensively eager defensemen who enjoys creating breakouts through puck carries, and supporting the rush.— Andy Lehoux (@Andylehoux1) January 15, 2022
The #GoHabsGo prospect is closing in on a point per game pace, with 6 goals and 25 points in 31 games. https://t.co/iLUBeQ9Hdi pic.twitter.com/zGOQFKhbK3
Trudeau’s analytical profile indicates that he gets more puck touches than 96% of QMJHL players, and generates more primary assists and zone entries through passes than 97% of them. He isn’t the most physical defenceman, but he wins a decent chunk of his puck battles and can put dangerous shots on net with regularity thanks to his frequent offensive activations.
This checks out based on the eye-test. Trudeau’s intelligence is the main driver of these results, and as his frame fills out, his tools should improve. It’ll be interesting to see what he and the other Habs prospects will be able to accomplish when the QMJHL returns to action, and how this pause will affect their performances.
Thanks for reading — follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to follow along with the rest of my scouting work.