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Catching The Torch: World Juniors edition — The Canadiens’ North American invitees and what to expect of them

A deeper look at each of Montreal’s North American prospects who were invited to their respective countries’ World Junior Championship selection camps, and how they earned the invite.

NHL: JUL 12 Montreal Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back 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 the most wonderful time of the year for scouts in every sphere: the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship is just around the corner.

In total, there are six Canadiens prospects on this side of the pond have received their World Juniors invites — a trio of OHLers (Owen Beck, Filip Mesar, and Vinzenz Rohrer), two QMJHLers (Joshua Roy and Riley Kidney) and one NCAA prospect (Lane Hutson.)

We also know Swedish prospect Adam Engström will also be attending his country’s camp, but Patrik Bexell’s European scouting reports have you covered on that.

With some of them having already departed for the Maritimes to participate in their respective selection camps, let’s take a look at their season so far, and how they’ve managed to stand out in the eyes of the executives in charge of the shortlist.

Lane Hutson, USA — LD, Boston University Terriers (NCAA)

Hutson has been nothing short of mesmerizing so far in his freshman NCAA campaign. The BU freshman sits second on his team in scoring with 18 points, including seven goals, in 16 matches on the season. If maintained, his current point-per-game pace of 1.13 would be only second to Adam Fox’s post-draft campaign in the last 30 years.

Beyond the scoreboard, Hutson can take entire crowds off their seats with every puck touch, blending handling skill with head fakes to freeze his check before making use of his outstanding vision and anticipation of play to either find or open up the smallest of opportunities and exploit them. He can skate circles around grown men in the NCAA — not due to his speed, but due to his brain.

Constantly misdirecting, consistently showing fake cards before pulling a deck out of his sleeve, Hutson plays mind games with forecheckers, baits sticks in at the blue line before throwing his weight in the opposite direction, and never takes a shot from a standstill — especially not at the blue line. If he can’t pump-fake and move laterally, he passes.

So what earned him an invite to Team USA’s typically physical and experienced World Juniors blue-line crop? Elite production, elite skill, and near consistently good performances against men. It’ll be interesting to see Hutson go up against the best of his age group — size and strength factoring in less, but speed and skill factoring in more, should benefit Hutson’s profile.

Team USA has a frustrating tendency to favour older and bigger defencemen. The fact that Hutson, who is 5’9” and doesn’t turn 19 until February, is even at the U20 squad’s selection camp, is a testament to how impressive he and his numbers have been this year.

He is eligible for the 2024 World Juniors as well. If he somehow doesn’t make the cut this year, he likely won’t be ignored the next.

Owen Beck, Canada — C, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

The story of Beck’s invitation to Team Canada’s camp is one of filling a great need.

After only earning 51 points in 68 games for the Steelheads in his draft year, Beck rode the wave of an eye-opening training camp run with the Habs and went on to put up 16 goals and 17 assists for 33 points in the first 24 games of his post-draft OHL campaign.

That level of production alone, however, doesn’t explain the invite — Hockey Canada’s decision-making at the U20 level seldom follows a metrics-oriented process. What instead drove the executives in charge of recruiting to turn to Beck was his profile.

There probably isn’t a better two-way forward in the CHL. The combination of speed and defensive awareness, the unnaturally pro-calibre game he plays already at such a young age, and especially, the goal-scoring value he brings to the table on top of all of that, combine to make him a no-brainer for a Canadian team in need of secondary scoring and penalty-killing qualities.

Add to that the strides he’s taken in terms of his physicality, his east-west play and his pace of play, and you have a prospect who is trending up and continually adding new strengths to his already well-rounded profile.

Usually in tournaments like these, winning the special-teams battle on a nightly basis means winning the Championship. If Team Canada retains Beck, they’ll have a faceoff-taker, a goal-scorer, a defensive stalwart and a transition-driver all in one; multiple niches filled, multiple problems solved.

Joshua Roy, Canada — LW/C, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL)

Roy’s inclusion is a no-brainer. His goal-scoring ability and physical game have already been tried and tested in this tournament last summer, and he passed with flying colours, scoring three and adding five helpers in seven games. The aptly-nicknamed Sniper Beauceron has continued lighting the lamp in Sherbrooke, too, with 18 goals and 25 assists in 26 games on the season.

The World Juniors stage did highlight some of his deficiencies, however. Namely, his lack of high-end pace and agility (which the best of this age group tend to have in spades, especially the other top hockey countries) prevented him from contributing in transition frequently and efficiently. His tendency to underestimate opposing defencemen when attempting passes to the slot made him prone to avoidable turnovers as well.

However, he is extremely clinical with the puck. Stick him at the left dot on the power play, and watch him walk in and snipe it. That was indeed the game plan for Team Canada in their exhibition match against USports’ finest, in which Roy earned a goal and an assist.

The Habs’ fifth-round pick in 2021 should get some looks to the left of either Connor Bedard or Shane Wright, two players who can do the heavy-lifting for him in transition and read his smart off-puck routes in the offensive zone.

Riley Kidney, Canada — C, Acadie-Bathurst Titan (QMJHL)

Kidney, unfortunately, went down in the USports preparatory match. It isn’t clear what the nature of the injury was or how exactly it occurred, but he needed help getting to the bench, went to the locker room, and didn’t return.

Everyone certainly wishes the best for Kidney, but even if he makes a swift recovery, there are issues with his game that could hinder him from sticking around

The forward earned his call to the international stage by leading the Titan in points with 41 — 13 goals and 28 assists — in 28 matches played. He is a great stickhandler with a decent playmaking touch, and can make QMJHL defenders look foolish when he combines those two elements.

However, in order to be efficient against the more gifted, intelligent, and responsible defencemen that he will face at the international stage, an average skater and only slightly above-average physical player needs to do two things well: delay, and cut to the inside.

In Kidney’s case, he tries to delay, but doesn’t do it well enough to dictate the pace of play off his stick, due to struggling with puck protection mechanics when in possession. It’s the same for inside play: he tries to cut inside, but struggles to retain possession and get clean passes off.

The best odds for Kidney are to play well enough to make the final cut as a 13th forward, and occasionally jump into the lineup when the opportunity arises to play with a sharp-shooter with an inside-driven mindset.

Filip Mesar, Slovakia — C/RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

The best way to describe Mesar so far in Kitchener is a professional player’s brain in a Junior player’s body. His 10 goals and 12 assists in 17 games aren’t all that impressive, but represent a decent scoring tally for an OHL rookie playing on a struggling team.

To put it shortly, Mesar is a top-three Slovak at this tournament. There was no way he wasn’t going to get an invite.

He thinks the game at an advanced level, understands his responsibilities in his own zone, and regularly puts in the extra effort that Junior scorers often lack. He has pro habits.

On top of that, his playmaking vision and goal-scoring touch are solid. He is a true dual-threat offensive weapon. Leave him too much space away from the puck, and he will rifle a one-timer past your netminder. Mark him too closely, and he will draw you out of position to free up a teammate.

Playing within tactics, however, is another issue, but it seems to be a problem team-wide. The Rangers are off to a terrible start, mainly due to massive organizational upheaval leaving the new coaching staff scrambling to zero in on the team’s identity, both tactically and in playing style.

Add on top of that the Junior player’s body — his consistent struggle in board battles, his tendency to bounce off of hits awkwardly, and his lack of control inside contact — and you have a player whose scoresheet isn’t mind-boggling.

He’s also a player who is at a level where he isn’t learning to adapt to everyone being stronger. He occasionally comes up against a player as frail as he is, and the habits he picks up in those scenarios further delay him developing the physical tools to win board battles in which he’s giving up inches and pounds — body placement, stick-work, cutting off the defender’s hands along the boards, all the things that Xavier Simoneau or the next player in this breakdown do so well.

There’s good news, though: the World Juniors are the perfect scenario for him to showcase his offensive skills and elite off-puck positioning. It’s a level where he will rarely come up against someone slight enough to try to outmuscle, while not being as overbearing as the AHL would be, for example. He can go out there, do what he does best, and learn a couple of lessons he can take with him.

Vinzenz Rohrer, Austria — RW/C, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

Rohrer is another case of a prospect who is among the best available for his country’s roster.

With 31 points in 26 games, Rohrer sports the best point-per-game average on the 67’s. He and 2023 NHL Draft-eligible centre Luca Pinelli are a match made in heaven, finding each other consistently all over the ice and playing to each other’s strengths marvellously.

Where Pinelli excels at finding soft ice off the puck and firing hard pucks on net, Rohrer excels at banging and crashing until he gets a loose puck, then curling out of the corner with his head up and the puck in his hip pocket, ready to pass or shoot in one motion.

Rohrer’s physical game is also very refined, and unusually punishing for a player with his fairly unimpressive 5’10”, 170-pound frame. His relentlessness and stick usage in puck battles help him single-handedly extend possession in the offensive zone and win pucks back for his team, while making board play a nightmare for defenders twice his size.

The Habs’ scouting team mentioned in a video that one of the prospects they interviewed answered their question of which animal describes them best with “mosquito.” No one has confirmed it yet, but I’m willing to bet that was Rohrer.

Now he gets to go to the Maritimes and show what a mosquito can do with a pair of skates. Expect him to lead the charge for Austria.

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