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Catching The Torch: World Juniors edition — High praise for Joshua Roy, Lane Hutson forces USA’s hand

Connor Bedard had some great things to say about the Habs’ 2021 fifth-round pick, and we catch up on Lane Hutson’s performances in the pre-tournament phase.

Canada v Finland: Gold Medal Game - 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Andy Devlin/ 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.

The preparation phase of the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship has reached its end, and the opening games of the tournament are only a short wait away. That means we get to look back at the highlights of the tournament and discuss the various storylines waiting to unfold as the group stage goes on and teams get eliminated.

First and foremost, we’ll look at Joshua Roy’s impressive pre-tournament performances and the accolades they’ve earned him from Team Canada’s shining star and the top prospect in the 2023 NHL Draft, Connor Bedard. Then, we’ll review the performances of Lane Hutson, Filip Mesar and Adam Engström, all three of which have set themselves up to impress as the tournament rolls on.

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

Roy was fantastic against his age group in his final year of eligibility for the World Juniors, earning back-to-back multi-point games on December 19 and 21, before being kept off the scoresheet in Canada’s final pre-tournament match against Finland to end the prep phase with two goals and two assists.

The aptly nicknamed Sniper Beauceron showcased his deft goal-scoring touch, his improving intensity and pace of play, as well as his physical dominance against the weaker defences of Switzerland and Slovakia.

One specific solo effort stands out where Roy pushed the puck towards the opposing defencemen on the faceoff immediately following Brennan Othmann’s goal, attacked them head-on as they scrambled to control the loose puck, intercepted the D-to-D pass and shelved the puck on the backhand as he walked in alone on Slovak netminder Patrik Andrisik.

In a recent media scrum, some of Canada’s world-class prospects were asked about Roy’s play, and his descent into the depths of the fifth round of the 2021 NHL Draft:

“It’s absurd,” remarked Dallas Stars’ prospect Logan Stankoven. “One of those weird years with COVID so they didn’t get a real good look at him. He was a big sleeper in our draft and he’s showing why. He’s one of the best players.”

Bedard also had high praise for the Habs’ 150th-overall pick in 2021:

“He’s the player that’s kind of popped to me the most. I didn’t know too much about him before the summer and he’s unbelievable. You watch him in practice, and I don’t think he misses a shot. He’s so smart. He’s someone I love watching.”

Bedard knows what a good shot looks like. The projected top prospect in the 2023 NHL Draft has a release that rivals the NHL’s best, from Auston Matthews to Cole Caufield. Calling Bedard’s comments high praise is an understatement.

Team Canada head coach Dennis Williams also had glowing reviews of Roy, calling him a “jack of all trades” and lauding his ability to man the forecheck, play along the boards, finish off passes, and track back defensively.

The Saint-Georges-de-Beauce native even earned a promotion to the top power play on a stacked Canadian team when Shane Wright left the game momentarily after a blocked shot. Upon Wright’s return, Roy occupied the bumper spot on the man advantage.

All of this checks out; Roy has a pro frame, pro-ready physical tools, and a fantastic shot. His habits are refined off the puck as well.

However, Roy seems to have added something interesting: comfort in transition.

Where Roy would previously pass early and support play away from the puck, he can now be seen carrying the puck himself past the offensive blue line and only delegating when necessary, or when appropriate.

Perhaps it’s a tactical difference from what he is instructed to do in Sherbrooke, but this was not an evident development in his toolkit prior to leaving for the Maritimes. This is a new habit.

I’ll keep a closer eye on Roy as he returns to the Phoenix — hopefully with gold around his neck — to evaluate this new development in his game and whether it shows up more often.

Lane Hutson, LD - Team USA (Boston University Terriers, NCAA)

Lane Hutson forced Team USA’s hand. The prospect hasn’t seen either special team unit yet, but the prospect still managed to earn two assists in two pre-tournament matches for the Americans. Both, as it happens, were a direct result of the two most likely ways for an NHL defenceman to score points: walking the blue line and offensive activation.

Let’s start with the former — walking the blue line:

The most crucial detail of this sequence, unfortunately, doesn’t show up in this specific clip: before the puck even gets to Hutson at the point, the young defenceman’s feet are already in motion. It is a crucial detail that often separates the successful from the unsuccessful when it comes to changing the angle of attack, especially for blueliners.

What happens next is textbook Hutson manipulation tactics. He walks the entire blue line while taking the ice given to him — rather than staying as close to the paint and as far away from the net as possible — and then freezes his man by faking a dash to the inside lane by simultaneously dropping his shoulder, tilting his head, and angling his stick towards the net.

His check bites, Hutson keeps angling laterally and then stops up to offer a simple pass to the point, which ends in a goal. In one sequence, Hutson changed the angle of attack from left to right on his own, shifted the Finnish box around, and then, rather than ride the wave of a sweet play and try to force a point to his name with an off-balance shot or a risky slot pass, he opted for the smart play, the simple play, and earned a secondary assist.

Hutson’s mobility, hands, manipulation, intelligence, and patience earned him this point.

Next up, offensive activation:

This is an entirely different scenario, with a new twist that was often lacking in draft-year Hutson’s game. The undersized blueliner’s newfound comfort of jumping into rushes has added an entirely new dimension to his offensive abilities.

Where Hutson would previously shy away from hopping eagerly and aggressively into the rush prior to being selected by the Canadiens, the undersized blueliner now shows much more dare in his activations. In this play, he reads the smart inside cut by Logan Cooley and rushes into the space left behind him.

He receives the drop pass in motion, freezes the defenceman with a stutter step and goes to the backhand. At this point, most players, especially defencemen, would circle the net or cut back. In fact, they wouldn’t have even seen the player crashing the net.

Hutson, however, knew Cutter Gauthier was coming. He spotted him right as he received Cooley’s pass with a glance so quick I had to run the clip back a dozen times to find it. But that’s all he needed. He slips the backhand pass through the Swedish defender’s body and finds a wide-open, unmarked Gauthier in the low slot for a tap-in.

Once again, Hutson’s mobility, hands, manipulation, intelligence, and patience earned him this point.

It’s too soon to project Hutson with any accuracy or guarantee, but these are the details of a top-pair offensive defenceman. He is forcing Team USA — an organization known for favouring older, bigger defencemen in this tournament — to acknowledge that he gives them a better chance at winning it all.

If Hutson and the Americans continue to be this dominant, only Canada could stop them.

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!