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Catching The Torch: OHL & WHL prospects update — Kaiden Guhle keeps impressing, Logan Mailloux returns from injury, & more

An update on the Habs’ six prospects playing in the OHL and the WHL: Jan Mysak, Arber Xhekaj, Logan Mailloux, Daniil Sobolev, Joe Vrbetic and Kaiden Guhle.

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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.

With the Habs’ performances since Martin St. Louis’s arrival as interim head coach having almost all of us Habs fans feeling positive about the general direction of the team, the time felt right to take a look at the mixed bag of storylines out of the OHL and WHL.

The Habs currently have five prospects developing in the former, as well as one in the latter, and they’ve all had drastically different seasons to date. We’ll start by working through the OHL five, and move on to Kaiden Guhle’s continuing success with the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Jan Mysak, LW/C — Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL)

Mysak’s game since returning from the shortened World Junior Championship (which, by the way, is set to start anew in August) has continued to be inconsistent, with handfuls of games in which he seemed utterly dominant, followed by worrying dry spells.

The prospect has earned 10 goals and 19 points in 15 games since his return, including a five-game span during which he earned eight goals and three assists. This was followed immediately by a three-game scoreless drought — in fact, the prospect has one goal and three assists in his last six games since going on that tear in early February.

What’s reassuring despite his inconsistency in production is that he has continued to win faceoffs, has gotten more involved physically and is generally doing small things right, even in the bad games. At his worst, he does lose his fair share of pucks and has trouble with quick-tempo scanning, but at his best, Mysak is a player who understands offence better than most, on top of being very polished defensively.

His goals aren’t all heavy wristers from the top of the circles. He gets to dangerous areas and exploits them in small, effective ways. That’s projectable, although at his age and with his experience, you’d expect him to translate that intelligence and those details into points on a more regular basis, especially on a team as successful as the Hamilton Bulldogs have been of late. Only two losses in their last 15 games speaks to the level of play this team has been putting together recently, despite Mason McTavish having been absent for the Olympics throughout the month of February.

Arber Xhekaj, LD — Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL)

Xhekaj’s performance has dipped as a result of a five-game scoreless drought, and a meager three points in his last nine appearances. He’s up to nine points in 13 games with the Bulldogs since being traded, after earning 17 points in 18 games on a much weaker Kitchener Rangers side.

One of his squad’s oldest and most-deployed blue-liners, the Canadian-Czech dual citizen of Albanian origin has unsurprisingly continued to put up penalty minutes in those nine games, 18 of them to be exact, and none of them fighting majors. His indiscipline hasn’t slowed the Bulldogs down in the slightest, however, and the prospect has continued to improve upon his composure with the puck.

He’s been connecting plays and breaking the puck out of his zone with intelligence and poise, two qualities that have been more consistent than they were previously in his OHL career. Although points are definitely a good indicator of success at his level, Xhekaj’s play without the puck is much more telling of his ability to make it at the next level as a shutdown defender, and so far there are very few concerns to note on that side, outside of discipline issues. If we’re splitting hairs, maybe his in-zone defending could use a bit of polishing, but it’s far from a negative.

Logan Mailloux, RD — London Knights (OHL)

Mailloux returned to the Knights’ lineup on February 23 after an injury during warm-ups sidelined him for a month, and his team won 3-1 against the Owen Sound Attack. The right-handed defenceman earned a secondary assist on a two-man advantage, as Luke Evangelista fired a one-timer off a pass from OHL player of the week Antonio Stranges.

His defensive shifts were kept to a minimum as Knights head coach Mark Hunter looked to ease him into his return with offensive-zone faceoffs and power-play time, but he was on the ice to defend a one-goal lead with seconds on the clock, helping his team break the puck out for an empty-net goal.

Mailloux’s passing was crisp and powerful, although it still lacked the misdirection required to connect plays at professional levels. He found lanes through the middle of the ice, which wasn’t previously as prevalent an element of his game, even when playing on larger ice surfaces in Sweden. There is a very slight progression in his play-reading on the puck as well, as he avoided good options in favour of better ones at a decent rate when breaking out. Off the puck, it’s still a work in progress.

Now up to nine points in seven games since returning from his suspension, Mailloux is benefiting from primarily offensive deployment to showcase his hands and his ability to produce. His shot itself remains among the most powerful of any defenceman outside of the NHL, but there’s a lot to work on in terms of his shot selection. The prospect seems too comfortable throwing pucks on net as soon as he gets a look, much like Alexander Romanov does currently.

He might just be letting his desire to score and prove doubters wrong get the best of him, but as his OHL career plays out further, it’ll become clearer whether that’s the case or not. In Sweden, that habit wasn’t as prevalent, so I’m guessing it’s something that will either wane after a few games, or be coached out after a few years.

Daniil Sobolev, RD — Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

Sobolev mentioned after his fifth-round selection in 2021 that he planned to move to North America in order to develop the offensive side of his game. When he first came over from Russia, where defencemen are taught to limit their offence in favour of solidifying their game without the puck, the blue-liner had his growing pains, as the smaller ice surface required a lot of adaptation in terms of timing and processing speed. He sits fourth among his team’s defencemen in points at the moment with 12 in 37 matches on the season.

Although his dry spells have grown in quantity and length — he’s been limited to only two points in his last 18 games — the Spitfires have been a much more solid team with him on the ice lately. His physical play and his aggressive disposition make him a very difficult defender to solve off the rush, especially given that he’s adapted to the gap control required on smaller ice. He has less space to make plays, but so do his opponents, and managing those shorter gaps effectively has become a strength of his despite still giving up the blue line on some occasions.

I remember this pick being a bit of a heartbreaker when Day 2 of the draft was over, given that the Winnipeg Jets selected a player four picks later whom I believed was a hidden gem in Dmitri Rashevsky, and since then the Russian winger has been tearing up the KHL with 35 points in 48 games. Hindsight will tell which of the two was the smarter pick, especially given that Rashevsky will turn 22 years old in October while Sobolev will be turning 19 in March, but the difference in quality between the two, currently, is stark — the kind of difference that I don’t believe a two-and-a-half-year age gap explains entirely.

Joe Vrbetic, G — North Bay Battalion (OHL)

We wrap up the OHL crop with the Habs’ only Junior-aged goaltender currently developing in Canada. The 2021 seventh-round pick has been having an average season for the Battalion, who sit second in their division with a 28-15-6 record. Vrbetic sits 12th among goaltenders in his league for save percentage at .901, and his 2.95 goals-against average is the ninth-best in the OHL. His backup netminder, Dom DiVincentiis, currently bests him in both categories in half the amount of games.

He’s a massive body in net at 6’6”, has great lower-body strength and flexibility to control his pushes, and has a level of calmness to his game that can’t be taught, but that calmness does lead him to overlook situations in which a bit of urgency is required. His coverage of the top of the net and his angles can lead him to falter against higher-end scorers who like to pick corners, but he’s very difficult to solve in the bottom half.

The seventh round is rife with projects, however, and the Habs have a growing knack of drafting big netminders late and chiseling at them until something good emerges. Jakub Dobes and Frederik Dichow are recent examples of that.

Kaiden Guhle, LD — Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

Guhle’s game has continued to gain traction on a team full of high-end talent; the Oil Kings have lost a grand total of two games out of 17 with the Habs’ 2020 first-round pick in the lineup. With 10 points in his last 11 games, Guhle is already the most prolific defenceman on the team in terms of points-per-game average, having 17 points in 17 matches since his trade, and is already third among Oil Kings blue-liners for points overall.

On top of his outstanding defensive game, Guhle has been liberated offensively by the Oil Kings’ solid system play and requirement for defensive activations, resulting in more instances of him sliding down the left flank in the offensive zone to get involved in plays deeper down. These activations force him to explore a whole new facet of his game, as he learns to play while charging at pressure with the puck.

In Prince Albert, Guhle was a bit more selective in his activations and would often be on the receiving end of that kind of situation, but now that he’s playing on a team with the structure and firepower to compensate for his incursions deep in the offensive zone, Guhle’s learning, and learning quick. It’ll be exciting to follow his progression heading into the NHL next year, especially with Ben Chiarot likely on the move this trade deadline. I believe he’s already better at many things than Chiarot is at the moment, and would make a suitable replacement for him in the near future.

OHL and WHL prospects’ 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 2020 C/LW OHL Hamilton Bulldogs 40 27 23 50 4
Kaiden Guhle 2020 LD WHL Edmonton Oil Kings 34 6 26 32 44
Arber Xhekaj Undrafted LD OHL Hamilton Bulldogs 31 9 17 26 90
Daniil Sobolev 2021 RD OHL Windsor Spitfires 37 1 11 12 17
Logan Mailloux 2021 RD OHL London Knights 7 3 6 9 4
Joe Vrbetic 2021 G OHL North Bay Battalion 35 GAA: 2.95 sv%: .901 Record: 21-8-6

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!