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 Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League’s regular seasons have come to an end, and it’s time to review and grade the Habs’ prospects on their performances throughout the campaign.
We’ll start off with Kaiden Guhle, the only WHL prospect in the pipeline, and work our way through the five OHL prospects in the pool — Jan Myšák, Arber Xhekaj, Logan Mailloux, Daniil Sobolev, and Joe Vrbetic — while looking ahead to next season and what to expect from each of them. We’ll take a look at Guhle, Myšák and Xhekaj’s seasons this week, and cover Mailloux, Sobolev, and Vrbetic in next week’s piece.
Before we get into it, a brief explanation of the grading system: there’s a season grade, in which we rate the prospect’s overall season, and then we look at the prospect’s individual skills ratings, in which we grade their singular attributes at this point in their development. The two grade sections aren’t correlated meaning a prospect having an excellent season can still have many individual skills to work on, and vice-versa.
Kaiden Guhle, LD — Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Season grade: A
Guhle has had a tremendous final season, in which he began with the Prince Albert Raiders before being traded near the deadline to a much more stacked team in the Edmonton Oil Kings.
With the former, he was often carrying the team single-handedly in the defensive zone, blocking shots with regularity and managing to add two goals and 13 assists in 17 games. With the latter, Guhle was much more well-surrounded and was able to contribute offensively with more regularity, scoring five goals and adding 20 assists in 25 games to end the season, while allowing himself to explore his offensive side even further.
Before a hand injury in mid-March prematurely put an end to his regular season, Guhle had been growing his offensive game in small increments by activating offensively on a more regular basis. Along with his already-polished defensive game and physical prowess, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenceman’s qualities earned him the title of WHL Central Division Defenceman of the Year, and he is in nomination for the league-wide title.
He isn’t as shy to carry the puck down from the point at five-on-five as he was previously with the Raiders, switching regularly with his winger to find himself around the dot area before circling back up off the puck. As described in last week’s update when evaluating William Trudeau’s development, experimentation is the most surefire way to develop a new skill.
Guhle should be a pro hockey player in the very near future, possibly earlier than this fall, if the Oil Kings were to fall out of the playoffs early Guhle would be eligible to join the Laval Rocket on an amateur try-out to participate in their Calder Cup run. This is also the case for the two Habs prospects below.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: B
Off-puck play: A-
Jan Myšák, C/LW — Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL)
Season grade: B-
Expectations were high for Myšák heading into what should be his second-to-last year in the OHL, as the prospect was coming off of an entire season spent with the Rocket and had earned 25 points (15 goals, 10 assists — a point-per-game rate of 1.14) in 22 games in his draft year, right before the Canadiens selected him 48th overall in 2020.
The prospect hasn’t had a terrible year with the Bulldogs, 34 goals and 30 assists for 64 points in 61 games, but it is reasonable to have expected Myšák’s point-per-game rate to have risen above his rate from two years ago rather than drop to 1.04. He currently centers the third line behind Mason McTavish and Logan Morrison and sits fourth on the Bulldogs in goals per game, as well as sixth on the team in points per game.
Myšák’s game is built around solid defensive foundations, a level of consistency on draws that have earned him the title of second-best faceoff man in the East division, and a quick, heavy shot that he can release with very little warning. There is, however, a concerning level of inconsistency in Myšák’s performances, which stems from a less-than-ideal give-and-go game and a tendency to skate himself into a corner on occasions.
As he steps back onto professional ice in the next few years, Myšák’s greatest learning opportunity will be to initiate contact and find soft ice in between checks, as the forward doesn’t show much in that area at the moment. His intensity, his shot and his defensive game should make him a solid AHL player right off the bat, but that only means so much if the small details of his offensive game don’t catch up.
It’s a long road ahead for the Czechian forward, but at 19 years of age, there is still a lot of room to grow. He is also eligible to sign an ATO and join the Rocket on their Calder cup run, an experience that should only benefit him moving forward.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: B-
Off-puck play: B+
Arber Xhekaj, LD — Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL)
Season grade: B+
Xhekaj has exploded offensively (at least by his standards) in his final OHL season, as he went from 17 points in 51 games in 2019-20, to not playing at all last season due to COVID-19 shutting down the Ontario junior circuit, to doubling his point totals in this past campaign.
After tying his career-high point total in only 18 games with the Kitchener Rangers (six goals, 11 assists), the 6-foot-4, 225-pound blue-liner earned himself a move to a more competitive side in Hamilton, joining fellow Habs signee Myšák. He added another six goals and 11 assists, this time in 33 games, and added 37 points to his plus-minus tally. In total, the hard-nosed defenceman earned himself 138 penalty minutes in 51 games split between Kitchener and Hamilton.
Arber Xhekaj est toute une prise des Canadiens de Montréal. Son style et son âge l'aide à dominer la OHL en ce moment. Espérons qu'il transpose le tout dans la LAH dès la saison prochaine. #GoHabsGo @Toutsurlehockey #TSLHEspoirs— Pascal Lapointe (@SousleradarLNH) February 21, 2022
Voici quelques buts du jeune de 20 ans. pic.twitter.com/j2kpGCTY58
Xhekaj’s composure has taken a massive step forward, as the prospect almost never rids himself of pucks aimlessly by throwing them up the boards. He takes a moment, scans for options, absorbs a forechecker, and makes a small pass into space for a teammate. This is a telltale sign of an improving feel for the game. Along with his improvements in that area, Xhekaj is still going full-throttle on every shift, making his corner of the ice a nightmare for opposing forwards.
Although his aggressiveness can take him out of the play — an issue that is usually exacerbated at the pro level — and lead to some avoidable minors, ejections and suspensions, the threat of a shoulder to the chest makes opponents think twice before skating at full speed down the boards. He is dictating what happens on the ice, even from the bench.
Xhekaj should be an AHL regular this fall, or even this spring, but still needs to work on small elements of his offensive game to ensure a long, fruitful NHL future. His off-puck game on the offensive side isn’t a strength, but could become one with enough time working on skating through his passes, jumping into the rush offensively, and generally making himself a more present threat from the point. His shot is powerful and accurate, and if he learns to do the small, projectable things offensively with Laval, that strength will grow exponentially.
Individual skill categories ratings:
Puck retrievals/receptions: B+
Off-puck play: B
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!