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Jordan Harris and the continuing search for puck-moving defencemen

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Harris’s confidence with the puck could lead him to become a very useful element in the Habs’ transition game down the road.

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Following the draft, Trevor Timmins said of the Jordan Harris pick that the Montreal Canadiens were ready to add an offensive defenceman at the time of his selection, seeing the Kimball Union player as the best possible option at the time. The defenceman had a great season in his league, finishing at close to a point-per-game rate and being the main quarterback for his team.

Harris has a good shot that he keeps low, and an ability to find lanes for it by using his quick feet along the offensive blue line. He doesn’t waste opportunities shooting at shin pads, but instead displays patience in possession to locate the plays that are open to him (e.g. stopping his release to force defenders to drop down before making a pass to a teammate in a better position instead).

He has good vision and is able to follow the play quite effectively from the blue line, locating his teammates in the slot with passes to create deflections and scoring chances.

Jordan Harris wears #2 with Kimball Union and #92 with the Youngstown Phantoms.

Both with his team and at the Canadiens’ development camp, Harris showed that he is not afraid to jump up in the play, following his forwards on the rush. He scored a great goal from a pass coming off the stick of Ryan Poehling by skating across the offensive blue line and taking a few steps into the zone before launching a shot, using a quick weight transfer in between two strides. It was a good display of his skill.

That being said, despite the positives, Harris’s offensive game is not what stands out the most. Overall, he isn’t particularly creative and doesn’t pose the threat of a scorer from the blue line, at least for now. He has the potential to put up some points with Northeastern next season, but he might not be their strongest pointman from the start.

Instead, where he could make a more sizable impact is in the team’s transition game. This is where the play of the new Habs prospect is impressive compared to many of his peers.

A few days ago, we looked at Alexander Romanov’s potential as a puck-mover. Romanov has a pro-like game in that he can make quick and safe plays with the puck in his end, but he is not always at ease playing against the forecheck. That’s where Harris distinguishes himself. Romanov likely faced an overall higher competition level while also participating in international tournaments, but even keeping that in mind, there is still a pretty big difference in the type of plays both defencemen attempt with the puck in their own end.

Harris is much more comfortable playing against back pressure than Romanov. When he has possession, he likes to challenge opponents as they approach him. He has poise, elusiveness and better tricks up his sleeve.

He can move down low to protect the puck and attract forecheckers to himself, effectively freeing his teammates for short passes and allowing them to accelerate into open ice — on occasion, even with a numerical advantage.

Harris is also able to carry the puck out himself, using timely give-and-go plays with his defence partner or forwards to create the room he needs to skate up.

The plays he attempts don’t always work out, as is evident from the clips presented. Sometimes his teammates don’t make the most out of the space afforded to them, while at other times the defenceman simply waits slightly too long to execute as he gets collapsed upon or makes imprecise passes. But it’s clear that Harris doesn’t panic under pressure. This tendency to want to create the exit out of the zone in a controlled manner is a big quality to have in the modern game, where teams want to maximize their time spent on offence.

Take a look at this sequence from Kimball Union below. The overall breakout is not smooth, but there are good elements from Harris.

As he sits in a supporting position about to receive the puck from his defence partner, he takes a quick peek at where his options are and where the forechecking pressure will come from, identifying the immediate threat. He also makes another shoulder check to see how the opponent is going to attack him.

With the information he just gathered and a plan in mind, he then skates below the goal line, pulling the opposing player to him. This way, he creates space for the teammate coming to pick up the puck from the reverse pass he makes off the boards.

Unfortunately, the breakout derails from a succession of bad decisions from his team after that, notably skating the puck into pressure instead of away from it and a lack of composure. That being said, Harris still did a fine job giving his teammates a chance to exit the zone cleanly with this first attempt.

A few seconds later, he gets a second chance at orchestrating the breakout. After anticipating a dump back low in the zone and picking up the puck, he again evades the forecheck, and this time successfully springs one of his forwards for the exit.

This play was a good example of awareness and confidence. What bodes well for his transition to the NCAA is that, even in his five-game stint with the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL — a more competitive league than what he is used to — Harris still displayed those two qualities regularly on the ice. They’re signs that he could be able to do the same with a bit of adjustment for Northeastern University.

It isn’t just Harris’s play with the puck in transition that stood out this season; he is a pretty good defender off the rush as well. As he is involved in the attack and follows the play up the ice, he is usually in a good position to maintain an aggressive gap with opponents attacking through the neutral zone, and can therefore create turnovers. His skating agility and his good stick serve him in those instances as he has the range and pokecheck ability to stop forwards trying to go wide or through him.

Jordan Harris has a good base of tools and the mental makeup required to become a good puck-mover and an able defender down the road. It likely won’t be a short path to the NHL for him, and despite being drafted as an offensive defenceman, there are still some questions about his straight offensive upside as he rises in levels. Nevertheless, he will be a player to watch closely, as he fits a deep Habs need on the blue line.

He will join Cayden Primeau next year as the Huskies try to repeat their solid performance of 2017-18 when they won the Beanpot Tournament. The team lost some veteran presence, which also affected the depth of their blue line, and will have to count on players like Harris to step up.