The Rookie showcase is where stars are born and prospects sink into the void, never to recover from sub-par performances. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, fresh off a third overall selection at the 2018 draft last year, fell short of expectations at the tournament and, sure enough, was unnoticeable on the Belleville ice again this year — such great promise crushed in just a few weeks by the merciless clash.
But hopes remain for a few of the remaining Habs youngsters. Let’s take a look at who still has a chance to be the next saviour of the franchise.
Or something like that.
Cale Fleury, RD, Laval Rockets (2017 Class)
Fleury was the most composed defenceman on Montreal’s side. While many of his partners with the puck on their stick looked nervous — like you would expect from summer hockey under the gaze of management and the fan base — the ex-Pats blue-liner played like a drilled blue-liner. His poise and strong mechanics shined in puck-moving sequences.
Shoulder-check, shoulder check again and a third look behind for good measure provided him with the best picture of his passing options. He remained deceptive; instead of hitting the first and easiest option, his defensive partner, he used this partner to misdirect the forecheck. Shoulder and stick pointed to his fellow blue-liner, he waited for the opponent to attempt to close the passing lane. Once it happened, he pivoted, created separation and sent the puck directly up the ice — the best play a defenceman can make on a breakout.
Even against overwhelming pressure, Fleury took zone exits into his hands. In the sequence below, he used the boards, rimming the puck up on the opposite side where it came from.
While rims are usually dumping the problem to someone else, this is one of the instance where it wasn’t; the defenceman still made the skillful play.
Watch his stick and feet as he closes on the puck below the net: he slows down, lets the forecheck approach him to create more space for teammates, and switches his feet, going to his backhand to suggest a pass back to his right, where the puck came from. As the opposing forward knocks him to the boards, he brings his stick to his forehand and slides the puck up to the now quiet left side of the ice.
Fleury’s move removed the forechecking presence from that side. The high forechecker (#41), read Fleury’s feet and stick as he first arrived at the puck and was baited into skating away from where the puck slid to.
The young Montreal squad ultimately couldn’t exit the zone cleanly after, but that’s hardly the defenceman’s fault; he already beat at least two opposing players with his deceptive act, and his teammates couldn’t organize themselves to escape the zone with speed on the runway he created.
On offence, Fleury relied mostly on his trusted point shot, like he has done thorough his career. He didn’t stand out from other blue-liners who feared experimenting in that aspect (except one in particular which we will get to next). But he still looked to create a bit more movement before releasing, activating along the blue-line and using give-and-gos to create separation from opposing wingers sent to absorb his blasts.
Still, not many scoring chances happened from the direct involvement of the defenceman.
On Saturday, Fleury also left an impression on both the audience and Johnny Gruden when he plastered him to the boards. The little hesitation the Habs prospect had before picking up the puck should have been a big tell for Gruden. But the Ottawa prospect still went to retrieve it. Next thing he knew, the world was upside down.
Gianni Fairbrother, LD, Everett Silvertips (2019 Class)
It’s not exactly fair to say that all defencemen except Fleury looked tentative. But I’m not sure when, if ever, Fairbrother played without confidence. His puck-moving lacked the crisp execution of Fleury, but the intentions behind his move were often the right ones.
His strength kept forecheckers at a distance; with one armed raised as a shield, he bought himself time to make a play. Gathering more information on his surrounding, consistently using deception and taking the available escape routes quicker would help boost his effectiveness in breaking out the puck.
That being said, it’s probably better to have the willingness to find controlled exits without the refined skills to consistently do so then the contrary.
Fairbrother could follow a similar development path to Fleury. Like the former, he enters his fourth year of junior following the draft (as he is a late birthday), and could join Laval in 2020-21. Fleury made some leaps in his puck-moving in his first pro season — thanks to needed repetitions inside a quicker game.
There is also some stylistic similarities between the two defencemen. It extends to offensive zone play: Fairbrother loves to shoot the puck. It’s what he limited himself to for most of the two games when passes where sent up to him at the point.
But, in one occasion where he could arrive with some speed to pick up the puck, he instead chose to fake his trusted slap-shot and descend in the zone to look for a better scoring chance. No play opened when he glided wide of the defence down the half-wall, but he opted for a crafty behind-the-back pass to the short side of the net after crossing the goal-line.
Quite a surprising play.
Incorporating more patience and movement at offensive blue-line could better use the vision he showcased in that play, and probably net him a few more points this season with Everett.
Jake Evans, C, Laval Rocket (2014 Class)
As one of the older players at the tournament, and a second-year pro, Evans was one of the player who had to lead by example. Just like Fleury, his year with the pros seems to have instilled confidence and helped built on his foundation of good habits. In chaotic play, he picked up his assignments, adjusted when others lost them and catalyzed offence for his line.
He wasn’t consistently dangerous — nobody was in the exhibitions — but his rush against Winnipeg featured him going around sticks, looking for passing options like the playmaker that he is, before settling for a shot on net when none opened. It reminded everyone of Evans’ offensive abilities.
He is still a candidate to earn a role on the main team in the next two years.
Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki, C (2017 Class)
Poehling and Suzuki orchestrated the powerplay for their respective teams before joining the professional ranks. Both contributed heavily to the success of their unit with their own style. Finally seeing them pull off the tricks that made them so successful, but this time on the same ice in mirroring position, as they manned both half-walls was very exciting.
This sequence, that almost lead to a goal from Liam Hawel, mixed both old and new elements. Ryan Poehling moved as he always did — he skated down the half-wall to receive a pass from his defenceman; Cale Fleury, replacing St. Cloud’s Jimmy Schuldt, slid the puck over to him. Poehling looked for his preferred play: hitting the seam between the high and low defenders. He connected with Suzuki on the other side of the ice.
Suzuki had timed himself with Poehling’s movement, and picked up the puck in stride. Like he did countless of times, he positioned himself in a shooting position and froze the defence with the threat of his release. He then cut his wind-up and slammed a cross-ice pass to Hawel — who missed a deserted cage.
Poehling and Suzuki couldn’t combine for a powerplay goal this tournament, but still sparked some promising plays, letting on that their style might mesh well on the man advantage. They could end up being paired together in the same way in the near or distant future.
But, more than their play on the man advantage, it’s the structure they brought to the game that separated them from their peers. Habs prospects stumbled in a lot of the plays; they missed passes and alternated between doing too much and not enough.
When Montreal’s top duo cruised on the ice, however, they worked to control the play. Suzuki always prefers a measured approach to playing the odds of a chaotic and random game. At the risk of being accused of slowing down the play (yet again), he didn’t hesitate to help his defenceman on regroups, descending to their level, settling down the puck and restarting the attack from scratch with players sliding in the right positions.
Poehling also contributed to the play by supporting his defencemen. As the natural centreman that he is, he slowed himself down, sometimes almost to a stop to give as big of a window as possible to his back-end to hit him with a pass in zone exits.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard did a fine job complementing the pair. He has some skill, offensive instinct and takes his opportunities to attack the net — it directly led to the Habs first goal of the tournament. (That first goal was also a display of Suzuki’s passing ability; he faked an impossible cross-ice pass to connect with Harvey-Pinard near the goal-line)
That being said, for all his effectiveness, Harvey-Pinard can’t open passing lanes and advance play in the same way a player like Allan McShane could have on the top-line.
McShane had a quiet tournament — same for a lot of other Habs prospects — but it’s important to remember that performance in this type of setting is a factor of opportunity and chemistry — things you don’t always get in such a short event.
With that in mind, the opening of this article was obviously sarcasm. The Rookie showcase doesn’t mean much on the road to the NHL for the significant majority of the prospects. Some of them stood out, for good and bad reasons, but ultimately it’s what they do in the upcoming season that matters for the future.
For the top prospects, we should have a better idea of where they are in their development in next few exhibitions against competition that is closer to the NHL.