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Projecting the skills of the Canadiens’ four CHL forwards vying for one contract

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Marc Bergevin stated it’s likely that only one of Cole Fonstad, Cam Hillis, Samuel Houde, and Allan McShane will earn a deal. Which one has the best case to sign an ELC?

Terry Wilson / OHL Images

For much of the past decade, the Montreal Canadiens’ sole focus was competing for a playoff spot. They picked usually in later rounds of the NHL Entry Draft, trading away early selections. With only a small handful of new prospects entering the system, the team had the necessary contract slots to hold on to several of them with long-term projections. They could be patient with players who didn’t dominate their leagues, hoping they would end up blooming in the AHL — even if it rarely happened.

Now the landscape is changing in Montreal. After selecting 21 players in the past two drafts, and yet again stocking up picks for the next two, the prospect pool is beginning to overflow. Not everyone will, or should, be signed to entry-level contracts. Rather than everyone getting several years to blossom into an NHL player as a member of the organization, prospects will be competing for the available spots with the farm team.

Of course, more picks means more chances to find a youngster that vastly outperforms the projections. The Habs will be able to concentrate their ressources on the prospects with the greatest chance of becoming impactful NHLers, and let the others walk free of their organizational ties.

However, not all players evolve at the same pace. In this process, it’s possible a late-blooming NHLer is let go.

In the extra information posted from Mathias Brunet’s interview with Marc Bergevin, the general manager said that he will only offer an entry-level contract to one of their crop of four CHL forwards selected in 2018. At the start of the 2020-21 season, only one of Cam Hillis, Allan McShane, Samuel Houde, and Cole Fonstad is expected to remain with the organization.

All of those prospects put up reasonably successful campaigns in their second seasons since being drafted, but none managed to separate themselves completely from the pack. And so, the organization is facing potentially hard decisions.

To determine which prospects are the ones most likely to develop into NHLers down the road, let’s break down the projectable elements of each prospect’s game, their strengths and weaknesses, and how their current numbers project to the next level.

Skating

The Habs selected players with similar skating ability in 2018. None of them really flew up and down the ice in their draft year, and while they all have improved their mobility since, explosiveness and speed are not what stands out the most in their games.

From a purely technical point of view, Fonstad has the better skating form. When he skates at full speed he bends his knees to an almost optimal angle and keeps his back straight. He can change direction abruptly to gain distance on defenders.

Houde has developed his technique through the last two years to ressemble Fonstad’s, but doesn’t really show the same agility.

McShane suffers from inconsistent knee-flexion. He shortens his strides by not bringing his feet completely back under him after each push.

These past two years, Hillis reportedly worked with world-renowned skating coach Barb Underhill to develop his racing ability, but his form still presents some flaws. He hunches over as he moves up and down the ice and kicks his feet as a result.

Simply put, skating isn’t what distinguishes these prospects. Even the best out of the bunch — Hillis and Fonstad — only project to average NHL speed.

The good news is that some of them have developed elusiveness and some tricks to compensate for a lack of dominant quickness and momentum. McShane and Hillis can both use the 10-and-2 technique to their advantage to better resist checks and face their passing options as they circle the offensive zone.

Offence

Mobility leads to separation from the defence and directly translates to scoring chances. But many other, arguably more important factors generate dangerous offence in the professional game, such as transition ability, changing the point of attack, deception, timing, using quiet areas, driving to the net, etc.

The prospect who uses those elements the most is McShane. The forward rarely gives hints for his next play to defenders. He sees the options all around him and can pull off feeds under high pressure without looking at his targets. He adapts his skating routes and handling positions to slide pucks around obstacles, but doesn’t force any passes. If a scoring play isn’t open, McShane holds possession and resets the attack by sending the puck toward another open teammate. He can also act as both a catch-and-release shooter and one-touch playmaker. He’s composed and deceptive.

It’s what separates him from Hillis.

Hillis can’t sell his plays as well as McShane, but manages a higher volume of passes to the slot with his more up-tempo style of game. The third-rounder skates at full force and attempts to reach teammates any way possible before passing lanes close. For Hillis, until very recently, shots remained last-option plays.

What the Guelph forward has over his Oshawa counterpart is his on-ice urgency. Hillis is a ball of energy that displaces defences and frees teammates in dangerous areas for passes. His energetic qualities led to more consistent production over the course of the season.

McShane and Hillis are the two best playmakers in the group. Fonstad and Houdeshow an awareness of teammates’ positions and can set others up for shots, but they don’t open passing lanes or make plays through defenders as effectively.

Fonstad stands at the opposite end of the offensive spectrum. He creates with some deception, but mostly by slowing down the play and roaming the periphery of the ice until he finds a lane for a pass or a shot inside.

Houde is a special case. If you specifically need someone to cleanly score from the top of the circle, he is the right prospect. His goal totals never really reflected the dangerous nature of his shot, but that is due more to a lack of diversity in how he earned his opportunities. In each of his QMJHL seasons, a large portion of his markers were well-placed bombs that slipped by goalies with a full view of his shot.

Overall, there are more issues of translatability in the games of Houde and Fonstad. A lack of pace, diversity, and ability to manipulate the defence often means a drop in points and effectiveness at the next level.

Defence

The prospect who made the most improvement in this facet since June of 2018 is Houde. He stops low in the zone on defence, patiently supports his teammates, and adopts better risk-mitigating positioning. A stronger defensive game has also helped his transitions. Now, he gives himself more options skating up-ice with teammates above and under him. At first, he used to spring early on breakouts only to find himself with fewer options, forced to dangle multiple defenders to get through.

That being said, Hillis is the clear leader in play away from the puck. He pressures opponents harder on the forecheck, backcheck, and in-zone, and show a defensive pride that is not mirrored by many Junior prospects. That includes battling and blocking shots with little concern for safety.

McShane, like the two players already mentioned, has featured regularly on his team’s penalty kill for the past two seasons, and also adopts patient defensive positioning, but his ability to break up plays doesn’t match up to the others’.

Fonstad has never really held a defensive role in his Junior career.

While it’s possible McShane evolves into such a role, neither he nor Fonstad necessarily project as two-way forwards at the professional level.

Small-area game

The ability to hold on to the puck along the walls and escape defensive pressure is a must in the pro game. Only players with exceptional skating ability can do without, and as we’ve seen, none of the forwards possess that.

Puck-protection is a progression of skills: establishing possession of the puck (either through winning a race to it, or receiving a pass), guarding it, and then manipulating defenders to open escape routes.

Only McShane comes close to executing the whole chain consistently. His small-area game has evolved massively from his draft year to the point where his ability to make plays under pressure is not just the best among Habs’ CHL prospects, but also one of the very best in the OHL.

It all comes from his awareness, or his feel for defensive pressure and ability to locate supporting options. His mental map of the ice allows him to slip by defenders along the wall and instantly slide the puck over to a teammate. If he has to hold on to possession longer, he has also refined his puck-guarding abilities. He keeps his back to the opposition and uses his knee and free arm to create a shield against pokechecks. He isn’t explosive enough to separate from traffic, but as long as he has passing options, he more often than not keeps the puck in possession of his team.

Hillis is more elusive and agile than McShane, but often has trouble locating his escape routes in tight quarters. He holds the puck longer against back-pressure than he did in his draft year, but often cuts back into defenders or fails to establish body positioning to protect the puck.

Houde is similarly still at the beginning of the puck-protection skill progression.

Fonstad prefers to always keep his feet moving to avoid checks altogether. He keeps space between him and the boards at all times to quickly turn back against pressuring defenders. He positions himself in ways to assist board battles, but is rarely at the forefront of those.

Statistical profiles and projections

Before the 2019-20 season was brought to a sudden halt, Hillis held the highest point production (1.34 points per game), followed by Fonstad (1.27), Houde (1.18), and McShane (1.08). Hillis and Fonstad were in the top 10 of their respective leagues for assist numbers. Hillis had the biggest jump in production from his previous season, while McShane didn’t improve his previous mark, dropping slightly with fewer goals scored.

What’s more interesting than straight point totals is point projection. Draft-season production matters a lot more in evaluating NHL potential than the one of a prospect two years after being drafted. In other words: players who record high totals and do so the earliest are more likely to produce in the NHL.

The model of Byron Bader of Hockey Prospecting uses equivalencies (NHLe) to project the point totals of prospects to the top league and determines their likelihood of becoming full-time players or stars. This is what the charts suggest for the Habs’ top CHL players.

As a bonus, I added a comparison for QMJHL propects Houde and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (whose rights expire in 2021 after being selected in 2019), and placed Fonstad’s teammate and fellow Habs prospect, defenceman Gianni Fairbrother, alongside him in that graphic.

Hockey Prospecting

Based on both draft-year and three-year total production, the model gives the highest chance of NHL success to Hillis and Fonstad, at around 50%.

Verdict

Ultimately, both the skill evaluations and the statistical ones point to a similar conclusion: None of the Canadiens’ CHL prospects needing a contract to stay in the system have a high chance of becoming top-six players. It’s possible that one could reach that status in a few years, but it remains unlikely. When they were drafted, all of those skaters had significant flaws in their game, and while they all improved, they have not shown steep enough upward curves in both on-ice development and offensive output to warrant a large change in initial draft-day projections.

In turn, it would be surprising if the decision to sign one of these players over another ends up being franchise-altering. Even so, organizations are not in the business of letting go of free assets, and even considering the constant influx of new prospects, they should hold on to at least a couple of forwards from their current CHL crop. At the very least, they could establish themselves in an NHL role down the line, with flaws ironed out and obvious strengths more easily showcased.

Despite the general manager’s statement that only one would retained, I’ve seen enough out of two of them to sign them to entry-level deals. While this list may change if the CHL manages to host its playoffs down the road, I would recommend keeping Hillis and McShane.

Hillis was drafted as an energetic, playmaking, two-way forward and his game largely remains the same a couple of years later; same strengths; same weaknesses. To contribute offensively, Hillis will likely always need strong shooters to partner with in his professional career, but he should provide constant defensive value to his coaches.

Unfortunately, McShane hasn’t managed to transform into the dominant offensive force his qualities projected, and his production stayed inconsistent. Still, the many professional elements of his game — his board play, his net-drives, his dual-threat identity — make his game the most translatable of all of the CHL forwards. If the Habs are searching for potential late-bloomers, McShane is the best candidate to rapidly improve over the course of his ELC.

Fonstad and Houde are too hard to separate to rank the two remaining options. Fonstad has the most upside with his pure skill. Houde showed the most progress in the past few years, but currently lacks projectable offence.

With a slew of prospects already in the system and needing contracts in a few years’ time, and another 14 picks for 2020 currently in the organization’s possession, it makes sense to just filter out the best talent. There is a 50-contract limit to keep in mind, but despite the tightening limitations, there’s enough reason to hold on to both Hillis and McShane to see if they can reach their potential.