In an in-depth interview with Jim Madigan, Northeastern University’s head coach, Eric Engels confirmed the return of Jordan Harris to college hockey for a final season.
The defenceman made the right choice.
As maturity has been heralded as one of his main qualities by many (including Madigan in the interview) it feels like Harris has been with Northeastern University for years now. In reality, this 2019-20 season was only his second; he played his sophomore season through and through as a 19-year-old, still one of the younger players in the league.
There is no rush to bring Harris to Laval to play in the AHL, and the cancellation of the last stretch of the NCAA season adds another reason to delay the move by a year.
Northeastern wasn’t a favourite for a title — far from it — but the team put together a respectable season, won another Beanpot Tournament and could have surprised a few teams in the playoffs. If Harris were to leave now, the ending of his time in college hockey would be written for him, an abrupt ending that would only leave questions of what could have been. By returning, he at least gets a chance at one last uninterrupted pursuit of a title.
Moreover, Harris has plenty left to learn from the NCAA. In his time with Northeastern, the defenceman has evolved into the main pillar of its back end, spending close to half the games on the ice and anchoring both of the special teams. But certain facets of his game still need polishing, and others need larger improvements if he is to slide into similarly important roles in the AHL.
Rush defence is the strongest element of the Montreal Canadiens prospect’s game, the one that will earn him the most minutes from the start in the AHL.
It all starts at the offensive blue line. Against a forming breakout, the defenceman doesn’t retreat, or even stand his ground. He advances. By circling up into the offensive zone, Harris closes the distance between himself and attackers, limiting their space as they try to gain the neutral zone. The defenceman then angles them toward the boards or in the direction of his defence partner to block their approach.
Northeastern often gives strong supports to their defencemen in between blue lines, and that’s what allows Harris to posture so aggressively against the rush. But the prospect’s confidence also comes from his agility. Harris can cover a large area of the ice with a couple of steps. He maximizes his shutdown radius through large lateral movements and speed-retaining pivots.
His skating also gives him ways to correct any misstep rapidly. At the college level at least, Harris rarely needs to play catch-up. He is in control, with his weight centred over his skates, balanced, stick held in front of him to guide opponents where he wants them, but not overextended (which would open him to dangles), inviting opponents to meet him. With a couple of crossovers, and successive C-cuts, he matches their speed, then slows down to make contact slightly before his blue line. The puck springs loose, and Harris sprints back down the zone to organize his team’s own breakout.
For many, defending the rush can be a deceiving puzzle, but it’s something that has come quite naturally to the young defenceman. Already in his first few games in the NCAA he was stopping the attacks of experienced forwards.
Will this skill translate perfectly to professional hockey? Not exactly. The pace of the game is much higher and opponents tend to manipulate defenders better. That said, with some timing adjustments, Harris’s mobility and his aggressive approach should have him fiercely guard the Rocket’s blue line from the start.
This aspect will require more work. For Harris, it’s mostly about a change of mindset; something he could accomplish next season in the NCAA in preparation for his professional jump.
He defends cleverly in his own end. He covers passing lanes, anticipating where the play will move next and placing his stick to block it. The common fakes of attackers are rarely enough to have him bite and move out of position. He switches assignments without getting lost in the swirl of opposing offences, and in net-front play he takes care of opposing sticks, lifting or pinning them to avoid the easy tap-in goals.
That being said, there is something else to consider. Defence is a continuum from reactivity to proactivity.
A defender like fellow Habs prospect Alexander Romanov stands at the proactive side of that slider — almost at the very end of it. He shoulder-checks at a break-neck pace, races toward his next check, rams opponents in tight quarters, and separates them from the puck. He crashes the other team’s offence as fast as possible, combining anticipation with an up-tempo style and a high dose of physicality. He simply can’t stand to see the other team rotate around him in his zone.
This is why he excited several amateur scouts and team executives seeing him for the first time at the World Junior Championship last year. His defensive game seems tailored for the fast-paced, hard-checking NHL.
Harris isn’t the polar opposite of a reactive defenceman, waiting for the opponent to always make the first move, but he remains a much more passive defender. He contains opponents, letting the offence live on until it tries to pass through him. This is where he seizes his chance to stop it.
The third-round selection still shows many elements that project well to the professional game, but transferring some of his off-the-rush aggressiveness to his in-zone defence would serve him well in the pros, where deft attackers take advantage of any space given to them.
Transition and offensive game
What Harris improved the most between his freshman and sophomore seasons was his play with the puck. As Madigan said in Engels’s interview, Harris’s decision-making with possession didn’t always reflect his abilities in year one. With the experience of a full campaign under his belt, the defenceman started making more controlled plays.
He doesn’t stickhandle as precisely as some of the better offensive defencemen in the NCAA, and rarely will attempt the athletic rushes of teammate Jayden Struble. Still, Harris’s short-passing game, based on a newfound poise, made him an effective puck-mover for Northeastern this winter.
The biggest difference was his willingness to attract the forecheck, to trade off his own time and space with the puck for a teammate’s. The defenceman would more often wait for the opposition to collapse on him to pass, this way distancing forecheckers from others and creating runways for them to get out of the zone.
In year three, Harris will need to add more pace to his puck-moving game, finding outlets before he touches the puck to create exit routes, even when he lacks the time to plan. Opponents will come at him very fast in the professional game, so his ability to shoulder-check, limit his puck-shuffling, and instantly use passing lanes will determine his success in breakouts.
Those abilities will also help his offensive game. Right now, if he were to make the transition to the AHL, Harris’s offensive-zone play would likely be limited to taking a couple of steps toward the middle and firing from the blue line, with maybe an occasional cross-ice, diagonal pass from the point toward the opposing circle for a one-timer.
That’s not all he has been doing in the NCAA, but very likely it would be all he could keep of his offensive game as he joins the pros. The rest of it would remain behind, insufficiently developed and not able to survive the passage. The extra year of NCAA hockey will be most beneficial to this offensive facet of the prospect’s game.
Simply put: Harris currently misses opportunities. He doesn’t always recognize when he can create space for teammates with his lateral movement in the offensive zone. He overlooks give-and-gos and doesn’t really use his speed advantage to fake and beat defenders. Deception isn’t really a part of his game, which makes it easier for the opposition to read and block his plays.
That being said, we also can’t overlook the progress in his game. As a sophomore, he stopped circling the offensive zone, instead drawing shorter arcs at its top, keeping his head up to find shooting lanes and space to improve the location of his short-drawn wrist shot, scoring three goals and adding more assists this way. He also added velocity to his passes and more variance, using lobs and even hook-passes to connect with teammates.
He will hopefully continue developing his offensive schemes in his third season, to the point where he will bring a larger bag of tricks with him at the next level and contribute with his share of dangerous offence.
According to Byron Bader’s model, the defenceman doesn’t currently project as an offensive defenceman or point-producer at the NHL level. By comparing his production with other blue-liners through history, the model gives Harris a 42% chance of becoming an NHL player down the road.
Both of those conclusions seem relatively reasonable.
Harris has certainly shown plenty of projectable talents in his two years in the NCAA, but his game lacks the uniqueness or the exceptional ability that would have him cut through his competition and project him as a sure-fire NHLer. His defensive game could become that distinctive strength, but it still needs polishing, and at 5’11”, Harris doesn’t have the typical frame of a shutdown defender. He also lacks the internal fire of similarly built Romanov.
Harris will need to continue developing both his shutdown ability and his play with the puck to become the all-around effective — or two-way — modern NHL defenceman.
The good news is that necessary improvements are definitely within his range and the extra year of college hockey will allow him to continue adding to his game and largely benefit his confidence.
Time is an asset, and both Harris the Montreal Canadiens are wise to use it.