Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is faring week by week. This week, I wanted to highlight some good news among the prospects selected by now former Habs executives Trevor Timmins and Marc Bergevin.
The most wonderful time of the year for scouts is coming up. The World Junior Championship, featuring the best under-20 prospects from the top hockey nations in the world, always come around during the holidays, but teams have already submitted their invitees to their selection camps. Among the Canadiens’ North American prospects, two have been named to Team Canada’s 35-player shortlist: Kaiden Guhle and Joshua Roy.
Despite surprising most prospect analysts with their omission of big names such as Brandt Clarke, Brennan Othmann, and top 2022-eligible centre Matthew Savoie (a name Habs fans should keep an eye on if there’s a rebuild this year), their selections of Guhle and Roy make sense based on both players’ current level of play: Guhle was already considered by Craig Button to be among the favorites for Team Canada’s captaincy at the event before his 2021-22 season even started, and Roy currently leads the entire QMJHL in points with 39 in 21 games.
Both prospects will have a chance to don the maple leaf during the month and potentially set themselves up for continued success after the tournament; we’ve often seen prospects burst onto the scene at the World Juniors and ride that high for the rest of their Junior careers, but with 35 players coming in for 23 spots, a lot end up being cut. The question is: How much of an impact will they both have, and what can we expect to see from the two?
Guhle: Big boy hockey — hits, blocked shots, leadership
Not only does Guhle have an all-but-guaranteed spot on Team Canada’s blue line, he is also virtually unchallenged for a top-pairing spot. He and Owen Power should form an extremely difficult pairing to play against, as opponents will have to keep their head up in either corner. The prospect participated in last year’s edition of the tournament and was among the most physically imposing blue-liners on the ice.
His ability to defend the rush and put a stop to sequences in his own zone before they get out of hand is, analytically, in a league of its own.
This @MitchLBrown chart basically shows how good a player is at defending.— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) December 2, 2021
Among CHL and USHL prospects, Kaiden Guhle is just in a league of his own in terms of defending the rush and preventing scoring chances against. #GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/t3pbQZ6RnK
This chart’s horizontal axis represents the amount of prevented opposing zone entries, and the vertical axis represents the number of defensive plays per shot attempt against. Guhle is miles ahead of everyone in the top-right quadrant, and these types of results are rarely a result of simply being bigger.
Watching Guhle defend his zone, it is clear how calculated he is in choosing the right angle of approach, reading where his stick should be the whole way, and finishing through the body in a way that removes the player from the cycle.
He can take two huge strides and close almost any gap instantly, making him outstanding at catching opponents flatfooted or hesitating. His kinetic intelligence, the way he understands body positioning, weight shifts, and leverage in puck battles, makes his ability to defend at an NHL level more or less a given.
In case you were wondering, Kaiden Guhle hits. pic.twitter.com/nVgDle8MD7— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) October 7, 2020
At these World Juniors, with the role he will be given and the amount of ice time in all situations that he is likely to encounter, Guhle could very well be Team Canada’s marquee defenceman at this tournament, although Power might throw his name in the mix after record-breaking offensive numbers with the University of Michigan this year.
The Canadiens’ 2020 first-round pick has started his WHL season on a great note, scoring 15 points in 17 games while regularly being the best player on a poor offensive team in Prince Albert, before being traded to the more competitive Edmonton Oil Kings in a blockbuster deal.
This upcoming tournament, paired with the chance of playing with the likes of Dylan Guenther, Jake Neighbours, and Sebastian Cossa as supporting staff in the Western Hockey League, might just allow Guhle to improve his poise with the puck on the rush. Most of his goals at the moment come from cycle plays in which he finds an area and takes a shot.
If the towering blue-liner can learn to make smarter decisions under pressure, if he can start carrying the puck and joining the rush on a more frequent basis, his foundation of skating and physicality might just help him unlock a level of rush offence that can do some damage at the professional level.
Joshua Roy — A lot to prove, but nothing to lose
In Roy’s case, the issue becomes the sheer amount of talented forwards on this Team Canada shortlist. There are two prospects — 2022-eligible Shane Wright and 2023-eligible Connor Bedard — who are setting up to be generational talents, along with at least 10 other forwards (Bourque, Evangelista, Greig, Guenther, Johnson, Lapierre, McTavish, Neighbours, Perfetti, Stankoven) who I believe have a clear place on this Team Canada lineup.
If my math is right, that’s 12 forwards, leaving Roy to either fight for a depth role or to steal a spot. With the names on this list, the odds of the latter are very slim.
It’s a shame, because Roy’s production so far deserves some sort of reward, and this tournament could be exactly what he needs to show how he matches up against the best of his age group, and how well he could keep up with high-quality linemates.
The only edge that Roy might have on some of the names mentioned above is his adaptability and maturity for his age. Although other prospects might have more speed or more skill, they wouldn’t be able to play a fourth-line role, due to star-player habits. Most of the players in this tournament have always been the best player on their team — Roy hasn’t.
If he plays the right way, the way the coaching staff tells him to, and uses his impressive smarts on and off the puck regularly, he will force them to at least consider taking him over a prospect who might have more pedigree or skill, but who doesn’t use it the way it’s asked.
Roy has nothing to lose; it’s either making this team or going back to Sherbrooke with nothing but a renewed hunger to make them regret their choice. “Adapt or die” happens every time a player is faced with a step forward. Opponents get smarter, more skilled, and more experienced, but so do teammates. Roles change, teams go through streaks, playoffs, rebuilds, firings, trades. All of that requires adaptation, one way or another.
Call it optimism, but I have a good feeling about Roy. He’s made great strides since his draft year, and I think he’ll be one of the final cuts if he doesn’t make it.
Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to follow along with the rest of my scouting work!