The NHL is kind of back everyone! The Montreal Canadiens prospects rolled into the Harborcenter to kick off the Rookie Showcase ahead of a full return to NHL training camp. It was the first chance for many of the prospects to showcase their talents after a long summer, and many of them did not disappoint.
The Habs prospects came up short losing 4-3 to the Buffalo Sabres prospects in a game where Montreal had the better chances and control, but failed to capitalize when given the chance on special teams. The result is a non-factor in the grand scheme of things, but the competition helps provide a glimpse at many prospects before they head back to their Junior leagues and beyond.
I took some notes on key players that I really liked, those who performed about as expected, and also those who I thought could have had a better showing on day one of the tournament.
Okay, we’re going to get the big one (no pun intended) out of the way first, because my introduction to Juraj Slafkovský was an enjoyable one. The gigantic Slovak moves around the ice like a player half his size, galloping through all three zones like a prize horse at the Kentucky Derby. Any time he was on the ice he commanded the attention of the Sabres, and even when they gave it to him, his physical traits allowed him to push right by them.
There is a lot more to his game than just raw physical prowess. His ability to win pucks with his stick-work and reading of the play was impressive. He didn’t have a goal, but his short-handed efforts allowed Filip Mesar to score instead. Slafkovský took off hard down ice, closing the gap quickly, winning a puck battle and feeding Mesar in the slot.
The only minimal critique I have is that Slafkovsky tended to try to play hero on a lot of shifts. Taking on multiple defenders is admirable, but with a limited success rate he may need to either use a teammate or just dump the puck in going forward to extend the puck’s time in the zone. Overall, he put on quite a show and has Habs fans eager for more as the showcase continues.
Beck stood out as my player of the game for the Canadiens prospects in game one. Every single time I noticed Beck he was making a defensive play or facilitating play through the neutral zone to start a counter-attack. He was eventually rewarded with a beautiful breakaway goal in the third period for all of his efforts outside the offensive zone, too.
I would like to see him get a run on the top power-play unit, personally, I think his smart play with and without the puck could help fix some of the struggles the units had on Thursday night. Overall, it’s not hard to see why the Canadiens’ front office loved Beck, and he might end up being a steal in due time.
Xhekaj had very good moments throughout the game, but also had moments when he was at less than his best. The bruising, nasty blue-liner comes exactly as advertised; there wasn’t a single Sabres player he didn’t want to punish with a hit. He made sure to leave his mark too, shrugging off attempted contact, and crushing any soul unfortunate enough to be in his lane.
He also showcased some good skating and puck skills to carry pucks in deep, and that’s something I think he could have done more if his partner Miguel Tourigny wasn’t already halfway up the ice.
The drawback with Xhekaj’s style of play is that his hyper-aggressiveness tends to leave him in no man’s land, and his defence partner scrambling to cover more ice. His willingness to be physical is a huge plus, but to continue to grow as a player he must learn when to turn that switch down a bit.
I can tell Heineman is going to be a frustrating prospect to analyze over the next season or so. The good is very obvious: he can shoot the puck, and he can shoot it really well as evidenced by his opening goal on the night. He shifts his weight to get heavy velocity behind the shot, and picks his spot well.
He tries to dangle around defenders when he sees the chance, however he’s a step behind the execution and read which allows defenders to close the space on him quickly. I also didn’t notice much of an effort defensively from him, as he tended to just sort of be there when the puck wasn’t heading toward the offensive zone. He has talent to be an NHL player with his offensive skills, but unless he brings that level up in other parts of his game, his ceiling might be limited.
I am not a goalie expert, but it’s likely very hard to jump back into playing in goal after several weeks off from hockey, and it’s likely even harder with a team in front of you that you’ve never played behind. Vrbetic didn’t have the best night, but the team in front of him left him out to dry with missed assignments and some odd-man rushes against. He did make some nice saves to keep the Habs in the game, but it was a game to forget otherwise.
I don’t plan on reading too much into his night overall, it’s hard to fully analyze goalies a lot of the time, let alone in this kind of situation.
Those were some of the standout players from the first day of the Rookie Showcase, and I’ll have plenty more as the weekend wears on as we see other prospects step for the fore, and perhaps improvement from those who didn’t have their strongest outings to start.