By JAG – The Prospects Challenge has come and gone. The following is an eye test overview of the three games played by the Habs’ prospects.
The game plan
Jean-François Houle seemed, at first, to have the same game plan as his colleagues. Basically, get out there on offense as soon as you get the puck and put it in the net. If not, come back like hell, get the puck back, repeat! As simple as that!
What else could you expect when you have 30 prospects who hardly know each other and are coming from five different countries, eight different leagues and about twenty different teams. I expected the games to look more like street hockey than NHL hockey. And I didn’t expect any team to play with coherence under such circumstances. I was wrong, at least in the Habs’ case anyways! Mister Houle found a way to get a measure of coherence sometime in game two, mostly through line adjustments and he followed it up with a team showing emerging cohesion in game three. Not a small feat indeed! Kudos to Mister Houle, it bodes well for the Laval Rockets upcoming season.
As for the players, I have to say that every single player on the Habs’ side showed why he deserved to be there. From the most unexpected invitees to the first pick overall, they all had good moments. The Habs were never out of it. Especially in game two against a New Jersey roster featuring a good measure of AHLers compared to the Habs’ mere four AHL players, the kids did us proud and played very well.
All three goalies offered solid performances. Vrbetic is already signed on an AHL contract and should develop further this year. Coulombe should get a serious look before a decision is made on a Habs’ offer but an AHL contract could be in the books. Mercer is the big question mark, he did very well, is only eighteen and has not been drafted. He will go back to Junior but the Habs should keep an eye on him, he’s available.
I don’t see a universe where Justin Barron doesn’t start the season in the NHL. His composure, lecture and overall skillset all scream ‘’I’m ready’’! Jordan Harris is NHL ready, his four years in college have paid off, he is physically mature and I can’t wait to see how he develops under MSL. Norlinder showed enough flashes to be noticeable but at his age, I expected more from him. At times he looked like a guy who wants to play in Sweden this season. We’ll see. He may be the first left D to be traded. Fairbrother finally looked like the player that was drafted for his robustness and mobility and he plays both sides of the defense now. Smart move on his part, it’s too busy on the left side anyways!
Guhle’s play was every bit as advertised. I could nitpick on a few shortcomings, but they are all related to lack of experience which should be acquired right this year, either in the AHL or the NHL. I have the feeling he will finish the season at the Bell Center. William Trudeau looked a lot better than what I saw last year, he surprised me on some plays with good reads and timely jumps to support offense. A good season in the Q should earn him an entry level contract, he has at least the potential of a third pair defenseman with some offensive upside.
Santino Centorame and Miguel Tourigny definitely need to play games in the AHL before their true ceiling is assessed but they both showed good things. I think they could both get a try-out or an AHL contracts respectively to start their professional careers.
Lastly, there is Arber Xhekaj! I could write a whole article on the AX man. In fact, it’s already in the works, it is called ‘’Don’t mess with the Xhekaj!’’, watch for it coming up next.
First, Jared Davidson, Cédrik Guindon, Riley Kidney and Joshua Roy – who didn’t play in the challenge due to a minor hand injury – are all eligible to go back to Junior and, in all likeliness, should do so at some time during or after the main camp. Davidson showed the grit and motor he was drafted for and stands an outside chance of getting signed as an AHLer this year. Guindon has shown to be much better than what is generally expected from a late fourth rounder. He is agile, quick and fast and reads the play well. He may be a ‘’Joshua Roy’’ type of find for the Habs. You always knew when he was on the ice. Defense needs work but he has the tools and the speed to be effective in that department. Kidney and Roy would both be ready for the AHL if they were eligible. Rules are rules and they will have to spend one last year in the QMJHL and work on size and strength for Kidney and a bit more speed for Roy. They should both dominate the scoring in the QMJHL and should make Team Canada at Christmas.
Pierrik Dubé may have earned an AHL contract or a try-out anyways, he showed some flashes of offensive talent and could be a long term project. Ryan Francis got better as the Challenge went on and had a solid third game. Definitely worth a longer look before a decision is made in his case. He has speed and offensive upside, he reminds me of Jake Evans somehow, I would definitely try him out in Laval. Xavier Simoneau also got better as the Challenge went on and, being a draftee, will most likely sign an AHL contract to start his career in Laval.
If the new management didn’t know much about Brett Stapley before, they now know that they have a better player than they thought. He showed that four years in Denver have made him into a solid 200 feet player. He is already signed to an AHL contract and will ply his trade in Laval for now but look for him to climb the depth chart rather quickly and possibly be an NHLer by next year. I have followed his progress since he was drafted at 19 years old out of the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers team. He’s a gamer whose forte is his hockey IQ. He’s a center right now but may be better served as a winger as he develops. Don’t count him out.
John Parker-Jones was the one player that exceeded my expectations the most. He’s only 22 and he’s a BIG man. At 6-foot 7-inches and 230 lbs, he is physically NHL ready right now but needs games at a higher level. He too may be a long-term project. He’s listed as a right shot defenseman but played the Challenge as a forward and scored a beautiful goal on a breakaway. He displayed solid puck protection, reasonable speed, grit and good reads. He has AHL contract written all over him… maybe more! He could be this year’s BIG find!
The other player that exceeded my expectations was Owen Beck. As a rule, I’m suspicious of people that feel obligated to tell you they’re smart. In my experience, truly smart people don’t really have to mention it, it shows! Don’t mind my bias, Mister Beck resolutely put his money where his mouth is and he looked very smart on the ice …. Often! Of all the forwards not named Slafkovsky, he may be the most NHL ready of the bunch. Quick, fast, agile, great compete, great hockey IQ, great reads on both sides of the puck, physical, etc. etc. Impressive indeed! Parker-Jones may be this year’s rookie camp BIG find but Owen Beck has to be the Habs’ draft’s biggest steal!
Condotta, Mysak and hopefully Heineman – although it’s reportedly NHL or Europe for him – should all start in Laval and all have a good chance to do stints with the Habs as trades and injuries free up spots in the BIG. Even though these three are very different players; grinder, 200 foot center and speedy winger, they’ve all reached a level where they are valid call-ups in the different roles they can fill. They will all improve their game in Laval and should be ready before they get the call.
Filip Mesar is a bit of a poser. I really liked what I saw, but is he physically ready for Laval or should he go back to Junior? I saw him in civilian clothes coming out of the Habs’ bus in Buffalo and he is not thin …. nor is he skinny. He has a thick core like Gallagher does. Low center of gravity and a strong core make him effective in traffic, which he displayed several times in the games he played. If he does well at the main camp, a ticket to Laval maybe the path for his development. He’s played with adults before so it wouldn’t be a big stretch.
And saving the best for last …. Juraj Slafkovsky is a genuine young thoroughbred and he showed it …. sometimes too much! He is supersized all the way and he seems to have only one speed, full steam ahead that is! He kept attacking walls of defenders and almost went through a few times! In the end, he tried to do too much …. and too often!
So what I say! It was great fun to watch! He put on display just how fast, physically dominant and intimidating he is. Repeatedly! Like a thoroughbred, he will need to be reined in by Martin St-Louis …. and probably often! That’ll be fun to watch, but it will subside soon enough, the kid is smart!
On the downside, I found that the reports I have read about his shortcomings in reading the play are true. I witnessed it a few times in the two games he played. Yet, I am not too concerned. I’ve heard that the plan is to start him on the third line and I’m hoping Gallagher will be on that line with either Dach or Monahan to calm him down and show him the right way to play. That would go a long way in helping St-Louis get the best of his talents. If not Gallagher then Anderson. Imagine Anderson, Dach and Slafs cycling the puck with you in the middle or all three coming at you full speed …. Scaaaary! The Habs will not be easy to play against, that’s for sure!
Notwithstanding his shortcomings, I haven’t changed my mind about Slafkovsky. He’s still a bit unpolished and he’s not perfect but I’m convinced that, as a BIG piece of the Habs’ Stanley Cup puzzle, he will be a perfect fit …. For a long time!
So, there you have it. As far as prospect groups go, this is a good one. Coaching was good and players performed as advertised …. Or better! Which came as a surprise considering some really poor prospect performances in the not-so distant past.
Of course, time will tell how much of what we saw was just promises and how much will actually come to be. This will be great fun to watch unfold to be sure.
Keep your stick on the ice, the puck is coming!
Thanks for reading.