Prospects Challenge: Eye Test Report

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.

In net

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.

On defense

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!

Kaiden Guhle

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.

On offense

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!

Owen Beck

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.

Slafkovsky

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!

“Juraj Slafkovsky’s reaction to the fans who wanted to draft Shane Wright first overall”

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!

Summary

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.

JAG

More reading…

Dubois: The Waiting Game

By JAG – Like a few of my colleagues, I would really like to see Pierre-Luc Dubois in the Ste-Flanelle. I have written about it before and I’m still hoping. Lately though, I have come to realize that it may just be a waiting game. A two year long waiting game to be sure, and a game best suited for Habs fans with a talent for patience. I’m ready for it, I have plenty of it in store! I waited seven years for Shea Weber to come to Montreal …. And it was completely worth it!

I see the wait as a series of different time windows unfolding in the next two years. For this piece to make sense though, I will assume that the following three hypotheses are valid:

  1. The Habs are seriously interested in acquiring PL Dubois
  2. PL Dubois is seriously interested in becoming a Habs
  3. Winnipeg will be smart enough, maybe, to trade PL Dubois to the Habs before losing him to free agency

About the hypotheses, we’ve all seen reports and rumours in the media that have substantiated and strongly supported the first two. That’s a solid start! The third is seemingly shakier but I think that some situations in Winnipeg may make management act in that direction. And maybe sooner than later! Let me explain.

Caveat: I admit that I am an outsider and I may not have followed Winnipeg as much as I did the Habs but I did pay more attention to them, and PL Dubois of course!

Yet, from what I have seen in the news, there seems to be something weird going on in the Peg. Case in point:

Pierre-Luc Dubois
  • The team has been losing RFAs wanting to be traded and free agents walking out for as long as I can remember, why is that?
  • Dustin Byfuglien left the team and went fishing, what’s that all about?
  • Paul Maurice quit his lucrative coaching position mid season with very little explanation, bizarre?
  • Barry Trotz refused a coaching job with a potential Cup contender, in his home town to boot! Do you see a pattern developing?
  • You could build a contender just with the players that have left, Andrew Copp, Laine, Roslovic, Byfuglien, Trouba, and just now, Paul Stastny has signed in Carolina! What gives?

As you can see, if you look at it either as sheer bad luck or some undisclosed internal situation, this team’s boat gets arocking quite often! And despite being a team in contention for a while now, they haven’t delivered. All of this may mean that changes are coming!

So, let’s start with the first window.

  1. The off season, this year: There are only a few weeks left but they matter. The scenario is as follow. Either Winnipeg stands pat, which is not likely considering Stastny has just left the coop, and yet, they do nothing. Bummer! …. Or they come to terms with the fact that they will lose PLD no matter what, and they decide to clear the air now and make a move. In this case, Kent Hughes has already in hand the necessary assets to offer Winnipeg an equitable hockey trade. The trades for Monahan and Dach have given him more leverage. Result: Bingo! Dubois in Montreal!
  2. Second window: From the 20 games marker in the 22-23 season through late January 23. By then, management and coaches alike have analyzed their team and identified holes and weaknesses. Also, injuries have popped up and a trade may be needed …. Or not.  So, if Winnipeg is doing well, Bummer! If Winnipeg is faltering, bingo! Dubois in Montreal!
  3. Third window: The trade deadline. The same situation as window 2 applies. If Winnipeg is doing well, Bummer! If Winnipeg is faltering, bingo! Dubois in Montreal! The difference will be in the ask. In window 1 and early in window 2, Winnipeg is more likely to ask for established players in the return package to amp their line-up immediately. If they’re faltering at the trade deadline, they’ll probably start to think about the future and are more likely to ask for prospects and picks. Kent Hughes should have plenty of these by then. The Habs still have too many wingers and trades are coming, either now or at the deadline, but they are coming …. And they will bring additional picks and prospects to Montreal.
  4. Fourth window: From the end of the playoffs to the draft. If by then the trade hasn’t happened yet, it likely means that Winnipeg had a decent season. Bummer! They may however have depleted their picks and prospects for a good Stanley Cup run and find themselves with the cupboards even barer than they are now. In the mean time, Montreal has piled up picks and prospects and is definitely a prime dancing partner. Result: Bingo! Dubois in Montreal!
  5. Fifth window: RFAs signings period. If Winnipeg had a decent season, it may mean that Dubois also had a decent year and Winnipeg’s ask would be higher. The flip side is that if Dubois had a decent year, he will get more money with or without arbitration, money Winnipeg would be ill advised to spend if Dubois only signs for one year before getting his UFA status. By then, Montreal should be under the Cap with without Price in LTIR and they should be able to trade for him. Result: Bingo! Dubois in Montreal!
  6. Fifth window, alternate scenario: Someone other than the Habs sign Dubois to an offer sheet that Winnipeg doesn’t want to match. Montreal trades for him and matches the offer. Montreal can offer a better package than 4 late first rounders. I do think that this scenario would be too costly but the result would be …. Bingo! Dubois in Montreal! If not, be patient, keep hoping and repeat windows 1 to 5 in 23-24.
  7. Last window: Dubois becomes UFA on July 1st, 2024. The Habs sign him as a UFA, no other compensation required, the universe’s balance has been restored! Bingo! Dubois in Montreal!

As you see, in the end, it’s just a waiting game. If you wait for him, he will come! As for me, this is my last piece on this topic, I have resolved to be patient …. As I know I can be!

Keep your stick on the ice, the puck is coming!

Thanks for reading me,

JAG

More reading…