Right now at the CHL level there is little question that the Habs strength is on defence as their top four CHL selections in the 2017 draft and best prospect from 2016’s draft class are all defenders.
The rookie tournament was a good place to showcase that talent, and despite an injury to Josh Brook that prevented him from playing for most of the event, the group showed Montreal’s management team that the future is indeed bright on the blueline.
Here is a look at the notable defencemen and goalie who participated in the annual rookie tournament held in Toronto this past weekend:
Noah Juulsen – Montreal’s captain struggled a bit in the first contest, coughing up a few pucks when under pressure, and tossing a couple of ill advised clearing passes up the middle that never escaped his own zone.
While he was far from perfect in the second game as Montreal surrendered eight goals, Juulsen looked more comfortable and was less prone to taking risks with his defensive-zone passes. Throughout the tournament, he was throwing solid bodychecks, and those hits will only get harder as he puts on more weight.
That will be the key for Juulsen in making a permanent jump to the NHL – adding muscle to his 190-pound frame. In speaking with Montreal’s director of player personnel Martin Lapointe after the first game, he noted that Juulsen had not added much if any weight in the offseason. He will need to do so in the future, especially from the waist down.
His stride is a little sloppy and weak at times…there will need to be some ham added to those slender legs and glutes in the next couple of offseasons before he’s ready for a physical role with the Habs as those attempts at crunching hits won’t be nearly as effective with players 30-40 pounds heavier than in junior.
He’ll also need the weight to better absorb the pounding he will take at the NHL level from relentless forecheckers, so the club will be patient with him and let him develop for at least one season in the AHL, perhaps two. There is no rush.
Noah Juulsen Highlights
Juulsen has good puck-moving skills in the offensive zone and on the power play; he sees the ice well peripherally and has good lateral movement along the line. He’s also got a hard, accurate slapshot that he’s not afraid to unleash. He had several shots during the tournament and goalies had to make several difficult stops. He will score some goals in the AHL this season.
I suspect the plan will be to send him down to Laval and ease him into the top four in even-strength situations while giving him plenty of power play opportunities.
Victor Mete – That breathtaking speed is always going to allow him to stand out no matter the level of hockey he plays, and that was quite evident at the rookie tournament where he was unquestionably the fastest player on the ice.
He utilizes that speed to carry the puck out of his own zone with apparent ease as he’s such a smooth, natural skater with explosive quickness and several gears. Just when it looks like he may be caught he shifts into overdrive and pulls away from opponents.
His mobility is also a useful tool defensively as he has excellent gap control and moves effortlessly laterally, making him difficult to beat one-on-one even with his short wingspan and stick.
One other positive defensively is his competitive nature; he doesn’t back away from a puck battle, and holds his own physically by using his strong lower body to get leverage and stay in the fray. It’s easy to see why London coach Dale Hunter has no concerns with using Mete on the penalty kill or late in games protecting leads as he is not a liability in his own zone at the junior or rookie-camp level.
Combine all of those positive with sound position and anticipation, and it’s easy to see why Mete survived the first cut at rookie camp and will get a longer look from the club. I suspect he’ll get an invite to main camp and an exhibition game as the club wants him to experience high-level competition and be in the mix to play in the world Juniors this winter.
Victor Mete Highlights
One might suppose that a player with all that speed would be deemed to be an offensive defenceman…I don’t necessarily see that being the case when he turns pro. Mete uses his speed to get into position to dish the puck off effectively and shoot in the scoring areas, but he’s not an elite passer and certainly does not shoot the puck overly hard even though he netted 15 goals with the Knights last season.
I see Mete being a solid two-way defender whose best attribute is carrying the puck out of harm’s way, be it in the defensive or neutral zone. He looks like he can beat the odds and make the NHL as a 5-9 defender some day, but don’t expect it to be as an offensive defenceman.
Josh Brook – As the Habs’ highest pick from the 2017 draft attending the rookie tournament I was looking forward to seeing Brook perform, so it was rather disappointing to see him have to leave the game midway through the second period of the opening match due to a shoulder injury. Brook injured it on his second shift, and despite not being able to lift the puck he kept playing until about the 30-minute mark of the game before packing it in for the night.
That gives you an idea of the character and determination of the small-town Manitoba boy, as many would not have kept playing after the injury. Even more impressive was that he looked quite solid throughout the opening period, and it was not apparent to this scout at least that he was handicapped at all when it came to defending and clearing the zone. He kept tight gaps, was sound positionally, exhibited good mobility in all directions and finished his checks.
Brook essentially played a mistake-free opening period, and my first impression from seeing him live for the first time was that the Habs got a dandy young defence prospect. Certainly, he looked much steadier than Lijegren…who the Leafs drafted 39 spots higher.
Josh Brook Highlights
The real litmus test would have come against the Senators’ rookies, however, as they had a much stronger forward group, so we will reserve strong judgment on Brook and his potential for the time being as it was such a small sample size.
All things considered though – he looked good playing with one good shoulder, and he certainly doesn’t lack grit and character. I would expect him to be wearing a letter this season in Moose Jaw and playing 25-30 minutes per game as their blueline anchor.
Scott Walford – The one defenceman out of the “Big Five” going into the event that I had the least expectations about was Walford, as due to injuries I only got to see him a few times last season on video.
Walford was the second of four defencemen selected by the Habs in the top five rounds of the 2017 draft, and even though he only got to suit up in the second game and was on the receiving end of an 8-2 loss, Walford acquitted himself quite well.
He started the game on the third pairing with fellow 18-year-old Cale Fleury, and it was a lot to ask for a couple of raw rookies to face the likes of Colin White and Thomas Chabot as a pairing, especially considering that it was Walford’s first taste of “pro-level” hockey.
Walford handled himself quite well, though, showing nice mobility, positioning, decision-making and puck movement. He had very few mistakes during the contest, and even when goals were scored when he was on the ice he was never directly at fault.
Scott Walford Highlights
It’s difficult to adjudge just how much offensive upside he has at this point as most of his shifts were spent in his own zone, and he was not given any power-play opportunities. If his own-zone passes were any indication he has good vision and instincts, and will likely get power-play time in Victoria this season just as he did at the end of last year when Chazz Reddekopp was out of the lineup.
At this point, if I were to rank the four defencemen taken by the Habs in June, Walford would be right where the club selected him – second overall. He looked more comfortable and poised than Tyszka and Fleury, and should be ready to take on a bigger role in Victoria as a former first-round WHL bantam selection as much is expected from him.
Cale Fleury – Kootenay’s captain must have had a sense of deja vu in the 8-2 loss versus Ottawa’s rookies as those were the types of scores he was often subjected to last season on one of the CHL’s worst teams.
A 6-2 blueliner with all of the tools to eventually compete for an NHL position, Fleury was solid enough in the first contest versus the Leafs as he kept it simple for the most part and made sure not to get caught up ice or cause a costly turnover.
In the game versus Ottawa, however, that caution turned to tentativeness and mistakes, as he became overwhelmed with the forechecking pressure and speed in the Ottawa lineup. He’ll need to keep working on his pivots and gap control as it caused him some problems against a much-older lineup that had at least five AHL players and several former top 60 picks.
All in all, it was a tale of two games for Fleury, who as a late birthdate will play just one more season in the WHL before turning pro.
Cale Fleury Highlights
Against the Leafs he competed well below the goal line and threw some hits, using his 200-pound frame effectively considering he was one of the younger players on the ice. He wasn’t used in offensive situations, but managed to get a few shots through during the contest and made some smart passes.
The Ottawa game he started out on a pairing with Walford, and he was never able to get his game on track, but versus that stacked lineup on the youngest pairing in the tournament, it was to be expected that there would be some struggles. Fleury now has an idea of what he needs to work on – getting quicker, stronger and making faster decisions with the puck, as is the case with most young defencemen.
This will be a pivotal season in his development, and hopefully, for his sake, Kootenay has a stronger team as he will need to gain some confidence before adapting to the AHL level.
Jarret Tyszka – I wasn’t expecting a lot from the rangy blueliner who was disappointing in the second half of last season and is still recovering from shoulder problems. He sat out the second contest so that he could rest the shoulder and not be subjected to back-to-back games.
Tyszka started the opening game of the tournament as the seventh defenceman on the Habs, but after Brook left the game he saw a regular role and ended up leaving a good impression with the Habs brass even if he still had some turnover issues, a common trait at the end of last season which caused his draft stock to fall from second-round candidate to the fifth round.
He needs to get quite a bit stronger as he’s quite lanky and weak in the lower body in particular, yet the 6-3 defenceman moves pretty well once those Bambi legs of his get churning – in two or three years if the strength comes he projects to be an above-average skater.
Jarret Tyszka Highlights
Another asset is his reach and wingspan; he’s one of those specimens with arms that nearly reach his kneecaps. He will be able to utilize that reach to frustrate opponents as his strength develops. Certainly, there is good potential for him to become a decent one-on-one defender in the open ice.
Tyszka biggest issue apart from inconsistency in his positioning and decision-making is his work along the boards. He loses most puck battles, and for the most part, it is simply a strength issue. Getting stronger…a LOT stronger…will be the key to his development. that comes, and some other things should fall into place.
I can’t help but get a bit of a David Fischer vibe from Tyszka…but don’t panic Habs fans – keep in mind that Tyszka was selected in the fifth round, not the top 20 like the former Habs bust…so expectations should not be nearly as high. He’ll be a longshot to play in the NHL, but the size/skating combo is a good start. If the strength/decision-making ever catch up, he may surprise down the road.
Michael McNiven – He’s not likely ever to be the starting goaltender in Montreal because a fellow name Price just happens to own claim to that right, but it’s all about assets, and in this fine young netminder the Habs certainly have a valuable one.
It’s hard not to consider him to be one of the club’s top ten prospects at this point, and perhaps even in the argument for the top five. No prospect looked better than McNiven at the rookie tournament, certainly not in the first game at least, as he was the main reason the Habs were able to triumph over the Leafs despite being outshot.
As good as Ottawa was in the second game, if McNiven starts that contest there is a strong possibility that the game is not a blowout; he was unquestionably the best goalie prospect at the tournament.
McNiven had one moment in the opening game where he did not look great as he fell to his knees and a shot from the high slot went over his shoulder. Even that play wasn’t his fault, however, as a closer look revealed that the shot was deflected on the way in and changed direction.
McNiven competes at a high level and shows excellent athleticism, particularly on pad saves where he flashes lightning-quick legs. Toronto’s forwards were starting to get frustrated as he thwarted several good scoring chances with those pads, and he is also adept at kicking out rebounds to the corner to prevent second-chance opportunities.
Michael McNiven Highlights
McNiven will give Zach Fucale all he can handle in the battle for the backup position in Laval in camp, and it would not shock me if he ends up winning the spot and pushing Charlie Lindgren for playing time as the season progresses.
Certainly, if he ends up in Brampton, he should be one of the better ECHL goalies as a rookie and make that team competitive on most nights with his play alone. the future looks bright for Montreal in goal.