Tuesday, July 31, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Montreal Canadiens

It was a tough year for Montreal fans, so let's see what their OHL prospects did and how they progressed.

1. Cam Hillis - Guelph Storm
A savvy pick by the Canadiens in the 3rd round this year. A first year OHL player, Hillis was a standout for the Guelph Storm as a rookie, acting as the team's first line center. Hillis plays with a very high intensity level. He's not the biggest, but he's relatively fearless. He's at his best keeping his feet moving in the offensive end, working the wall, setting up shop behind the net, and driving the middle to create scoring chances. I like his vision as a center when the game slows down. His puck skill is quite high and he bides time for himself with his hands and is good at drawing in defenders to create openings. Consistency is an issue for Hillis at this time though. Strength will need to be upgraded. He's fearless in traffic, but not always effective. He can be pushed off the puck. He also will need to get quicker. His skating has apparently already come a long way, but becoming more explosive will be key for him given his lack of size. Improving those two things will help him be a better player outside the offensive zone. And it will help him be more consistently dangerous. Hillis will return to Guelph next year and be the first line center on a team who should aspire to win the Western Conference. I think he's an 80+ point player next year and he possesses the highest potential of any player on this list for Montreal and that's why I have him ranked first.

2. Will Bitten - Hamilton Bulldogs
For the first time in his OHL career, we saw Bitten hit the point per game mark and that should certainly be celebrated. Especially when you factor in his importance in the Bulldogs successful season that saw them reach the Memorial Cup. Bitten started the year at center, but was shifted to the wing after the team brought in Ryan Moore from Flint. I think we definitely saw Bitten be more of a factor without the puck than we had previously seen. Added strength can likely help to explain that as he was way more effective working the wall and using his speed to retrieve pucks on the forecheck. He's definitely still at his best off the rush where he can use his speed and terrific puck handling ability to gain the zone and make things happen. All that said, I think we would be lying if we didn't have higher expectations for Bitten offensively. His goals per game went down yet again and his goal scoring ability and shot never really developed to the point most expected it would after a 30 goal draft eligible season. His speed and tenacity will play at the next level on the wing, but I do wonder just how much his playmaking ability will. He may have to alter his game to turn himself into an impactful energy player who can disrupt and make plays in all three zones; perhaps even adding a physical element to his game, in order to be an NHL player. He'll turn pro next year and should be a bottom six player in his first season. He's probably a 20-25 point guy to start as he works his way up the line-up.

3. Allan McShane - Oshawa Generals 
McShane is easily one of the best young playmakers in the OHL right now. His vision is almost at an elite level. His hockey sense and ability to create plays in the offensive zone are top notch. It's like he has eyes in the back of his head at times, as he finds open teammates coming off the wall or exhibiting poise off the rush. McShane also has an excellent stick in the defensive zone, where his hockey sense is on display. When all is said and done, McShane could win an OHL scoring title. All that said, his skating needs to improve greatly to be an NHL player. His top speed and his first few steps are both only average for this level and it prevents him from being a truly consistent play creator at this time. This is also combined with a lack of strength on the puck and lack of physical intensity. He needs to attack the middle of the ice with more urgency and learn to play within a few feet of the net. These are all correctable issues though and I would expect his game to grow leaps and bounds within the next two years. Oshawa should be a Memorial Cup contender within the next couple of seasons and McShane will be at the forefront of that. Next year, I expect him to be an 85+ point player and I would expect his goal totals to increase.

4. Hayden Verbeek - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Speed, speed, and more speed. Verbeek has to be considered one of the elite skaters in the OHL. His fantastic season for the Greyhounds was rewarded by Montreal with a contract after his OA year. Montreal fans are going to love Verbeek because of his tenacious and infectious energy level on the ice. He played in all situations for the Hounds and was one of the league's elite penalty killers. Quite honestly, his injury in the playoffs was one of the main reasons that SSM lost in the OHL finals. They greatly missed his presence. So what can Montreal expect of Verbeek moving forward? I don't think he has the innate offensive ability required to become a top 6 player, perhaps even at the AHL level, let alone the NHL level. But his hockey sense, skating ability, and effectiveness in all three zones could make him a very valuable checking line player in the same vein as a guy like Darren Helm. He'll start his pro career next year and it actually wouldn't shock me if his offensive output was pretty similar to Will Bitten in his first year. He could move quickly if he proves he can handle the pro game physically.

5. Michael Pezzetta - Sarnia Sting
Power center (although who shifted to wing with Sarnia after a trade from Sudbury) who pretty much doubled his previous career highs offensively this year. It was a make or break year for Pezzetta in terms of earning an NHL contract and his progression obviously impressed Montreal brass. Pezzetta plays a power game and knows his role on the ice is to lay the body, drive the net, and provide energy in all three zones. He skates pretty well and that helps him be an effective player away from the puck and a guy who can open up space for linemates. Offensively, he has limitations and he's never going to be a big time scorer at the next level. If I'm being quite honest, I was a bit surprised that Montreal signed him. But they obviously see him as a potential 4th liner who can play hard and be the team's Ryan Reaves. Between Pezzetta, Verbeek, and Bitten, I think that Montreal should at the very least find one very capable and effective bottom 6 forward. As he turns pro this year, I wouldn't expect much from Pezzetta offensively. Getting into the line-up every day, and getting used to the pro speed will be the main focus.

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