The Montreal Canadiens are having a busy weekend with stops in Sunrise, and Tampa Bay, Florida. Montreal are trying to hang in the playoff picture heading into the new year. The Panthers were a difficult opponent on Saturday night, winning 4-1.
The heat map of two seasons tells the story for Cole Caufield. It’s the heat map that explains a 16 shooting percentage last year, and a six per cent this year. Caufield has been getting pushed to the outside more this year.
Head Coach Martin St. Louis has commented on it too, saying that the opposition has adjusted, and Caufield needs to work harder to get to the middle of the ice for better shooting lanes.
Caufield was listening on the first Canadiens goal. It was a power play, and instead of being outside the left face-off dot, Caufield was working hard to win space inside the crease. He did, and it mattered.
Caufield got the pass from Nick Suzuki right in the front of the net. He turned and fired a backhander to the top shelf perfectly. The shot hit the top twine before the back twine, it was elevated that quickly and that accurately. Very few players in hockey can make that shot. Caufield is one of them.
It was his first goal in 12 games, and only his ninth goal of the season. Many predicted a 40-goal campaign for Caufield. It would have been the first 40-goal season for a Canadiens player since 1994. However, Caufield is only on pace for 20.
It’s a disappointing number, but very few in hockey feel as if Caufield has dropped from a 16 to a six per cent shooter in one season with six being the new standard. Caufield simply needs to work a bit harder to get inside the dots to improve his shooting angles. St. Louis knows it. The heat map knows it.
It seems that there is only one glaring hole left in Juraj Slafkovsky’s game. He is doing so much correctly right now. He has improved his skating. He is winning board battles. His routes are strong. Slafkovsky even is intelligent on defence early in his career.
However, that shot is way too slow on the release. Slafkovsky is finally taking some shot opportunities which is excellent, but they’re not getting on net. Defenders are able to get their sticks in the lanes while Slafkovsky takes his sweet time to unload.
In the second period, Slafkovsky had what seemed like ages to get his shot off from 15 feet, and he still couldn’t get it on net before a defender moved into the lane to deflect it. No one expects his release time to be Connor Bedard’s, but some improvement is absolutely required.
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If he can not get his release time improved, then all of his goals will be tap-ins using his size in front of the net, or deflections also using his size to win space in front of goalies. However, to be a complete goal scorer, some goals have to come from actual shots on goal from 20 feet.
Slafkovsky should be able to find his way. He has figured out every other aspect of his game in short order. He is still 19, and there is a lot of time to fill this hole in the arsenal. He does need to work on it though. His shot has pace and is heavy, but that doesn’t matter if it arrives to the goalie only at practice in Brossard.
His line-mate Caufield has one of the best releases in hockey. Perhaps between Caufield and development expert Adam Nicolas can pass on some wisdom to improve that aspect of his game. Slafkovsky is coming along beautifully. This is the next natural progression in his game.
Overall, the Canadiens had a terrible time creating offence. They had only 19 shots on goal. However, the Panthers weren’t exactly on fire either in this extremely low-event game. They only had 26 shots. Not a thriller, but the Canadiens stuck around as usual. They have been great at staying in the fight, though, some nights it is quite apparent, this club needs more scorers.
It’s been a mixed bag, so far, for Canadiens prospects at the World Junior Championships.
It’s interesting that the best performer is a player who many were giving up on at the start of the season when he struggled to find a home. Filip Mesar began the year with the Laval Rocket where he could not secure work. Mesar landed in Kitchener to play for a high flying Rangers club where he got his confidence back.
Mesar is now riding that confidence for Slovakia as one of their best players. Mesar has six assists as the Slovaks are impressing the hockey world. They’re still undefeated with a contest Sunday for first place against the United States. Mesar is second on the team in scoring. With his trademark speed and ability to execute difficult actions with that speed, Mesar has the type of skill-set that translates to success at the NHL level.
The second best prospect, as the round-robin concludes, is a massive surprise. Jacob Fowler has shared the goaltending duties with Trey Augustine. It was expected that the veteran Augustine would see almost all of the action, but Fowler has pushed his way through starting two games to Augustine’s one.
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Fowler could be an absolute steal for the Canadiens in the draft. He was taken in the third round, but he already looks well above that stock. Fowler is excelling at Boston College in his first season. It will be interesting to see who takes the net for the medal round. Initially, it was a given that it was Augustine, but Fowler may take the net for the big contests at this point. Fowler has a confidence and swagger that goaltenders must have.
Next up is Lane Hutson. He has not dominated as expected in the first three games. His first two were, for him, average. However, in his third game, he led the US club in minutes played and was named the player of the game. Hutson is plus 3, and has two points. Both numbers are just off the lead for defenders on the club.
The US has been interesting in how they have created their offence. They have relied on the point men very little. Most of their offence has come from down low cycles after long bouts of offensive pressure. That has led to the forwards all excelling more than the defenders. Against better teams to come, that balance could change.
It hasn’t been a bad tourney at all for Hutson. It just has not been a dominating one so far. The difficult games will decide it. The Americans are favoured to win. Their line-up is deep, especially at forward, where they have power and talent on all four lines.
The final Canadiens prospect is Owen Beck. He has shown his offensive limitations this week when the competition has been stiffer. When Beck tries to become an NHL player, he will basically be a new version of Jake Evans. He will be, like Evans, an intelligent player that is not offering much on offence, but will be responsible on defence.
Beck has no points in three games as Canada looks quite vulnerable to leave without a medal this year. Beck will be an NHL player. Just don’t expect even a 15 goal season from him. He is a support piece. If he develops defensively, he could be a valuable support piece.
His best hope is to be a much-needed shutdown player taking on the best that the opposition has to offer. That has value. If he can shut down the top centres of the game, and do that better than Evans, there will be big value in Beck. We shouldn’t see him though as a top-six with a chance to break out as a scorer in the NHL.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.