Montreal Canadiens fans are tuning into the Memorial Cup June 20, and not just because it’s going to be the first one in three years. With the Habs obviously done and the Laval Rocket now out of the American Hockey League playoffs, it’s the only action in which they have a vested interest that they’re going to get for a while.
In case you haven’t heard, the Canadiens have three prospects playing in this year’s (quasi-)annual major-junior championship tournament. Not only that, but the team’s top prospect (by general consensus) is one of them.
Here’s how the three rank:
3) Arber Xhekaj (Hamilton Bulldogs – OHL)
An undrafted invitee to the Canadiens’ 2021 rookie camp, defenseman Arber Xhekaj is the team’s feel-good story for the moment. Xhekaj impressed enough to earn an invitation to training camp (like the other two names on this list) and ultimately an entry-level deal, after which he returned to the Ontario Hockey League.
If the story were to end there, it would probably be enough to get you through the rest of your day, but it doesn’t. Whereas in 2019-20, Xhekaj scored six goals and 17 points in 51 games with the Kitchener Rangers, he scored the exact same amount in 18 games to start 2021-22 (the 2020-21 Ontario Hockey League season was canceled due to the pandemic). He eventually added 16 points in 18 playoff games with his hometown Hamilton Bulldogs. Needless to say, his stock has climbed.
It’s important to acknowledge Xhekaj is an overage 21 years old, though. So, his offensive production and overall progression is obviously a nice-to-have, but it’s not necessarily going to translate to the NHL.
He’s effectively a man competing against teenagers right now, which is the point: His 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame should translate. That’s why he takes the No. 3 spot. His actual projection is as a physical depth defenseman, but watching him earn his stripes if he is able to reach the NHL will definitely be intriguing, as to a certain extent he’s already captured the heart of Habs fandom. Everyone’s pulling for him.
2) Jan Mysak (Hamilton Bulldogs – OHL)
Xhekaj’s Hamilton teammate, Jan Mysak has a higher ceiling (albeit as a forward), having been drafted at No. 48 overall at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
The 20-year-old Czech is technically closer than Xhekaj to the professional ranks, having actually played for the Rocket in 2020-21 as an 18-year-old, due to the canceled OHL season. While Mysak impressed in some respects, according to then-head coach Joel Bouchard, the plan was always for him to return to junior.
Ultimately, Mysak only scored two goals in 22 games as a member of the Rocket. With the Bulldogs this past season, Mysak scored 64 points in 61 games, adding 11 points in 17 playoff games. It’s worth noting, Mysak seemed comfortable in the AHL, despite the lack of production.
Realistically, Mysak still needs a lot of seasoning. He nevertheless projects as a middle-six forward, capable of playing center, which would help solve the Habs’ depth issues down the middle (even with the first-overall pick locked up). He’s still seen as more of a left-winger in the mold of Artturi Lehkonen, according to Dobber Prospects. No guarantees obviously, but that wouldn’t be too shabby.
1) Kaiden Guhle (Edmonton Oil Kings – WHL)
The Bulldogs probably have the best player in the Memorial Cup in Mason McTavish (Anaheim Ducks). However, by virtue of co-leading the field with eight NHL draftees, the Edmonton Oil Kings have to be considered strong contenders (Saint John Sea Dogs).
Also of note, like the Bulldogs, the Oil Kings only lost three games over four playoff rounds. Defenseman Kaiden Guhle was a big part of that success, with eight goals and 16 points in 19 games to lead all Oil King blue-liners. Guhle’s of course a big part of the Canadiens’ farm system too, but the offensive touch he’s finding now is gravy.
In effect, Guhle’s offense is not necessarily why he was drafted. The 6-foot-2, 199-pound defenseman was drafted with his physicality and sound play in his own zone in mind, almost in the mold of ex-Canadiens captain Shea Weber, but with better skating (and less goal power-play prowess). Projected as a top-pairing defenseman, Guhle also tops most if not all lists of Canadiens prospects for good reason.
It’s all obviously in sharp contrast to his first trip to the Memorial Cup back in 2019 as a member of the Prince Albert Raiders, when, at 17, he obviously wasn’t a leader on defense (or offense from the blue line). Even if Guhle’s newfound offense doesn’t translate to the NHL, the Habs have still got an elite shutdown defenseman on their hands in theory, if the other aspects of his game do make the transition. That leadership included.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.