Josh
Mallory
April 21, 2021

PROSPECT PLAYBOOK: Breaking down Dean’s game

Welcome to my third deep dive for FCHockey! In this instalment, I’ve taken a detailed look into Zach Dean of the Gatineau Olympiques.

Dean, who missed some time to start the QMJHL season due to injury, has provided a very strong showing in the 23 games he’s played in thus far. His strengths as a player are plenty. The first thing that stood out to me while watching Dean was his ability to always face the play through the use of open pivots, fluid transitional skating and frequent shoulder checks. His ability to remain square to or aware of the play at all times allows him to have high-end processing speed with and without the puck. Because of his processing speed, he’s incredibly adept at playing between checks and finding quiet pockets on the ice to support teammates and extend offensive possessions that otherwise probably should have ended. Dean also displays very intelligent route selection throughout the defensive, neutral and offensive zones – an element of his game that will only help him improve at each successive level he reaches as he gains smarter and more capable teammates.

He displays fluid, full extensions through his linear skating, and frequently implements linear crossovers through the neutral zone and in transition to add an element of unpredictability to his game. Dean’s puck-handling isn’t ultra-dynamic or pronounced (think Auston Matthews/Patrick Kane style), but he’s very effective at under-handling and no-dusting (think Sebastian Aho). That being said, he can still pull off quick, minimalist moves when he needs to – particularly around the net. His skating could serve to become more explosive, particularly through his first three strides, but that should come with his continued development, added strength and heightened coordination.

The Numbers

Dean’s 2021 numbers are very impressive. While he posted respectable box score production for Gatineau (10G, 10A, 20P in 23GP), it’s when you dig deeper into some more underlying metrics when you begin to see Dean’s individual and on-ice effectiveness as a player.

Typically, a strong indicator for continued offensive production at higher levels is shot generation, and Dean has shot the puck a lot with Gatineau this year. He’s generated 70 shots on goal in his 23GP this year, good for second on the team at an average of 3.04 per game. What’s more, is that his shot generation isn’t just fluff or volume – it’s incredibly high in quality. Per InStat Hockey, Dean has generated 162 shot attempts (SA) this season, with 88 of them coming from the house (or high-danger area), good for 54% of his total shot attempts. What’s more, is of his 88 shot attempts from high danger, 55 of them have been shots on goal (63% SOG rate).

Dean’s SA and SOG volume has led to him being one of Gatineau’s most prolific possession players this year. His 55 CF% is tied for fifth among all Gatineau players with at least 10GP – his +6.1 CF rel.% is equally impressive, too. So, not only does Dean have the shot quality side of the game locked down, but he also has the volume aspect too. His proficiency in generating quality shots to the net from dangerous areas has led to him boasting the best scoring chance-per-game rate on Gatineau, at a clip of 3.2 per contest. The guy just loves to scores goals from in-tight:

Zach Dean NHL Draft
Zach Dean Shot Chart (InStat Hockey)

His effectiveness in and around the net can be chalked up to his ability to no-dust shots, run intelligent routes to find quiet areas, play between checks and display some impressive hand quickness around the net front – all skills we’ll dig into through video.

DZ Support

Let’s start in the defensive zone. Dean is an uber-supportive forward in his own end, which allows him to turn pucks back up-ice quickly for Gatineau. Take this clip for instance, where he disrupts the offensive play through the NZ, then comes all the way back to the goal line to support his D:

  • Quick button hook, scans up ice
  • Lays in a perfectly chipped leading pass for his teammate to skate onto and exit the zone
  • Gets on his horse after a full backcheck to join the rush
  • Crosses the defender’s feet and attacks the middle
  • Gets between checks and nearly generates a primary assist

This next clip shows Dean’s awareness and intelligence in the defensive zone. Every team practices layering and positioning during board battles, but many players will still jump head first into puck battles during game situations. Here, Dean stays off the pile as his two fellow forwards battle for the puck. Only once the puck reaches his side of the battle area and his teammate Metis Roelens (#61 black) rolls out of the pile does Dean jump in to help. He recovers the puck with a slick backhand toe-drag, completes a beautiful weight shift, generates a controlled exit for Gatineau and subsequently gains the OZ with a chip.

OZ Play + Route Running

Dean’s offensive zone instincts, route selection and use of the funnel are all exemplary, and a big part of why he’s posted such fantastic underlying numbers for Gatineau this season. In the following clip, one of my favourites of him, he shows off his immense OZ intelligence:

  • Quick punch/jab to cut back after drawing two defenders
  • Accelerates and immediately threatens middle again
  • Makes a move back to the outside
  • Completes a deceptive hand-off low in the zone with a teammate
  • Sneaks back post to evade coverage and potentially find a rebound

A major factor that allows Dean to generate so many looks in the high-danger area of the ice is his ability to read the developing play and react accordingly. Here, he shows his ability to resist the urge to join the board battle, hops into a high pocket, and sneaks lower into the zone into a quiet area to get a shot on net (though he definitely fanned on this one):

In this clip, Dean again shows off his OZ instincts and exemplary route-running:

  • Quick to the puck, protects and gets it back up top
  • Fills high support spot for converging D
  • Gets lost, comes down the funnel and gets a chance in tight
  • Perfect timing to jump in and support low puck battle to go low-to-high and reset OZ possession for Gatineau

The next clip is a very subtle one, but it shows Dean’s consistent ability to run intelligent support routes in the OZ to extend possessions for his team and alleviate pressure from his teammates. Because his defenceman fumbles the puck, the play doesn’t materialize as it should have, but the route Dean takes here shows just how aware he is of where the play will develop to in the OZ:

Here, Dean shows off just about everything you want from a player in transition besides a goal for:

  • Comes back low in the DZ
  • Gets flat with line-mate before pass to scan up ice and make pass reception easier
  • Linear crossovers through NZ to create deception
  • Early give at blue, gets between checks
  • Gets the puck back for deflection wide of the net
  • Retrieves loose puck low, gets it to open teammate to reset OZ possession for Gatineau

Dean is the type of player who will only get better the higher the level he plays. He’s constantly aware of on-ice developments, has fantastic route selection which can be leveraged even more as he plays with better and smarter teammates at elevated levels, and is consistently able to play between checks and get into areas where superior teammates will find him with ease.

Offence Generation

Let’s get to the fun part of Dean’s game: the offence generation. For me, it’s most impressive how Dean generates offence. Dean’s offence generation is comparable to that one person you know who’s fantastic at puzzles. While you’ve been struggling to find the next piece for 20 minutes, he walks into the room and finds the next 10 pieces for you without blinking even though you didn’t ask him to. He’s always a step ahead of the play mentally.

Take this primary assist for instance, where he intentionally stays off the back of his teammate, calls for the one-touch drop pass, makes a quick move around the defender and finds his teammate again for the goal. Dean knew what he was going to do before the puck even arrived at Roelens’ stick.

Likely my favourite part of Dean’s game is his ability to play between checks. His ability to constantly split seams with or without the puck wreaks havoc on defences off the rush and in the defensive zone. On this goal, he shows the ability to get between checks at the blue line to better his positioning later in the play:

Or on this assist, where he gets between and behind checks at the blue to eventually set up the Gatineau goal:

Another fold to Dean’s game is that he’s sticky. He’s an absolute sleuth on the ice, having averaged 4.4 takeaways per game for Gatineau this season. Here, for example, he finds his next unsuspecting target, strips the puck from him and finds a teammate low for the goal:

Or here, where he strips the puck low, finds an open teammate, then fades off the back post to score the eventual goal:

His utilization of the offensive zone funnel to create offence is impressive, too. Here, for example, he pops up into a high support route for his defenceman, then works his way down the funnel with perfect timing to bury a goal:

Or on this downright nasty goal, Dean again comes up high in support, makes a great move to funnel down in the OZ, and puts a beautiful backhand upstairs:

And finally, part of what allows Dean to generate a ton of offence in-tight is his willingness to battle in front of the net and use his quick hands in small spaces. On this goal, Dean gets into a great off-puck position, out-muscles a much larger opponent with leverage and eventually gets rewarded for his efforts:

On this power-play goal, he shows off impressive manipulation and quickness in tight to finish beautifully in front of the net:

And on this goal, he shows impressive puck control after the give and go to bring it back around to the net front and put it away.

Areas to Improve

While Dean’s game is pretty polished considering where most outlets have him ranked, he does have some flaws he’ll need to improve upon. Primarily, as mentioned, his explosiveness through his first three strides. Secondly, he’ll need to work on knocking the habit of getting into an A-frame during offensive plays and weight shifts. He can often fall back on this position which limits his ability to extend the offensive play he’s initiated. And finally, he’ll need to improve his shot. He still has the prototypical ‘sweeping’ junior-style shot, and he’ll certainly need to add some more thud to it if he wants to be a consistent goal-scorer at the NHL level.

Outlook

Overall, I love Dean as a prospect, and think he’s definitely being underrated in many scouting circles. While he doesn’t have the flashy skill of a Kent Johnson, or the dogged, visual, all-out motor of a Matty Beniers, he displays a ton of skills and habits that to me, are highly projectable and transferrable at the pro level.

As I’ve discussed, those abilities are:

  • Strong defensive habits, awareness and support that lead directly to offence the other way
  • Constant awareness and ability to stay square and open to the play to process what’s happening around him
  • Intelligent route selection and support throughout the DZ, NZ and OZ
  • Frequent, timed and effective use of the OZ funnel
  • Relentless net-front effort and quick, minimalistic stick handling in small spaces

So… an average-sized, non-flashy player who has a ton of projectable, transferrable habits and fantastic underlying numbers?

Sounds familiar. I can’t quite put my finger on it…

Zach Dean NHL Draft
Zach Dean vs. Sebastian Aho Comparable (hockeyprospecting.com)

I’m not flat-out saying Dean will be Sebastian Aho 2.0, but the similarities – statistically, stylistically and tactically – should at very least be noted.

I have a strong feeling that the following factors will lead to Dean falling much further than he should in the draft:

  • Modest draft-year box score production
  • Lack of visual, bring-you-out-of-your seat skill
  • Likely limited viewings for scouts

No matter where he ends up being drafted, the team that ends up with Dean at the conclusion of the 2021 Draft is going to be one happy organization.

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