There are few people more qualified to know whether or not a college prospect has an NHL future than Jim Madigan.
So when the 58-year-old coach of Northeastern University says that Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble are no-doubters, he’s got my undivided attention.
Not that he had trouble capturing it throughout the entirety of a 35-minute conversation last Friday. Madigan, a native Montrealer who’s been a part of Northeastern’s hockey program since 1981 and its head coach since 2011, is one of the most insightful and charismatic interviews I’ve had in 13 years of covering hockey.
He’s the ultimate student of the game — having been around it his whole life and having built enduring friendships with some of its most influential people — and he colours conversation with the accent of an adopted New Englander, with his quips landing like Chris Nilan’s right crosses, each one of them knocking you back.
Madigan’s zest for his work, and his devotion to his players, comes through with every word he speaks. Even with hundreds of miles separating us, it’s palpable.
Take this bit about former Northeastern goaltender and current top prospect of the Montreal Canadiens Cayden Primeau for example: "More than anything, we were just pleased and proud and happy for him. The two games he played in the NHL this season… the game he won at the Bell Centre we all watched live and we couldn’t have been happier for him. It was like watching your own child, you know."
Madigan said this with tangible feeling, and in spite of the fact that he wasn’t initially a proponent of the former seventh-round pick in 2017 leaving Northeastern to sign with the Canadiens after his second season.
"I thought he was young and goaltenders mature at a later age, and the Montreal situation was with Carey Price still having seven or eight years left on a pretty big deal," he explained. "So I thought he could still get better and improve in college."
But then there’s this: "Saying that, I was thrilled when he made his decision," Madigan said. "Because he wants to be a pro, and he’s got those bloodlines from his dad. He’s an awesome kid, he works hard, and we knew he was going to have success. It wasn’t because we didn’t think that. He’s had success at every stage, at every level. This year was the same going up another level.
"We knew he’d have that success."
A lot of people weren’t sure, but Madigan and his associates were. It’s that same conviction that drives his comments about Harris and Struble, a pair of New England kids who both man the left side of Northeastern’s blue line.
The former is a third-round pick of the Canadiens in 2018, and the latter a 2019 second-round selection Montreal assistant general manager Trevor Timmins described as "a natural athlete, and a hockey player."
Both Harris and Struble have committed to the D1 program for next season, and both are looking to take huge strides forward in their development.
Madigan estimates Harris will soon arrive on the NHL scene and eventually develop into a top-four defenceman — certainly on the basis of his sound defence and his fluidity, but also on the strength of his character.
"High-end character," Madigan says. "He just does all the right things. He’s a mature kid. He’s a serious kid. He’s a focused kid. He’s a very quiet kid. There’s a confidence to him. There’s humility to him. He’s not a kid who’s ever going to have diarrhea of the mouth, because that’s not him. He’s not going to be up there yelling and screaming.
"But he is so driven to be good. He works at his game on and off the ice. He’s got tremendous character. He comes from a father that played the game as a goaltender at the collegiate level, so he’s been around hockey a long time, and Jordan is just a delight and a joy to coach."
If you want a sense for how in-tune Madigan is with his players, off the top of his head he precisely notes he played Harris an average of 27:07 per game this past season.
That’s a lot for any player, let alone a sophomore, but Madigan felt the five-foot-11, 185-pounder took so many strides forward between seasons that it only made sense to rely on him as much.
"The tangible jump, I would say, was that there was so much more poise and patience to his game," he said. "As a freshman, he played a lot of minutes for us. He was 20 minutes a game as a freshman. But he’s come back as a sophomore knowing he was going to play a lot more, and he knew how to manage the game and situations better. So, he incorporated more patience to his game — knowing when to carry the puck, when to support the rush versus lead the rush. His overall disposition on the ice and his overall patience and game management improved very much from his freshman to his sophomore year. And if you were evaluating him as a freshman, you’d know he was very good. But with another year under his belt, more was expected of him and he rose to those expectations."
If Harris did — with three goals and 21 points in 33 games after putting up 13 points in 39 games as a freshman — it had much to do with his natural ability as a skater.
"He’s got elite feet," Madigan repeats on multiple occasions throughout our conversation.
His fixation on Struble’s inherited qualities comes as no surprise.
The boisterous freshman went to the 2019 combine and shredded every test he submitted to — finishing first among all prospects in the Wingate test (a sprint on the bike to measure anaerobic fitness), first in the bench-press test, first in the grip-strength test, and first in the standing long-jump test.
"Struble, physically, is a specimen," Madigan says. "He’s six-foot-and-a-half, he’s 200 pounds, and he’s chiseled. And he’s physically mean. He has an edge to his game that you don’t see players have now. He doesn’t mind being a prick, and he’ll back it up.
"I don’t want him to get in a fight with (Washington Capitals heavyweight) Tom Wilson, but he’ll fight. He’s going to be challenged with the way he plays and he knows it. He’ll have to learn how to be a good fighter, but he’s a tough kid who has a blend of offence and defence. He’s not as good as Jordan Harris defensively, and that’s where he needs work, but he’s got a tremendous stick."
About that last part, Madigan sneers at the oft-shared perception that Struble’s defensive game and his raw abilities can’t be moulded.
"I know last year, going into the draft, you heard things like, ‘He takes stupid penalties, he’s unstructured in a negative way, and hockey sense is questionable, and is he coachable?’" he said. "He’s more than coachable.
"Did we have to be mindful of him not being able to control his emotions? Yeah, no doubt. I think we had one situation this year where he couldn’t control his emotions. Did he get a couple of over-aggressive penalties or a couple of careless stick penalties? Yeah.
"But is he coachable? (Expletive) yeah! He’s very coachable."
Madigan lauds Struble’s commitment to his teammates. He says the players love him, and that his willingness to stand up for them is a "calling card of his."
And then there’s this key piece that the coach feels will enable Struble to play over 20 minutes a game as a sophomore this season, and allow him to inevitably graduate to the NHL.
"We’re going to work on structure with him. We’ve already done a lot of work on it," Madigan says. "That just means he needs to have more patience to his game. That’s just learning how to defend at the college level when he was coming from prep school, where he was just physically more mature and stronger than anyone and could just bully them off the puck and he didn’t have any structure to his game. That’s what we worked on a lot with him this year.
"Is there a ways to go for him still? Yeah. He only played 21 games this year because of his injury. And he had an injury coming into this season because he got hurt in Canadiens development camp. And then he had a high-ankle sprain here in the 24th game, against Maine.
"But he’s come a long way here with structure and with patience. Those are two things he’s going to have to continue working on and he knows it. We’ve talked to him about it and he’s open to it. He’s open to getting better, and he wants it. He wants to be a hockey player."
Will Struble, who produced three goals and 10 points in 21 games this season, be one at the highest level?
"Without a doubt," says Madigan. "Both he and Jordan Harris will be good NHL players."
Three other prospects of interest for the Canadiens
Cole Caufield, NCAA, Wisconsin Badgers, RW
GP: 36 | G: 19 | A: 17 | P: 36
The 15th overall pick in 2019 is headed back to Wisconsin for a second season, but that’s not to suggest he had anything short of a remarkable freshman year.
Caufield’s numbers speak for themselves, and now is the time for him to round out his game and continue adding strength and muscle to his five-foot-seven, 162-pound frame.
Alexander Romanov, KHL, CSKA Moscow, D
GP: 43 | G: 0 I A: 7 | P:7
The 20-year-old is all but surely leaving the KHL for the NHL this spring, and the sense is that he’ll be given a job to lose come 2020-21 training camp. The Canadiens know they aren’t getting high-octane offence from the 38th overall pick in 2018, but they’re excited about the poise, the physicality and the hockey sense Romanov has exuded in two seasons with the Russian league’s best hockey team.
Mattias Norlinder, SWE-1 Allsvenskan, Modo, D
GP: 34 | G: 7 | A:11 | P:18
It was an eye-popping season for the left-handed defenceman who was drafted 64th overall by the Canadiens in 2019. As a result, he was named the top junior in Sweden’s second-tier pro league — an honour once bestowed upon NHL stars William Karlsson and Filip Forsberg.
Any player capable of pulling off moves like this is certainly of interest.
Vilket mål av Mattias Norlinder!
— C More Sport (@cmoresport) September 25, 2019