As a former resident of Italy and a lifelong Italophile, it would tickle my senses a little extra should the Montreal Canadiens be able to draft a highly touted prospect of Italian ancestry.
Francesco Pinelli may hail from Hamilton, Ontario, but his parents are both Italian immigrants. With the OHL on hold for the 2020-21-season, Pinelli left his native Canada behind and sought his European roots by spending his draft year in the former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia.
Birthplace: Hamilton, Ontario
Date of Birth: April 11, 2003
Weight: 185 lbs.
Current Team: Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
In a recent piece from The Athletic, Pinelli tells the story of how he ended up in the little town of Jesenice, outside of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. A former neighbour with Slovenian heritage reached out to let Francesco know about a connection he had, who happened to be the General Manager of a team in the AlpsHL; a league consisting of teams from Italy, Austria and Slovenia.
In the end, Pinelli played 15 games for HDD Jesenice during the opening months of 2021, producing six goals and six assists during that span. It wasn’t a lot, but it did contribute to giving Pinelli one of the more interesting draft years of his class. He then received the opportunity to finish the spring representing Team Canada in the 2021 U18 World Junior Championships, where he — apart from a brief benching against Latvia early on — fared admirably.
With his eleven points, he trailed only two Russians, and fellow Canadians and future draft phenoms, Shane Wright and Connor Bedard at the end of the tournament. In the semifinals, Pinelli scored one of the goals as Team Canada demolished Sweden with a score of 8-1.
Pinelli is a highly intelligent player. He may not be the quickest skater on the ice. But he makes up for his relative lack of physical speed by outsmarting his opponents. His Slovenian GM described him as a 25-year-old disguised as a 17-year-old.
Though not being a slouch when it comes to shooting the puck himself, Pinelli mostly projects as a playmaker. He tends to find the open ice both for himself and for his teammates and could, if developed correctly, become a valuable power-play asset for an NHL franchise down the line.
Going into the year, Pinelli was widely projected as someone who could be in for a fast rise and a dark horse for being one of the first names off the board come 2021. Who knows where he would have gone in the draft if the OHL hadn’t suspended his whole draft season. In the spring of 2020, Pinelli was riding high after an unusually successful rookie campaign with the Kitchner Rangers where he was fourth among all rookies in scoring.
Elite Prospects: #16
NHL Central Scouting: #15 (NA Skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #36
TSN/Bob McKenzie: #23
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #24
After splitting time between the wing and the middle both in Kitchener and in Slovenia, analysts differ on what will ultimately be Pinelli’s position long term. Those who think that his skating is subpar seem set on a permanent transition to the wing. Others, who aren’t as worried about his skating, look at Pinelli’s overall skill set and see an NHL centerman in the making.
What is interesting for me is that a lot of the things said about Pinelli are similar to what was said about a current Canadien ahead, around and even after the draft. Nick Suzuki may have been a few inches shorter, but scouts and analysts raved about his intelligence on and off the ice. People talked about a future NHL playmaker and power-play dynamo who could drive play and act as a primary setup man for sniping linemates.
Similar to Pinelli, there were times when the scouting community saw a brighter future on the wing for Suzuki, partly because he never was considered one of the most naturally gifted skaters in his draft class.
As someone who knows how much a few months in a different culture can add to your palette and your mental resume, I have more than a few soft spots for Francesco Pinelli and his unusual draft journey.
If the Canadiens have the opportunity to select a vice-Nick Suzuki with the 31st selection of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, I’d expect them to strongly consider that possibility. While not as battle-tested as Suzuki was going into the draft, Pinelli has a versatile toolbox and the mindset to go along with it.