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Catching The Torch: Gianni Fairbrother hits all the right notes in his first game

The defenceman is looking confident in the WHL, while Cole Caufield is just about set to get going with Wisconsin.

WHL: FEB 16 Everett Silvertips at Seattle Thunderbirds Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the Junior (QMJHL, OHL, WHL) and collegiate (NCAA) level.

It bears repeating: Montreal has a mould for their defencemen. They like them with some size, but most all, mobile. They want their blue-liners to have some range but not stand around like towers when the slot is under siege. Mobility translates to better defensive gaps, adaptability, and puck-moving ability — arguably the most important aspect of the modern defenceman’s game.

Enter Gianni Fairbrother, part of a lineage of similarly built blue-liners picked from the 2019 crop by Montreal.

The mature game of Fairbrother was hard to pass on for the team in need of left-handed shooters in their back end. Because of those pro-like qualities, he closely resembles another third-rounder making his debut with the Canadiens.

Fairbrother’s game has the potential to surprise. He may not display dynamic offence (although there were some interesting sequences this weekend), but his play style and strengths are more easily projectable to the next level of hockey than some of his counterparts’. They also fit well for the team that drafted him.

It’s been just a couple of games in this long 2019-20 season — too early to draw any conclusions — but specifically in his first matchup, his play was impressive. It gives more than enough reason to closely follow his development.

Fairbrother didn’t do anything overly special. It might seem contradictory, but he didn’t get a lucky multi-point game from getting the puck to bounce from his stick to a few others and the back of the net. Saturday was just a refined version of the every-night play the defenceman displayed last season. The new recipe simply adds a bit more experience and confidence, and more willingness to handle the puck in the comfort of a familiar environnment.

The first sequence in the video below could be used as a teaching clip in any hockey school out there. The play wasn’t anything fancy, but represented the perfect execution of a breakout through the middle of the ice.

It starts with available support. he couldn’t have pulled off the clean pass if his teammates weren’t in position. As the puck hit the back wall in the defensive zone, his defence partner glided to the other side of the net, his winger descended along the near half-wall, and his centre swung low in the zone a couple of steps behind, timing himself with the play.

Fairbrother’s supporting options allowed him to misdirect two forecheckers. He first faked a pass to his fellow blue-liner forcing the first pursuing opponent to close down the passing lane. He then pivoted and looked to his winger on the wall, and the second opposing forward moved his stick to cover this next option. It was never Fairbrother’s intention to hit either of those two teammates. His moves opened space for the centreman, now arriving in perfect position for a pass. The puck was sent toward the pivot with space to skate up the zone.

This play, in some hockey books, categorizes as a work of art: a precise, clean, and even beautiful execution.

There were many more noteworthy puck-moving sequences (some included as clips in the above video). None were as impressive, but still showed some interesting elements of his transition ability. His deception, his awareness of outlets and incoming pressure, and his willingness to hold on to possession for an extra second to free space for teammates and get a better passing angle are features of his game. If he can continue to operate with the same mentality as the season goes on, he should become one of the better puck-movers in the WHL.

He also picked up an assist with an indirect pass off the boards, bypassing opposing sticks to reach a streaking teammate in the neutral zone.

On Saturday, the blue-liner also showed his usual involvement in the defensive aspects of the game. His neutral-zone gap could have been much better (it was mostly a strength last year), but he killed plays in front of the net with a physical presence and switched to assignments rather easily.

Even if he recorded only one assist, he participated in all of his team’s goals. One of his slapshots bounced off the goalie, leading to scramble and a rebound being put in the back of the net. At the other end, a net-front defensive sequence from Fairbrother turned into a quick breakout and another marker.

In that game, specifically in the offensive zone, the defenceman had a couple of other standout sequences. He faked his trusty slapshot to get a step on a defender and tried to make a play to the slot, and carried the puck up the ice for a shot through the legs of a defender in another sequence.

Overall, even if he missed the pre-season, sidelined with an injury he sustained in Canadiens development camp, it doesn’t seem to have affected his start to the year. As he gets his feet back under him, we could see a big season from Everett’s fourth-year veteran.

NCAA

NCAA hockey starts next week for most Habs prospects. The Wisconsin Badgers and their fresh influx of talent in the form of top picks Alex Turcotte and (more importantly for us) Cole Caufield will finally be in action against Boston College. We will also get updates on Jayden Struble and Jordan Harris who will form the core of Northeastern University’s young defence against Union College Athletics.

It should be an interesting year of college hockey for many Habs prospects looking to take steps forward in their development.

CHL Weekly stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 2 0 1 1
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 2 2 1 3
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 2 0 0 0
Allan McShane 2018 LW/C OHL Oshawa 2 0 4 4
Jacob LeGuerrier 2017 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 2 0 1 1
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Prince Albert 2 0 0 0
Gianni Fairbrother 2017 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 2 0 2 2

CHL Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 6 0 2 2
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 6 4 3 7
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 5 0 2 2
Allan McShane 2018 LW/C OHL Oshawa 7 3 8 11
Jacob LeGuerrier 2017 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 6 0 4 4
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Prince Albert 6 1 2 3
Gianni Fairbrother 2017 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 2 0 2 2