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Catching The Torch: Brett Stapley playing critical role for #2 Denver Pioneers

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Whether down a goal or holding on to a lead late, you’ll probably find the Canadiens prospect on the ice.

NCAA HOCKEY: APR 11 Div I Men’s Frozen Four - Massachusetts v Denver

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 (OHL, QMJHL, WHL, BCHL, USHL) and collegiate (NCAA) level.

The influx of talent to the Denver Pioneers pushed Brett Stapley to a lesser role in his sophomore season. He plays in the middle six and doesn’t feature on the first power play anymore, moving to the half-wall on the second unit. Even with the change in his situation, he is still producing.

Stapley has already vastly outplayed his status as an over-age seventh-round draft selection. He is not in the top prospect group in the Montreal Canadiens organization, but can be situated in the same section as some of his CHL counterparts — players like Cam Hillis and Allan McShane, the effective playmakers who evolved their defensive game to become reliable options for their coaching staffs.

Need to protect a lead, and the ever-increasing winning streak of the team, with a few minutes remaining to the game? Stapley is sent out to take defensive faceoffs. In need of a goal at the end of the third period, six-on-five with the goalie out? Stapley jumps over the boards. His balance of safe, predictable plays with the right dose of offensive creativity makes the prospect a constant plus player for Denver.

Stapley remains on the smaller side for forwards. He stands at 5’10” and doesn’t have the best balance and strength combo to win possession in tight quarters. But he has an ability to identity opposing plays ahead of time and get himself in position to counter them.

More than his defensive positioning, what makes Stapley trustworthy is that he doesn’t force his passes or shots; he takes what the opposition gives him. If nothing is available, he keeps possession, and keeps moving his feet until a teammate frees himself. If he is cornered, he sends the puck away via outlets that minimize the risk of a turnover and let the offence live for another attempt.

Stapley’s saucer-passing skills continue to fuel his offence. On any given shift, half the feeds he makes will be airborne. He bypasses opposing sticks easily and his lobs usually fall right at the blade level of his targets.

Take a look at this collection of saucer passes made in a game against the University of Minnesota Duluth this weekend. In the last one, Stapley gains the offensive zone, waits for his teammate to get to the other side of the net, and arcs the puck to him. It is redirected just above the crease.

Brett Stapley wears #7 with the Denver Pioneers

Stapley could add a bit more deception to his aerial passing to open teammates for more dangerous looks. He is capable of it. He already manipulates defenders a few times a game with tricks that allow him to escape pressure deep in the offensive zone or create lanes to the net.

In the first clip below, Stapley fakes the opponents with the position of his skates, approaching to retrieve the puck at an angle that tells defenders he wants to take it behind the net. But he instead abruptly turns the other way when the opposition gets close, separating himself from his coverage to attack between the dots and release a shot on net.

In the second clip, Stapley follows his teammates as he enters the zone, but stays a few steps behind. This way, he creates a pocket of space to handle the puck. It is dropped to him, he moves up to challenge a defender, and extends his stick away from his body and behind him. This makes the defender think he is shooting and get down in a blocking position. Again, the fake gives Stapley an occasion to get inside the dots for a more dangerous chance.

Stapley is not explosive, but his timely fakes and ability to squeak away from checks still have him conserve possession under pressure more often than not in the offensive zone. His ability to create from the wall or get inside the defensive box — something that seems to have improved from last year — should continue to make him a threat as the season goes on.

The Habs prospect has picked up nine points in the same number of games to start the season. Last year, he also came out of the gates in a very strong manner, producing at a similar pace, but there is an evident new level of maturity to his game this year, and a sustained high production seems more likely than last year.

In the next couple of seasons, if Stapley continues his current upward trend and keeps adding to his game, we could see him become a dominant player for Denver as the team evolves and other prospects leave for professional hockey.

Jack Gorniak, LW, Wisconsin Badgers

Gorniak recorded his first point of the season a week ago. Standing near the net, he got himself open for a pass coming from below the goal line and then slipped the puck past the goalie’s post coverage.

Last year, Gorniak mostly played on the third line for Wisconsin and got some opportunities on special teams. This year, he has been pushed further down the depth chart with the additions of high-level prospects, including the Canadiens’ Cole Caufield. It makes finding consistent production hard for the sophomore.

He still possesses the same dominant skating ability. His rapid crossovers carry him up and down the ice faster than the majority of his opposition. But with his current situation, his feet only touch the ice sporadically during games, and they are now more often used to chase the puck instead of pushing it toward the opposing net.

Gorniak is more skilled than his numbers indicate. To regain a more offensive role, he will have to show the coaching staff that his energy and disruptive ability can complement the more talented cast of Wisconsin.

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 3 1 5 6
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 3 2 2 4
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 3 2 2 4
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 2 2 2 4
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 3 0 1 1
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 4 2 4 6
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 4 0 1 1
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 3 0 0 0

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 31 15 23 38
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 31 15 27 42
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 26 10 29 39
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 27 11 19 30
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 27 2 13 15
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 25 5 26 31
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 25 4 16 20
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 30 0 3 3

NCAA Weekly Stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 1 1
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 2 0 2
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 2 0 1 1
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 1 1 2
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 0 0 0
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 0 0 0 0

NCAA Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 14 1 1 2
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 18 12 8 20
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 15 3 7 10
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 14 2 3 5
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 17 3 8 11
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 20 5 9 14