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, WHL), and collegiate (NCAA) level.
In recent years, the Montreal Canadiens have become a bit disenchanted with the CHL as a development program. They still draft their share of Canadian Junior players, but the team’s preference for drafting from the USHL and the American High School circuits in the later rounds is evident.
It comes down to simple numbers: two years to sign a CHL prospect and four or five (if there is a need for a springboard year of Junior) for a college one. On paper, one path imposes itself over the other; the team simply gets more time to evaluate NCAA prospects, to see them mature, grow into their peak physical performance, and test their limits.
The downside — and it is pretty big — is that non-elite college recruits of reputed programs fight for ice time in their first couple of seasons. They aren’t competing with 16 and 17-year-olds like in the CHL, but fully grown, experienced 22 to 25-year-olds who themselves waited and worked to get in the lineup.
NCAA coaches generally don’t move 18-year-olds on the top three lines, as it means dropping other older players who worked for years for a chance to play and provide at least equal on-ice value as the NHL-drafted freshman. Teams want to maintain a healthy locker room and a culture of merit. Two of the players currently ahead of Blake Biondi in the lineup, third-liners Jesse Jacques, age 22, and Jackson Cates, age 23, scored at the same rate as Biondi in high school as 18-year-olds. Now they are in their third year with the Duluth program; they sweated for their spot.
The road ahead will probably be tough for Biondi. There is a high chance that this year becomes a write-off. He only touches the ice for five to eleven minutes per game and, until some of the team’s veterans move on, his path to a bigger role is unclear.
This situation mirrors the one of Jack Gorniak, another extremely dominant high school player, who, until this season, rotated between the fourth-line and the press-box, and it foreshadows what will likely happen with fourth-rounder, Jack Smith, another Minnesota-Duluth recruit currently struggling in the USHL.
The undeniable advantages of the NCAA are the increased gym time in between games and the greater emphasis on tactics; college teams spend more time in the video room and devise more match-up specific strategies. However, what Biondi needs above all else is skating development. It remains to be seen if Duluth is equipped to develop that aspect of his game.
Biondi’s stride hasn’t improved in the long offseason. In crossovers, he can’t plant his outside edge far enough under him to launch himself forward. Instead, he hops and sends his momentum upward. And in forward strides his ankles don’t bend; his legs don’t fully extend and his skates fall back unevenly under him; his right foot, especially, landing far from his center of mass, sending his upper body into a constant up and down motion.
The speed and acceleration Biondi generates by powering through his suboptimal mechanics is actually quite impressive. It speaks to his strength. But NCAA average skating is not professional average, let alone NHL average, and Biondi’s quirks also limit him in certain facets of the game even at his current level. Cutting around defenders is out of the question — Biondi can’t drop his weight into turns to rapidly change directions — and stopping and restarting can put him behind the play. The prospect tends to keep his motor running to facilitate his sprints.
He has been a forechecking threat in his limited minutes, using his long reach to disturb opponents and his body to ram them off the puck. He’s also a slot-threat, presenting himself as a one-timer option for teammates on the walls and rushing the blue paint when defencemen load their point shots.
But, Biondi is a bit stuck in this pattern. Since he can’t really cut around defenders off the rush, a dump-in is usually his play of choice, which leads to a forechecking sequence, which leads to a cycle, and a low-percentage shot. Since he is paired with teammates who find comfort in that sort of game, Biondi can’t showcase much more to the coaching staff. He is at risk of being typecast as a hard-nosed player, at least until he breaks out of this shell.
Blake Biondi wears #7 for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (brown and white uniform).
Don’t get me wrong, this role fits Biondi quite well. He already scored a lot of his goals off broken plays at the USHS level. And, although it is a Montreal specialty, it is also very early to make dramatic judgments about the player’s future. So let’s just say that, even if he has the abilities to do so, the hurdles in Biondi’s path won’t allow him to separate himself from the team’s massive pack of prospects anytime soon.
For Biondi, the Habs will have to exercise the patience the NCAA path afforded them and, for the time being, accept the downsides of it.
NCAA/USHL weekly stats
|Cole Caufield||2019||RW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||0||0||0||0|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||0||0||0||0|
|Jack Smith||2020||C||USHL||Sioux Falls||0||0||0||0|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||0||0||0||0|
|Luke Tuch||2020||LW||Hockey East||Boston||0||0||0||0|
NCAA/USHL Season to date
|Cole Caufield||2019||RW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||31||30||22||52|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||31||6||7||13|
|Sean Farrell (playoffs)||2020||LW||USHL||Chicago||6||1||4||5|
|Jack Smith||2020||C||USHL||Sioux Falls||47||7||6||13|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||18||2||10||12|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||19||6||13||19|
|Luke Tuch||2020||LW||Hockey East||Boston||16||6||5||11|
Goalie weekly stats
Goalie Season to date
|Jakub Dobes (playoffs)||2020||USHL||Omaha||0-2-0||2.10||0.923||0|