clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Catching The Torch: Blake Biondi may have a tough road ahead

New, comments

The Canadiens need to practise patience with the centre as he works to break out of his current pattern.

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

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 0 0 0 0
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 0 0 0 0
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 2 0 1 1
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Tri-City 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
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 0 0 0 0
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 0 0 0 0
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 0 0 0 0

NCAA/USHL Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 31 30 22 52
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 31 6 7 13
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 53 29 72 101
Sean Farrell (playoffs) 2020 LW USHL Chicago 6 1 4 5
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon/Tri-City 43 13 21 34
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
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 13 5 4 9
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 25 2 3 5
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 16 6 5 11

Goalie weekly stats

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0

Goalie Season to date

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 26-16-2-1 2.48 0.908 2
Jakub Dobes (playoffs) 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0