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Catching The Torch: Dissecting Sean Farrell’s impressive NCAA start

A look at Farrell’s game under the microscope, with footage and hand-tracked data to break down his strengths and weaknesses.

Dan Hickling / Hickling Images

Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is faring week by week. After filling out a tiered prospect pyramid two weeks ago and providing a broad scope of the Habs’ pool of North American prospects, I wanted to use the next couple of weeks as an opportunity to get into the specifics of the Habs’ draft picks and their projectability.

This week, Sean Farrell is up to bat as I break down the 2020 fourth-round pick’s skills and projectability using footage and hand-tracked data. I was able to collect six NCAA games’ worth of clips and track in-depth statistics to encompass Farrell’s game and dissect how he is able to put points on the board with ease.

The main concern with a prospect going up a level is if their game will remain the same, or if they’ll need to adapt in order to thrive. In Farrell’s case, leaving the United States Hockey League (USHL) in favor of the Harvard University Crimsons was a move that would have happened last year if it weren’t for the Ivy League shutting down its sports activities due to COVID-19.

His USHL-leading 101 points in 53 games are a testament to how ready he was to make the jump, but Farrell remained with the Chicago Steel for the 2020-21 season and was named USHL Player Of The Year for his performances.

He is currently tied for the team lead in points for Harvard University with 12 through eight games and is second in team goals with five. Seven of those 12 points came in the first two games of his NCAA career. The prospect has since cooled down with five points in his next six.

Immediately, the first concern was the consistency factor. Although five points in six games would still be a decent showing for any NCAA rookie, it’s far from game-breaking production for a prospect who should be in his second year in the league. Especially with the winger facing up against Ivy League teams with very few drafted prospects on their roster.

Therefore, I opted to collect data on four of Farrell’s games in which he earned either zero or one point, as well as his best game of the season (a four-point night against Bentley) and a pre-season game where he scored two goals.

Let’s get right into it with Farrell’s key strengths.

Elite playmaking ability

This is Farrell’s biggest standout, and I’m glad to see it transfer into the NCAA. The winger had the ability, at the USHL level, to pass clean through sticks and bodies like they weren’t there. From the first game I tracked against Colgate, it was abundantly clear that Farrell’s ability to hit the smallest of seams and create his own when nothing’s there was going to keep being a hallmark of his game.

At even-strength, Farrell’s passing was frequent and accurate, connecting tape-to-tape on 74 of his 96 pass attempts (77.1% accuracy) in 71:34 minutes played over six games. This excludes his power-play passing, which is arguably the best part of his game. He succeeded on all but seven of his passes on the power play (35/42) in the games I tracked.

Plays seem to flow through him, Henry Thrun and Nick Abruzzese on the right flank more often than not, and the three have a set play they like to try where either Abruzzese or Farrell will slide into the slot and receive a pass after the two switch over.

At even-strength, he succeeded on 62.5% of his pass attempts to the slot and earned seven shot assists through the six games I tracked. Unfortunately, a lot of his passes fell short of the slot by an inch or two, as he likes to find the opposite flank more often than the player crashing the net. Often, the Crimsons won’t have any free sticks in the slot with Farrell on the ice, which leads to him delaying for wide or point options instead. On the power play, however, Farrell is more than happy to distribute the puck in high-danger areas.

Improving shot mechanics

While Farrell’s shooting was previously a setback, he now boasts an above-average release with which he picks corners often. The main change has been the improvement of his weight transfer, which often led to fluttering shots prior to this year. He now uses a lot more downforce, and has more stable upper body, allowing him to control the velocity and rise on his releases, resulting in 71% of his shot attempts in all situations hitting the net.

He isn’t one for many one-timers, taking just four in the six games, and doesn’t get many tip-ins (two) despite his fluid motions and positioning on the power play. The most impressive aspect of Farrell’s shooting is the rate at which he gets shots off from the slot: 21 of his 31 attempts (67%) were from within that area. His four goals in the six games tracked represent a shooting percentage of 18.2% — well above average but could regress a bit.

Farrell might not become a 35+ goal-scorer but his shot is decent enough that goaltenders have to respect it, opening up opportunities for cross-ice one-timers.

Puck retrievals and protection

Although Farrell only stands at 5’9”, 175 pounds, his ability to retrieve loose pucks and play keep-away is among the best in the NCAA. As soon as he identifies an opportunity to establish possession he gets a positional advantage on his opponent, then uses deception to send them the wrong way. He has quick, shifty edges which allow him to escape through the narrowest of openings.

As a result, he retrieved a total of 43 loose pucks in all situations over the six games, and was even able to hold his own when battling for contested pucks; his 46 wins on 85 contested battles give him a 54.1% win rate in those duels, making him an above-average forechecker.

Back-checking and stick positioning

Farrell’s ability to cut off plays and get in the way of opposing passes makes him an effective defender when he’s active, as he’ll prevent more than his fair share of scoring chances. His 30 takeaways in six games attest to that fact. He also committed 27 poke-checks and 27 blocked passes in that span.

Some of his blocked passes or poke-checks came right back onto the opponent’s stick or were picked up by his teammates, but over half of them were recovered by Farrell himself. EliteProspects scout Joey Padmanabhan wrote in their 2020 Draft Guide (where they had Farrell ranked as the 42nd-best prospect available) about how underrated the winger’s defensive game was:

“Farrell’s defensive game has come leaps and bounds from where it was when the season started. He picks up a man nicely in transition and back-checks hard. When he plays in the middle, he supports his defence nicely in corner battles despite not having the most strength or largest frame. He also has been relied upon to play in penalty kill situations down the stretch.” - Joey Padmanabhan, EliteProspects 2020 Draft Guide

It seems like the prospect has built himself an extra foundation of defensive skills to maximize his chances of reaching the NHL. If his offensive touch doesn’t carry into the professional game, he can rely on his sound forechecking and defence to keep him useful in a support role.

Great elusiveness and edgework

Farrell’s ability to change directions on a dime to create extra space for himself makes him a great option when breaking out the puck, as he can lose a forechecker with ease and create cleaner, crisper zone exits and entries for his team. Although his mechanics need refining (the winger’s acceleration is slower than most due to wider stride recoveries under his body), once he reaches his full speed, Farrell is a treat to watch.

If his mechanics can be refined so that he reaches that top speed quicker, Farrell would unlock a lot more offence and would become a bigger threat with the puck in transition.

Now, onto the prospect’s weaknesses.

Passive transition game

Farrell’s play-driving in transition leaves me wanting more from a player whose offensive touch and elusive skating would warrant some additional puck carries. He only managed to carry the puck into the offensive zone an average of three times a game, relying mostly on his teammates to bring the play in and working away from the puck for most of the game. This leads to more turnover opportunities in the neutral zone and more shots against.

He was even less eager to carry the puck from end to end himself, only managing four three-line carries, and almost never gained the middle off the rush, relying on wide carries or dump-ins to get the puck in. His 14 throws into the offensive zone show a hesitance to break the opposing line, especially when five of them occurred against his toughest opponent in Northeastern. This will be a setback at the pro level, but one that can be fixed with enough time and experience in the NCAA.

Effort level and consistency

Farrell can often find himself puck-watching for long stretches of time, leading him to overlook situations in which he should get involved physically. Keeping his feet moving will be a necessary correction if he wishes to make himself useful to an NHL hockey team, but it’s likely a matter of conditioning and time management, as the prospect often spends more than a minute at a time on the ice.

He also needs to put in more regular performances and get his stick on the puck more often. While cutting and collecting clips from his full games, it was clear to see how inconsistent Farrell was by the fact that many of my clips were bundled together in short portions of the game, with large stretches of unimpressive or barely noticeable shifts in-between. Cutting down on the number of pucks lost by deking or passing at inopportune moments would bring his team’s even-strength shot attempts above the 50% that it is with him on the ice.

Farrell’s NHL projection

Despite some clear improvements in his game being necessary, the amount of skill that Farrell has shown on a near-nightly basis for the Harvard Crimsons has me convinced that there’s a bright future ahead for the winger. The fact that he is able to dominate 20+-year-old defencemen physically answers a lot of questions about his size, but the up-and-down performances, especially against better opponents, have me wondering how much needs to go into Farrell’s game before he’s NHL-ready.

For me, the winger is at least three years away from being a genuine pro-level hockey player but has an elite level of playmaking that could very well net him an assist-per-game in the NCAA this year. I can see the slight outline of a point-per-game power-play specialist in Farrell, but without developing the consistency and effort level required in the pros, there’s also a non-negligible chance that he ends up like most fourth-rounders — outside of the NHL.

The positive for Farrell regarding his weaknesses is that they are run-of-the-mill issues for skilled forwards, often either polished before they reach the NHL or masked over time by adaptive skills that keep the prospect away from those situations.

Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to follow along with the rest of my scouting work!