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. This edition will focus on the Habs’ prospects in the NCAA, which I’ve dubbed the Big Ten. There are too many to name individually, so I made a nice little table to show them all first:
|Sean Farrell||2020||LW||NCAA (ECAC)||Harvard||2||3||4||7||2|
|Blake Biondi||2020||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Minnesota-Duluth||6||3||3||6||4|
|Brett Stapley||2018||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Denver||6||1||5||6||0|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW/C||NCAA (Big-10)||Wisconsin||8||1||1||2||0|
|Rhett Pitlick||2019||RW||NCAA (Big-10)||U. Minnesota||4||0||1||1||2|
|Luke Tuch||2020||LW||NCAA (East)||Boston U.||3||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||8||1||4||5||0|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||8||2||2||4||13|
|Arvid Henrikson||2016||LD||NCAA (CCHA)||Lake Superior||10||0||2||2||29|
|Jakub Dobeš||2020||G||NCAA (Big-10)||Ohio State||4||GAA: 1.00||sv%: .954||Record: 3-1-0|
Before we look any further into some of these prospects’ games so far, I wanted to make an important distinction regarding the level of play in each NCAA conference. Each division within the top level of NCAA hockey has wildly varying strengths of competition due to having one conference specifically reserved to the best college hockey programs in the United States.
The aptly named Big Ten is where the level of hockey is the most consistently high. The division is led by the unbelievably stacked Michigan Wolverines, who have four of the top five picks from the 2021 NHL Draft (Owen Power, Matthew Beniers, Luke Hughes, and Kent Johnson) playing for them this year along with some other high-end prospects and future commits.
The rest of the NCAA’s programs are separated into five factions: the weaker programs are Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA, which are comprised of smaller state colleges and technical schools which aren’t known for producing NHLers with any regularity. The ECAC, NCHC and Hockey East divisions are much more prominent than the other two, with programs such as Northeastern, Harvard, Boston, Providence, North Dakota, and more being decent pipelines for prospects hoping to improve their game while earning their diplomas.
We’ve got a lot to write about, so let’s get right into it with our first, and arguably best, prospect in college:
Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University, ECAC
Although the ECAC is primarily comprised of Ivy League colleges whose excellence is focused primarily outside of the hockey world, the level of play surprised me in the games I watched Sean Farrell play. Harvard played its first game three weeks later than the rest of the NCAA after being one of the only collegiate teams to shut down its sports activities for the pandemic. As a result, Farrell, who was clearly college-ready, spent an extra year with the Chicago Steel in the USHL and dominated like few ever have: 29 goals and 72 assists for 101 points in 53 games.
He set records, had his fun, and now that Harvard is back in the college hockey sphere, Farrell has lost no time picking up where he left off. The winger earned three points in his first ever college hockey game, and followed it up with a four-point performance the next night. That’s noteworthy from any prospect in any league, but especially from a college rookie and a late fourth-round pick.
When Cole Caufield called Farrell a steal immediately after his selection at 124th in 2020, he was definitely onto something. The prospect’s ability to access dangerous ice via his dynamic skating and high-end stickhandling makes his offensive game tick, and he boasts tremendous playmaking and an above-average shot to make the most out of his time on the puck. The prospect also shows a decent amount of intensity and drive off the puck, which should help him get some extra minutes at higher levels.
Time and space are less abundant than they were in the USHL for Farrell, and he seems to have adapted quite well so far. The way he has moved the puck, exploited space, and dominated play on both ends has been outstanding to watch, without even taking the points into context. There’s no way he keeps this production rate up, but he could very well lead his team in points as he did last season and earn a contract this summer.
Blake Biondi, C — University of Minnesota-Duluth, NCHC
Biondi’s performance last year showed how massive the step is between high school and college hockey. The 6’0”, 180-pound centre, who earned the Mr. Hockey award given to the best Minnesota high school player in his draft year, scored 76 points in only 25 games for Hermantown High, and followed up that season with only five points in 26 games for Minnesota-Duluth, the year after being drafted in the fourth round by the Habs.
Now two seasons removed from his draft year, Biondi has found another gear and become one of UMD’s most noticeable forwards, with six points in as many games. He leads the Bulldogs in both goals and points, and the team is off to a 5-1-0 start as a result of his play. Biondi plays a wrecking-ball style in front of the net, cleaning up the garbage and screening the goaltender for tip-ins and point shots.
His skating stride is one of the strangest ones I’ve seen; he’s not slow by any means, but there’s a lot more effort going into each stride than the pace he generates would suggest. Lots of noise in his stride recoveries and posture, which can make him look unstable at times.
He gets away with it by spending most of his time away from the puck, connecting with teammates as quickly as possible in transition to avoid spending much time on the puck, and his defensive anticipation has improved past the high level at which it already was. He intercepts pucks regularly with good stick positioning and timely push-offs into passing lanes.
There’s still some way to go; Biondi’s point-per-game production so far in arguably the third-best conference in the NCAA as a 20-year-old falls short of great, but is still very good. Unless he finds yet another offensive gear in the next few years, Biondi’s ticket to the NHL is his defensive awareness. If he maximizes that skill while continuing to polish up his skating, the Habs could have a decent NHLer on their hands.
Jordan Harris, LD — Northeastern University, Hockey East
Harris started his 2021-22 campaign about as drily as can be, going pointless in four games to begin the year. Since then, however, Harris had three excellent games on the offensive side, totalling five points and earning the title of NCAA defenceman of the week, before playing another scoreless game for a current total of five points in eight matches.
His game away from the puck has been hit-or-miss throughout his first eight games, looking solid in some matches even before his production uptick while showing some lapses in focus on occasions, letting a forward blow by him or not properly getting in the way of opposing shots.
The main difference in the blue-liner’s game pre- and post-offensive eclosion is the amount of rush activations he’s performed. Harris was much more involved as the fourth man in Northeastern’s zone entries, and carried the puck out himself at a higher rate than in his first five games. This has led to more scoring chances for his team, and he is able to mitigate the risk of counter-attacks by anticipating broken plays well and using his fluid skating to get back on time.
I had expected a bit more from the 21-year-old captain heading into what should be his final year at the collegiate level, but we’re eight games in and there are over 20 left to go in the season. I know for a fact that there’s more to Harris than he’s shown so far; his point-per-game pace last year with the same team shows that he has another level he can rise to.
Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University, Hockey-East
Harris’s teammate has been even more inconsistent so far for Northeastern. The prospect earned three points, a goal and two assists, in his first game of the season, before disappearing off the scoreboard for a total of six games. He netted a game-winning goal from centre ice in his last game on October 30, but has been questionable in his own end since the season started. He was on the ice for all three of Quinnipiac’s goals in a 3-0 loss suffered earlier in the season, and despite some flashes of strong, solid board interventions, has generally been easy to expose when defending with his back to the net.
Jayden Struble (#3 in black) in a clip. pic.twitter.com/S3R7lW9KmZ— David St-Louis (@DavidSt_Louis) October 15, 2021
He remains a one-man demolition crew with his heavy frame and aggressive mindset in his own zone, but that comes with a fair share of penalties taken. On the other side of the rink, he gets involved in rushes often, helping Northeastern outnumber opponents on the rush, and closes down from the point with timing to put heavy shots on net. Choosing his moments to activate will be key; the last thing he needs is more time spent skating backward due to counter-rushes.
Luke Tuch, LW — Boston University, Hockey East
Some unfortunate news in Luke Tuch’s case. He sustained a lower-body injury sometime in mid-October and will be out for an indeterminate but significant amount of time. He will likely be back for the Beanpot tournament in February, but continues to miss games due to injury — a concern that was often discussed in his draft year, which led to him being available at 47th overall for the Canadiens.
The 19-year-old stands at 6’2’’ and 203 pounds, and has a game built around winning puck battles and crashing the net. He has surprisingly soft hands for his size, and can elevate the puck quickly in-tight, making him a threat around the opposing goal. He also has a mean streak, often getting on the opponent’s nerves and drawing penalties. The prospect was pointless through three games for Boston University, but will look to come back in better shape sometime in the next month or two.
Jakub Dobeš, G — Ohio State, Big Ten
Dobeš has been stellar through four starts for OSU, winning three of his starts and averaging one goal against a game, with a .954 save percentage. The goaltender has managed to adapt to the collegiate game very well, after managing average stats with Omaha in the USHL (47 GP, 2.48 GAA, .908 Sv%). He currently leads the entire NCAA in wins and save percentage, although (once again) we’re very early in the season.
Jakub Dobeš (#GoHabsGo) hasn't had to make many big saves for Ohio State to this point in their match against UConn, but this was a low-key fantastic bit of puck-tracking by the Habs fifth-round pick to preserve the two-goal lead. pic.twitter.com/CakwLnZGNZ— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) October 16, 2021
He especially stood out on October 16 when he made 32 saves for a shutout in OSU’s 3-0 win against UConn. His ability to track pucks through traffic and splay across to get a limb on shots that he doesn’t always see makes him an intriguing prospect to keep watching in the next few years. His angles could use some polishing, as he’ll often be slightly off position on low-to-high plays, but he’s off to an incredible start for a netminder who had to wait until the fifth round of his second year of NHL Draft eligibility to hear his name.
The rest of the pack hasn’t done much to stand out and show a whole new level of playing ability. The four prospects not mentioned above — Brett Stapley, Rhett Pitlick, Jack Gorniak, and Arvid Henrikson — haven’t outplayed their expectations or their age group, and haven’t been able to show that they could be NHL players anytime soon. Most of them are still very young, however, and have time before the season’s done to stifle those doubts.