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Catching The Torch: Rhett Pitlick and Jack Smith are taking the long route

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This week, we check in on the USHL prospects not named Sean Farrell to see how their development is progressing.

NHL: JUN 28 Montreal Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Montreal Canadiens prospects playing at the Junior (OHL, WHL), and collegiate (NCAA) level.

Rhett Pitlick is on his third USHL team in two years. We don’t always see players move from team to team like this in that league, but Pitlick’s name probably comes up a lot in trade talks due to his uncommon speed and defensive abilities. They make him a great complementary piece to most formations.

Pitlick started his Junior career with the Omaha Lancers before moving to the Muskegon Lumberjacks, where he found success on the opposite wing of playmaker Daniil Gushchin. This year in Muskegon, the coaching staff moved him away from his all-star linemate and Pitlick struggled to score. Following a cold streak, the Lumberjacks pulled the trigger on another exchange, sending Pitlick to the Tri-City Storm.

On one hand, there hasn’t been a ton of evolution in Pitlick’s game over the past two years. On the other, he hasn’t lost any of his strengths. You would be hard-pressed to find a more active player in the USHL. Pitlick’s motor is always revving and his feet always moving. The prospect is in a constant state of pursuit, running after the puck, opponents, or to the offensive zone.

Some players just need a new challenge. Not unlike Sean Farrell with Chicago, Pitlick will benefit from the college environment where he will test and push his limits. Sure, he isn’t scoring as much as his fellow USHL Habs prospect, but his skill set will remain useful for the coaching staff at the University of Minnesota. What college coach doesn’t love a fast-paced, speedy, defensively responsible player? If Minnesota gives Pitlick the right partner, they will also increase their rush offence significantly.

The issues in Pitlick’s game are the same as they were: getting open away from the puck, finding pockets of space to create passing exchanges, and using his speed in more deceptive and manipulative ways.

It is hard to score when the puck doesn’t touch your stick enough. Pitlick takes advantage of broken plays a lot at his level to find his occasions to score, but creates few extended passing plays. College teams manage the puck better than USHL ones, so he won’t get as many opportunities to escape for breakaways or two-on-ones due to opposing mistakes, but he will probably get more return passes due to the proficiency of teammates. Learning to change speeds and time himself into pockets of space could make a big difference for his puck-acquisition game, helping him build offensive sequences.

Pilitck’s low-scoring profile doesn’t inspire confidence in his NHL future, but the team doesn’t have to sign him for a few years yet. He will get second and third look. And Pitlick has an advantage over his peers; his skating will stay a significant asset even in the top league.

Here are Pitlick’s three points this past weekend, one goal and two assists.

Rhett Pitlick wears #14 with the Tri-City Storm.

Jack Smith, C, Sioux Falls Stampede

Smith has struggled since his arrival in the USHL. Those are his first steps in the league, but one would have envisioned a more productive season for the star high-school playmaker. He produced close to three points per game in his circuit last year, but struggled to line up two games with points this year for the Stampede. Be it for his performance or injury, he also skipped a few games.

The arrival of Cole Sillinger from the WHL, a top prospect for the 2021 draft, certainly booster the offensive capabilities of the Stampede, but also lessened opportunities for Smith in the lineup.

The good news is that, like Pitlick, Smith still has at least four years in college to work on his game. The early signs are not encouraging, but those won’t matter when weighed against his entire college career.

Smith scored his third goal of the season this past weekend against Habs prospect Jakub Dobes. He took possession of the puck behind the net, saw Dobes hugging the near post, and went for the wraparound. The goalie made the first save, but Smith persisted, smacking the puck in on the second try.

Jake Smith wears #20 with the Sioux Fall Stampede

This game was a rare blowout of the Omaha Lancers. Dobes got pulled. That hasn’t happened to him all that often this season, however, and his statistical profile remains impressive. Only seven goalies in the entire USHL have a save percentage above .900, and Dobes is part of that group. Both his save percentage and goals-against average are top-three in the league.

Gianni Fairbrother’s signing

Montreal’s collection of young left-handed blue-liners is impressive, so impressive that sometimes one of its more interesting elements slips into the background, drawing less attention. Fairbrother didn’t play this season. That didn’t help him grab the spotlight, but he showed enough in his stint with Laval to earn a contract. Honestly, it is not at all surprising.

Fairbrother is a defenceman in the Habs’ mould. Flashy offence is not what he is about, but he moves the puck in controlled ways, shows poise on the back-wall while retrieving pucks and a few effective feints. His skating is NHL-calibre and so will be his defensive game with a few more years of experience.

Joël Bouchard and his staff did great work with Cale Fleury, lifting him to the NHL after just a year in the AHL. Fairbrother could follow a similar path.

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