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Catching The Torch: Gianni Fairbrother’s defensive game projects as NHL-calibre

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The defenceman uses his body and his stick to keep scoring chances to a minimum.

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.

The goal of this series was never to overhype prospects, but to present their strengths and weakness and talk about their performance in the context of their Junior careers, while also positioning them on their path to the NHL. But in the past year, or even the past couple of years, it has been hard to temper expectations. So many of Montreal’s youngsters have been trending upward, even the ones we mention with less frequency.

Gianni Fairbrother is another name you should keep in mind. I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up playing NHL games in the future. He is such an easy projection; the Habs offering him a contract after his incredibly short stint with the Laval Rocket, three games in late February, is a testament to that.

The Cale Fleury comparison is a good one. Both players play similarly, but at the same age, Fairbrother has more refined defensive and (arguably) puck-moving mechanics, too.

You shouldn’t expect him to rise to the top of the lineup, pushing NHL play by holding on to the puck and dangling around opponents. He won’t drive the team’s offence and quarterback power plays, but even against strong competition he should be able to make the right decisions more often than not, denying the opposition and keeping the puck moving forward from stick to stick.

The early contract given to Fairbrother also speaks to his great fit inside the team’s strategies and his coachability. Not that this last quality was ever in doubt. You just have to watch the defenceman play away from the puck to understand how well he can integrate feedback. His game was built on a large foundation of great habits. The first one being his stick work.

One of the most important aspects of defending is stick placement. It has to lay inside passing lanes, shooting lanes, and deny options, but it cannot be passive. The game moves around defenders and the stick has to follow, especially in one-on-ones.

When shadowing opponents on the wall, skating left and right, up and down, to close down space, Fairbrother’s stick always moves first, ahead of the rest of his body. It follows the puck and protects the middle.

Next is Fairbrother’s mobility. He skates at opponents in-zone and off the rush to close his gap, but avoids given them opportunities to dangle around or through him in the process by choosing the right footwork: ladder or shuffle steps. He doesn’t cross his feet and/or pivot unless he has to. He keeps himself in front of the opponent and his man to the outside with those shorter, more controlled steps, made in an explosive stance, as to enable large corrections if need be.

In terms of tools, Fairbrother also uses his body. As attackers drive to the slot, he places himself in front of them and absorbs their momentum, slowing them in their course and removing them as pass options. It is the same in retrieval sequences. The defenceman skates in the path of the opposition, ensuring he gets first touch on the puck to move it to a teammate.

Some defencemen show those skills occasionally, but these truly became habits for Fairbrother. Tune in on any shift of his, and you will catch them executed close to optimally.

Another projectable aspect of Fairbrother’s game is his risk management. By that, I mean his ability to identify the most dangerous option and take it away, instead of being sucked in by the puck-carrier. Even when opponents rush the front of the net, Fairbrother stays with his check on the far post, as he knows that the goalie can handle a near-post drive. The real threat is the player on the other side of the crease.

You can see him display that aspect of his game multiple times in the video below, the poise to retain a net-front protective position even when a breakdown happens.

No report of a defenceman’s game would be complete without a few words on his play with the puck. Fairbrother rarely holds the disc for more than a couple of seconds at a time, but while he is more of a short-passer than a carrier, he maximizes many of his touches, avoids turnovers, and advances the play. You see him use deception, turn his body and feet to misdirect defenders, force them to turn their feet or move their stick which opens up lanes to hit teammates with direct or indirect passes, and also take shooting opportunities from the point.

As soon as next year, Fairbrother should become one of the many pillars of a stronger-than-ever Laval Rocket blue line. If he continues to solidify his defensive habits and puck-moving game, I don’t think it is presumptuous to say that he could even get some games with Montreal down the stretch or the year after, filling in for an injured player.

There are no guarantees, but the early returns on the team’s drafting of defencemen in the past few years looks promising. Fairbrother is part of that new crop of simple but effective defencemen that will soon push for spots on the team’s rearguard.

CHL season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Kaiden Guhle 2020 LD WHL Prince Albert Raiders 2 1 1 2
Gianni Faibrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 23 1 16 17
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 20 1 2 3

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