Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is progressing week by week.
This week, we’ll be discussing Sean Farrell, the only North American Habs prospect to make his country’s roster for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing throughout the month of February. He and Jordan Harris, who was left off the main U.S. roster but retained as an alternate in case of injury or illness, have also received nominations for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best NCAA player. We’ll also discuss the latest news on Arber Xhekaj, who picked up yet another suspension.
Regarding the Olympics, the NHL’s refusal to allow its members to participate has opened the door for players outside of the top league in the world, young and old, to prove their worth on the international stage. The tournament is sure to include a couple of names that’ll make you say, “remember that guy?”
Former Habs such as David Desharnais, Daniel Carr, Mark Barberio, Eric Staal, and more have been invited to Team Canada’s roster, but the prospect we’ll need to keep an eye on will be representing our neighbours to the South.
We’ll start off with the player in the Habs’ system whose presence is most expected for Team USA at the Olympics.
Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (NCAA/ECAC)
Farrell’s invitation to Team USA’s Olympic roster comes off the back of an impressive collegiate rookie start for the Harvard Crimson, as the forward is up to eight goals and 11 assists in 15 games. He currently sits second on the team in points, behind Leafs prospect Nick Abruzzese (who is also on the American roster) and ahead of Flames first-rounder Matt Coronato.
His slighter frame could cause concerns at the Olympics against mature defencemen, but his ability to read plays, intercept pucks, and get involved along the boards could lead to a sneakily effective checking game. Although the Habs’ fourth-round pick in 2020 might end up as the odd man out among the 14 forwards invited, he could very well impress in the bottom-six and find himself crawling up the pecking order.
The one thing that’ll serve him well at this event is his ability to man the half-wall and get pucks into dangerous areas with his tremendous passing. Team USA could probably just throw him out on the power play and let him do his thing with higher-quality teammates, which would see him flourish by playing to his strengths. Especially with his teammate Abruzzese joining him in Beijing, the two could continue doing what they’ve done so well in Harvard to this point, which is dominate the man advantage with synergy and creativity.
I wouldn’t bet on Farrell winning the Hobey Baker, however. There are over 70 names selected as nominees, and they include Owen Power, Jake Sanderson, Devon Levi, and so many others who have had seasons which will make them difficult to vote against.
Jordan Harris, LD — Northeastern (NCAA/Hockey-East)
Harris’s relevance to Team USA will be as an alternate, the Olympics’ version of a back-up list. If one of Team USA’s blue-liners were to be unavailable, whether due to COVID-19 or an injury, Harris could step into the team’s roster and pick things up from there. The odds of seeing him in an American jersey are very slim, given how strict China’s guidelines are and how unlikely it is to see an unavailability from his teammates, but if he does make it into the lineup, we’re looking at an unparalleled opportunity for Harris to learn.
Facing professional hockey players for the first time wouldn’t be an easy task, and it would force Harris to react more quickly, to make smarter decisions under pressure, and to get even more comfortable with absorbing contact. Adversity both builds character and tests a player’s abilities, and seeing Harris at this tournament would be a great way to evaluate how he matches up against competition similar to that which he would face in the AHL.
Harris has been one of Northeastern’s most regularly involved defenders, breaking up plays with his impressive stick-checking and outstanding lateral mobility. He has also displayed an offensive touch that has him sitting fourth on his team in scoring with 14 points in 24 games this year, six more than any other defenceman on the Northeastern team he captains.
Much like in Farrell’s case, the competition for the Hobey Baker is simply too fierce. He’d need to put together a tremendous second half to his season in order to push himself into consideration.
Arber Xhekaj, LD — Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL)
Xhekaj has taken no time at all to give his new teammates in Hamilton a taste of what they can expect from him. Solid hits, booming shots, great mobility, underrated hands, and double-minor roughing penalties that lead to suspensions.
Here’s a video of the play that has earned Arber Xhekaj a 2 game suspension from Sunday’s Hamilton/Kingston game. Xhekaj received a double minor for roughing on the play according to the #OHL website. pic.twitter.com/qpgTFsGk7i— East Ave Blue (@KRangersReport) January 22, 2022
This isn’t the first time Xhekaj has performed this manoeuvre on an OHL player after the whistle. No matter which way you cut it, headlocking a player to the ice then punching him repeatedly in the head once he’s down will not fly at any level. It’s an objectively dangerous play with a high risk of severe injury.
The repeat offender tag has cost Xhekaj two games for this incident, and he is set to return to play on Saturday, January 29 against the Niagara IceDogs. At this point, we can effectively expect this kind of play from Xhekaj to keep happening at the pro level, as the need to prove himself becomes more and more prevalent with each step upward.
There might not be as much care and poise in his game as other prospects in the pipeline, but Xhekaj’s tenacity and mobility alone should land him a spot in Laval next year, and from then it’ll be a matter of playing well enough to earn a call-up. He has enough tools that I’m not worried about him getting a shot in the NHL, but it’s mainly a question of how long he manages to stay, and how much of an impact he ends up having.
WHAT A ROCKET.— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) January 16, 2022
Newly-acquired and @CanadiensMTL prospect Arber Xhekaj's (@ArberXhekaj_) blast from the point is his first as a @BulldogsOHL, taking the early 1-0 lead against the Fronts ️ pic.twitter.com/bdKaTsyCoh
It’s very easy for players who get in a lot of trouble in Junior to feel that their only redeeming role in the NHL will be as a bouncer on skates. In Xhekaj’s case, I’m still looking for the moment he realizes that his team is more useful with him on it than without. His 17 points in 18 games with Kitchener and his two points in two games since joining the Bulldogs attest to that, and yet the frequency of his suspendable actions has not diminished.
There’s a glaring need to develop at least a marginal amount of carefulness in his on-ice behaviour, especially after the whistle; not enough to change his ways entirely, but just enough to make him aware of when he’s earning himself a multi-game trip to the press box. Every second Xhekaj spends on the ice is a chance to further improve his game, and every second he spends sitting in the stands due to suspensions is precious development time that he’s missing for avoidable reasons.
Thanks for reading — follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to follow along with the rest of my scouting work.