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.
After a relaxed college hockey calendar in December filled with holiday breaks and postponed games, the Habs’ NCAA prospects are looking to start an upward trend in 2022 and get themselves noticed ahead of the approaching off-season.
The team has a total of 10 prospects currently developing in the U.S. collegiate ranks, and some of them figure among the best in the pipeline. Others have been struggling as of late, and concerns of losing a future NHLer to free agency has the Habs scrambling south of the border to try to piece together the burnt bridges left behind.
We’ll start off with a prospect who was mentioned in last week’s mid-season round-up as the Canadiens’ NCAA standout.
Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (ECAC)
After a lengthy holiday break and a handful of postponed games, Farrell managed to squeeze in his first game in 29 days, scoring a goal and adding two primary assists against UConn, who have seven NHL prospects on their roster and have beaten the likes of Boston University and Northeastern earlier in the season.
The prospect once again showed his creativity and his shiftiness, as well as the ongoing improvements in his shot and defensive game. He intercepted puck after puck, disrupting opposing plays with an impressive amount of regularity, and scored on a tight-angle shot from the low circle to give Harvard the lead.
The prospect now has seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points in his first 12 college hockey games, albeit in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), in which most teams figure players 20 years or older who aren’t in any NHL system.
Playing against older competition has its merits in terms of learning how to handle bigger bodies in board battles, but the skill gap between Farrell and the defenders in charge of guarding him and cutting his passing lanes is immense on many nights. The prospect will need to put in more performances like this one, being consistently involved throughout the game without fading off, which can’t be said about the rest of his year to date.
Farrell seems set on completing his studies at the prestigious Ivy League university and should be a late signing for the Habs. In two years, he’ll have the choice between potentially burning a year of his entry-level contract by signing with the organization that drafted him 124th overall in 2020, or having the benefit of choosing his career destination by testing the free-agent market.
This leads us to our second prospect of the week, who happens to be facing this exact situation in the upcoming off-season.
Jordan Harris, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East)
The Canadiens’ third-round pick in 2018 is in his senior year at Northeastern, and is set to sign an entry-level contract at the end of his final season at the University. The only questions is if he’ll be signing with the Habs, or if he’ll be letting their draft rights expire to sign elsewhere.
Eric Engels reported on Sportsnet that he was initially told last spring that Harris wouldn’t be signing with the Habs after completing his degree, but things have changed considerably since, and the team could very well have an open spot for him on their NHL roster once a couple of trades are completed. Most notably, Ben Chiarot’s asking price is estimated to be a first-round pick and then some, which should be a no-brainer for a rebuilding team.
The Habs could very well use Harris’s services going forward, as their healthy blue line is among the oldest in the NHL and the prospect brings so much of what Montreal needs moving forward: a mobile, intelligent defenceman who can single-handedly prevent opponents from setting up offensively.
His 11 points in 18 games don’t seem very impressive at first glance, but his team has allowed a total of 25 goals against in those games, and the Habs’ prospect is a major reason for their defensive success. He is also tied for second on the team in points.
Playing as much as 30 minutes a night at times, the Huskies’ captain shows outstanding defensive positioning and disruptive ability with his stick and makes playing in his corner of the rink nearly impossible. His rush defending is just as refined, with his mobility serving to close gaps wherever he finds them.
Harris’s IQ and skating alone should carry him to the NHL, but Jeff Gorton is on a road trip through Massachusetts to convince him and the other prospects in the region that Montreal is the right place for them to grow into NHL players. If he is successful, expect Harris to jump right into the Habs’ roster next fall.
Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East)
Struble has started his season off on a dry note, earning only four points (two goals, two assists) through 17 games for the Huskies, three of which he earned on opening night. That’s only one assist in his last 16 games. He is also on a nine-game pointless drought at the moment, during which he still managed to register 13 shots. He’s definitely trying to get points on the board, but the puck just isn’t going in the back of the net when he’s on the ice.
The promising aspect of Struble’s drought is that he is doing all the little things well in order to drive play away from his zone and into the opposition’s. His transition game has taken a huge leap since his draft year, as he used to overhandle the puck and try to take on too much himself, and he is much more involved in his own zone than he used to be in 2019.
Struble’s game still lacks patience in some aspects. He can overcommit on hits or pinches and find himself chasing the play heading into his zone, and his shot selection leaves something to be desired. However, when passing out from the back, that lack of patience is much less evident. Delays, angle changes, and area passes now make his possession-driving much more efficient.
The Habs’ second-round pick from 2019 has been growing increasingly volatile with each passing game of the drought. It’s clear he wants to do better, but the impact of that volatility is a lack of structure and level-headedness in his offensive attempts, which is the opposite of what will lead to points for him, and the main reason why he seems stuck in a rut production-wise.
Luke Tuch, LW — Boston University (Hockey-East)
Tuch’s issue is similar to Struble’s in terms of the impatience compounding with each passing game, but a considerable part of the issue was a lower-body injury in October which sidelined him for nine games. He was seen holding crutches in October and came back to play in mid-November, but it didn’t appear he had fully recovered based on how he was skating.
After a 20-day break starting December 12, the prospect came back strong with a two-goal performance on New Year’s Eve, albeit against one of the weakest NCAA programs in Brown University (not a single NHL prospect figures among their ranks). That’s just what he needed in order to start the year with a clean slate.
Luke Tuch's 2 goals vs. Brown University - 12/31/21 #GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/JB8fRQFE0q— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) January 6, 2022
The Habs’ 2020 second-round pick has promising foundations — his skating posture is technically refined, his frame and physical play are pro-ready, and he has decent enough puck skills to connect the dots offensively — but he’ll need to find ways to gain the middle more often. Both of his goals against Brown came from centre-lane drives, using his skating and intensity to gain open ice and win races to the puck, but these routes weren’t a regular occurrence in the first half of this season.
If he can set himself up with space to shoot like this more often, Tuch should be able to dial the offence up a notch or two in the next few months. Anticipation and play-reading are not strengths of his at the moment, and those elements will need to come a long way if he wishes to have a better overall impact on his games at any level.
Jakub Dobeš, G — The Ohio State University (Big Ten)
Dobeš has been a decent surprise in the first half of the NCAA campaign. He earned the starting role at OSU, putting up a 13-5-0 record, a 2.10 goals-against average, and a .926 save percentage. His stats are padded by 15-save shutouts against weaker teams, but his games against top guns Michigan and Notre Dame have also been promising.
He is one of the most frequent puck-players in the NCAA, getting involved on dump-ins without hesitating to venture far out of his net, and has above-average handling skills to get away with it. He covers his posts well, cuts shot angles by stepping out of the blue paint to challenge shooters, and shows great play-reading that keeps him aware of bounces and deflections.
As he continues to develop in the NCAA, it’ll be essential for Dobeš to keep facing tough shots. His lateral explosivity still requires some fine-tuning, and facing many cross-ice passes a game will help him improve that element. His reactiveness is on point, but his technique and coverage on those scramble-mode saves could be developed into strengths with enough time and support.
Brett Stapley, C — University of Denver (NCHC)
The 22-year-old seventh-round pick from 2018 has been able to put together a decent season with Denver, scoring eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 18 games, including 13 in his last six, which earned him the title of player of the month for December.
The prospect sits third on his team in points, but figures among Denver’s oldest players on the roster. Still, not many seventh-rounders end up scoring more than a point per game in college.
Great edgework, sound passing, and intricate stickhandling are at the core of Stapley’s game, as the prospect uses timely cut-backs and backhand drags to make his way around NCAA defenders with more than enough ease. Away from the puck, the centre shows decent but not outstanding stickwork, as well as above-average intensity.
HIGHLIGHT: Reid Irwin scores his 1st of the season off a feed from Brett Stapley. pic.twitter.com/vwsP8YnNB6— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 2, 2022
The Jake Evans comparisons are easy to make in Stapley’s case, but Evans has much more poise and anticipation to his game. Stapley can force his way into undesirable areas with the puck, and can take on too much himself instead of using his teammates as pressure-release points.
It’ll be interesting to see how his game develops in the AHL, as he learns to manage pro-calibre defencemen for the first time. The Habs’ priority on the centre expires this off-season, just like with Harris, but he should be a lock for a contract if the Habs want him — not often does a seventh-round pick say no to the team that drafted him.
The Best of the Rest
- A 2018 fourth-rounder, Jack Gorniak is the other NCAA prospect whose rights expire this off-season, but the left-winger hasn’t done much to justify the Habs using a contract slot to add his services. Eight points in 20 games for Wisconsin as a 22-year-old are less than his teammate Brock Caufield, Cole’s undrafted brother, who is of the same age.
- Arvid Henrikson has been difficult to watch due to Lake Superior State not having the best video infrastructure and availability, but the few games of his that I’ve caught don’t give me much hope in his case. Only one assist in 20 games doesn’t matter too much if a prospect is defensive-minded and does a good job of it, but there isn’t much to write home about in that sense for the 2017 seventh-round pick. The 23-year-old Swedish blue-liner will likely see his rights expire with the Canadiens this offseason.
- Blake Biondi has been having a bit of a breakout offensive year, earning a team-leading total of 14 points in 18 games for Minnesota-Duluth. A sound defensive forward with a heavy shot, Biondi still has two years to mature in the NCAA before signing an NHL contract, given that he was drafted in 2020.
- Rhett Pitlick’s signing rights expire in 2023, and the prospect had shown promise in the USHL as a dynamic waterbug with above-average puck skills, but has been struggling against men so far in his young NCAA career. The 21-year-old only has six assists in 13 games and took a lot of time to even make it to college hockey, remaining in the USHL two years after being drafted, which is uncommon for NHL prospects. He’s a long shot to make the Habs at this point, barring a breakout performance next year.
NCAA prospects’ season to date
|Brett Stapley||2018||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Denver||18||8||14||22||10|
|Sean Farrell||2020||LW||NCAA (ECAC)||Harvard||12||7||10||17||4|
|Blake Biondi||2020||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Minnesota-Duluth||20||8||6||14||10|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW/C||NCAA (Big-10)||Wisconsin||20||4||4||8||6|
|Rhett Pitlick||2019||RW||NCAA (Big-10)||U. Minnesota||13||0||6||6||6|
|Luke Tuch||2020||LW||NCAA (East)||Boston U.||10||2||0||2||8|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||18||2||9||11||2|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||17||2||2||4||29|
|Arvid Henrikson||2016||LD||NCAA (CCHA)||Lake Superior||20||0||1||1||33|
|Jakub Dobeš||2020||G||NCAA (Big-10)||Ohio State||18||GAA: 2.10||sv%: .926||Record: 13-5-0|
Thanks for reading — follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to keep up with the rest of my scouting work!