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Catching The Torch: Hutson, Tuch, Pitlick, Biondi shine in NCAA exhibition starts

A recap of the performances of the Habs’ NCAA prospects in their non-official season debuts.

NHL: JUL 12 Montreal Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back 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.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, long time no see! The Habs’ North American prospects have either been training in the off-season, or showing their progress in development camp, rookie camp, or pre-season action, leaving them outside of Catching The Torch jurisdiction.

Now, none of the Habs’ NCAA prospects made it past rookie camp, which is typical given the structure of the NHL/NCAA agreement (in short, any NCAA-affiliated prospect who signs an entry-level contract or even a PTO immediately loses his eligibility to play at the collegiate level). Since none of them were NHL-ready, all were sent to continue their development in college.

Some of them, so far, are off to great starts through an exhibition match or two. We’ll start with the Boston University duo, move our way toward the Minnesota Dream Team, and end our course right next door with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.

Lane Hutson, LD — Boston University

The most impressive — and by far the youngest — of the BU duo, Hutson put up three assists in his debut game for the Terriers, absolutely dominating from the back end by using his feet, hands, and brain to get loose pucks behind his net and help his team gain the offensive zone with almost zero effort.

With a quick, intelligent three-line pass, he obtained a secondary assist. He also used his breakout passing regularly to create odd-man rushes for his team, and could have had many more points in this game as a result.

And then, near the end of the game, Hutson pulled this off:

On this play, Hutson (#20 White) shifts his weight one way, then the other, waiting out the defence and giving fellow Habs prospect Luke Tuch (#11 White) the time to find open space on the far side. One last head fake and Hutson releases a pass that glides right through an unsuspecting Bentley forward, and lands right in Tuch’s wheelhouse for a one-timer.

Deception, manipulation, agility, pinpoint passing; Lane Hutson’s M.O. summarized in one play.

The things that the Habs’ 62nd overall pick managed to do in this game (albeit an exhibition match against one of the weaker NCAA sides) were promising, as Hutson could very well have earned more than three assists. He was involved, he was dangerous, and he was probably BU’s best player.

He will need to work on his ability to match opponents’ footwork and keep himself within influential distance of puck-carriers when defending the rush, but there were some decent flashes of defensive plays in this game, especially when he was defending while skating forward rather than backward. His struggle with pivots limits his technical versatility on the rush, but when he sticks to forward skating, he is extremely tough to counter.

Luke Tuch, LW — Boston University

Tuch earned himself a goal on the aforementioned Hutson pass, and was very much involved physically. A bit too much, however. He ran over the opposing netminder behind his goal on a rim play and ended up in the penalty box as a result.

Otherwise, Tuch had a good game involvement-wise, making his fair share of defensive plays to turn pucks over in favour of his team, and showing decent effort on the forecheck to hem the Bentley defenders in their own zone.

Keep in mind, this is an exhibition match against a weak NCAA team, but the effort Tuch showed in a game that doesn’t count bodes well for the ones that do.

Rhett Pitlick, LW/RW — U. of Minnesota

As the Golden Gophers welcomed their newest recruit in third overall pick Logan Cooley, Rhett Pitlick was placed on his wing and tasked with using his adept playmaking to feed him pucks in favourable areas.

And that he did. Twice, to be exact, earning the primary assist on Cooley’s first two career NCAA goals, against the newly D1-appointed Lindenwood University.

This behind-the-back pass displays what can easily be considered Pitlick’s greatest on-puck skill: his creativity in opening passing lanes. He rarely takes the predictable route, the shortest distance between two dots. More often than not, he uses fakes and misdirection, or his outstanding skating, to ensure that his desired target is as accessible as possible.

While Pitlick isn’t without his limitations — his lack of physicality limits his ability to protect pucks through contact and cut inside in possession — he puts the tools he does have to good use. Expect him to earn a contract when his NCAA tenure ends.

Blake Biondi, C/LW — U. of Minnesota-Duluth

Pitlick wasn’t the only Habs prospect to welcome a former NTDP star and first-round pick to his team with an assist — Biondi’s shooting mentality helped Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Isaac Howard get on the board for the first time with the UMD Bulldogs.

Biondi (#7 White) used his strong off-puck positioning to find some open space in the slot and fire a puck on net, which was recovered by a linemate in front of the crease and relayed while falling down to an open Howard, who simply doesn’t miss those.

The Habs’ fourth-round, 109th overall pick in 2020 is set to pivot a line with Howard for the foreseeable future, especially as the Bulldogs’ reigning scoring leader. The off-puck movement and goal-scoring prowess of Biondi combined with Howard’s playmaking creativity and daring mindset on the puck should make for an electrifying duo.

Biondi still needs to improve his skating and work on identifying his options more quickly in transition, but what lies ahead is a solid opportunity to explore those aspects of his game with Howard at his side. His off-puck anticipation has improved beyond the strength that it already was, and should carry very well to the pro level.

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on Habs’ prospects, and to keep up with the rest of my scouting work!