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.
This time around, we’ll be shifting the focus onto the NCAA specifically, where nine of the Habs’ prospects are plying their trade.
There won’t be enough time to cover all of them, therefore we’ll be taking a look at four of the highest-interest Habs prospects in college hockey: Lane Hutson, Sean Farrell, Jayden Struble, and Luke Tuch.
I’ve been able to catch a lot of NCAA games recently, and have a lot of observations on all four of these prospects. Let’s get right into it.
Lane Hutson, LD — Boston University (Hockey East)
Hutson is looking more and more like the Canadiens’ best prospect outside of the NHL. The bite-sized left-handed defenceman has added eight points in seven games since our last update, bringing his season total to six goals and eight assists for 14 points in only 12 games.
For context, his current 1.17 points-per-game pace would be the highest of any freshman NCAA defenceman in the last 25 years, ahead of Adam Fox (1.14), Quinn Hughes (1.03) and many more elite NHL blue-liners, if maintained over a full season. All while playing on the second pair and second power-play unit for Boston University.
Not only is he putting up points, but he is putting them up in projectable fashion.
On this goal, Hutson accelerates upon puck-reception where most defencemen slow down, he attacks his check in the neutral zone head-on to freeze him before angling out where most defenders perform a wide arc and dump the puck, then plays give-and-go and drives the net for a tip where most of his peers would stop up and man the blue line. These habits, chained together and combined in this fashion, lead to goals at the NHL level.
Projectable habits are the name of the game for Hutson. He combines head and shoulder fakes with lower-body deceptiveness, presenting his skates and hips one way before swinging the other. He attacks dangerous areas fearlessly and encourages his teammates to do so as well with his proactive and aggressive playmaking.
He earns his goals the right way; not by relying on a heavy wrister or slapper from the point, but by deking out the forward ahead of him at the blue line, venturing down the boards, and either passing off and popping up unmarked in the slot, or driving the dots himself. His understanding of triangulation — the concept of passing to a player to set up a goal two plays later — is advanced and calculated.
Hutson is electric. Every time he gets the puck, something happens. Crowds in Boston are already catching on, holding their breath when he starts a breakout, expecting the spectacular when a low-to-high pass finds his stick.
Lane Hutson with the OT winner! pic.twitter.com/f8aj8fUHSS— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 30, 2022
Even defensively, Hutson has shown some impressive flashes. In puck races, he establishes body-positioning well before reaching for the puck, scanning the entire way to identify his outlets. In front of the net, he battles for space very well, clearing the net-front when he can and cutting off access to rebounds when he can’t.
The only issue with Hutson is his area of influence: the space around a player in which they can influence play. Hutson’s lack of size and reach, combined with his poor pivots, greatly reduce his area of influence on the defensive side. He can’t poke-check off the rush as effectively as, say, Cale Makar or Adam Fox, due to his compromising posture.
Anything he can reach, however, Hutson has no problem stopping. Therefore, improving his pivots would likely solve his apparent defensive woes. It would increase his area of influence, at which point his intelligence and adept stick-positioning would take care of the rest.
It’s early, but there is so much to love about Hutson’s game. He looks more and more like a projectable NHL prospect, especially with his areas of improvement being right in Adam Nicholas’s comfort zone.
Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (ECAC)
After posting only four points in his first five games for Harvard, Farrell has flipped a switch of late. In his last three games — against Union College, the University of New Hampshire, and most recently against the powerhouse Michigan Wolverines — Farrell has earned three goals and five assists, bringing his season total to 12 points in only eight games. This total leads his Harvard squad, one ahead of Kings prospect Alex Laferriere and Flames first-rounder Matt Coronato.
Sean Farrell looks fantastic this year for Harvard pic.twitter.com/7CMCRp9zqq— Evan (@Shattenkirk) November 18, 2022
This specific clip shows a combination of Farrell’s most high-end playmaking assets: his pre-scanning and awareness. Farrell is almost always in periscope mode, surveying the ice around him intently before, during, and after a puck touch, keeping his head on a swivel to create a mental map of his surroundings.
Throughout this start to the season, Farrell has consistently displayed elite, projectable playmaking tools, from the aforementioned pre-scanning and awareness to the oft-overlooked but ever-so-lethal area pass, as well as an uncanny knack for drawing in players and opening space behind them.
He blends full-body deception seamlessly into his pass receptions and zips hard passes cross-ice with pinpoint accuracy, leaving the poor defences of the ECAC scrambling with every puck touch.
To quote Adam Nicholas directly:
Here's Adam Nicholas on Sean Farrell.— Hadi Kalakeche (@HadiK_Scouting) August 1, 2022
This is what I want to hear from a Director of Player Development. Intricate, detail-oriented analysis of what makes a prospect special. https://t.co/ukGVLjnBl3 pic.twitter.com/FJb70E6Krx
Add on top of this the progress Farrell has shown in terms of playing inside contact, getting in between the dots for his plays, and, especially, the strides he’s taken defensively which have led him to play top minutes on the penalty kill for Harvard, and you have an immensely promising package of skills that should lead Farrell to succeed at higher levels.
Top-six upside is nowhere near unreasonable for the Habs’ fourth-round pick in 2020. I can comfortably state that he is the best playmaker in the system.
Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East)
Struble’s progress has mainly come in the defensive zone. The 6’, 200-pound, left-handed defenceman has continued to be a punishing force in transition both offensively and defensively, making his side of the ice a nightmare to skate into for opponents while being one of the best breakout creators in the NCAA.
He now blends in a lot more scanning in his own zone, making him more capable when identifying threats and attempting to stifle them. Being more proactive and less reactive is still a work in progress, however.
Struble received an automatic suspension recently for a fighting major against Boston College, after a scrum ensued following a late hit. He is up to four points, a goal and three assists, in 13 games on the year.
These numbers might be unimpressive for a senior, but Northeastern plays a forward-heavy style, where defencemen rarely venture down from their blue line. Struble is in fact only two points behind the highest-scoring defenceman on the Huskies.
Regardless, progress over production is the mantra for developing prospects. And Struble is progressing. He’s making great use of his physical tools, combining power and fluidity like few other defencemen do, and is adding arrows to his quiver each year.
His breakout game is polished, but he remains a raw prospect with some runway to improve his game. Letting him marinate in the AHL to develop a more well-rounded on-puck game would likely be the best step for his development after his senior year comes to an end.
Luke Tuch, LW — Boston University (Hockey-East)
Although his production has seen an uptick, going from 10 points in 26 games last year to eight points (three goals, five assists) in 12 matches to date this season, Tuch hasn’t shown much progress in the key areas that require growth in his game.
He continues to be a great straight-line threat, reacting quickly to turnovers and barrelling up the ice with speed to outrace defenders and attack the net, but there isn’t much else to his game. He seemingly avoids east-west play at all costs, which is a telltale sign of a lack of polished hockey sense.
Rarely does he distribute pucks and play give-and-go, instead being much more content trying to overpower his checks on his way to the net. He plays a solid off-puck game in the offensive zone, but still drags his feet on the backcheck and lacks purpose and drive in his movements in the defensive zone.
There is a lot of work to do on Tuch’s game to bring out more from him than a future fourth-line checking forward. He hits hard, shoots hard, and protects pucks well, but there isn’t enough finesse and intelligence in his game to see him become a legitimate top-nine contender. Not in the Habs’ new free-form, intelligence-favouring tactical system.
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!