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.
The Habs’ NCAA prospects have had an impressive year to date, with many of them either already figuring among their respective teams’ top scorers or heating up over the last few weeks. It’s a good time to take a look at their progress, and see what’s next for them.
Starting off, the Habs had a prospect competing in the Beijing 2022 Olympics who could very well build off of his experience among men to set himself up for great success in the long run.
Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (ECAC)
Farrell’s presence at the Olympic games was initially not meant to hold much weight, but the Habs’ 2020 fourth-round pick put together a stellar start to make himself a mainstay in Team USA’s lineup. In his first game against China, Farrell earned three goals and two assists in an 8-0 crushing of the local national team, despite only seeing 11:40 of ice-time. He converted on all three of his shots, showing off his improving release and off-puck offensive movement to get himself in prime positions to score.
He then followed up his breakout game with an assist in the bout against Team Canada, which the Americans won 4-2. No shots on goal this time around, as the Canadians were much more locked in defensively than the Chinese national team and were able to use their experienced defencemen to keep Farrell to the outside most of the time.
Team USA then ended their tournament with a round-robin win against Germany and finally a quarter-finals shootout loss against Slovakia, in which Farrell played 12 and 20 minutes, respectively, but failed to get on the board.
His offensive skills were on full display during the entirety of the Americans’ run, especially his playmaking ability which shone brilliantly against weaker competition. Give Farrell an inch, and he’ll take a mile.
His opponents had to be extremely wary of their defensive stick positioning in order to close lanes appropriately throughout the run, as Farrell’s ability to identify breaches in the armor and exploit them truly benefited him when he was paired with pro-grade teammates who could find those pockets and trust him to connect with them.
The main concern with Farrell is putting on muscle and learning to absorb contact with better technique, as the size and strength of opposing defenders on Team Canada, Germany, and Slovakia made things difficult for him in tight areas. His 200-foot involvement put him in many situations where he had to fend off a check, and that’s where he faltered.
He’s still young and has time to polish his physical game, but it’s a must at the NHL level. Fending off a check is a high-event situation at the pro level, and I think this experience will put Farrell in a better position to understand how essential improving this area of his game will be in order to see him succeed in his next steps. He still has two years in college to make that work for him, and then as long as it takes once he turns pro.
Jordan Harris, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East)
As the 69th annual Beanpot tournament rolled around at the start of February, memories of Harris’s heroics from last year surfaced and expectations were high for the three-time reigning champions of the four-team faceoff. The Habs’ 2018 third-round pick had scored the tournament-winning goal in double overtime last year, and had put together a stellar defensive performance to give his team a chance every night.
JORDAN HARRIS WINS THE BEANPOT FOR NORTHEASTERN pic.twitter.com/wSO1YquBHI— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 11, 2020
As Northeastern headed into the final against Boston University, the expectation was for play to intensify and for multiple chances to occur on each side of the rink. But as the score remained 0-0 after two periods, I thought, “Here we go, another defensive clinic by Northeastern,” as the Huskies have only allowed 36 goals against in 17 games so far this year, four fewer than the second-best defensive team in the division (UMass-Lowell).
Boston had managed to generate a good amount of scoring chances, though, and it seemed like only a matter of time before goaltender TJ Semptimphelter would concede given where and how the chances against were occurring. Surprisingly, BU’s ability to set up offensively throughout the game didn’t result in the only goal in the game; it was rather a rare rush play against Harris which ended up in the back of his net.
#GoHabsGo Jordan Harris lays out on the ice to block the passing lane, but gives away an inch of space and that's all BU needed to capitalize. This ended up being the only goal of the game. pic.twitter.com/uIFXMM4GjS— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) February 15, 2022
The instances in which a defender should lay down on the ice, especially on the rush, are few and far between. I’m sure Harris would want this one back, but a simple pivot and aggressive stick check would have forced the opposing puck-carrier to precipitate his pass and potentially execute it poorly. Instead, his slide opened up just enough space past his blades for Boston to connect on a royal-road pass, giving no chance to Semptimphelter.
I’ve seen Harris defend rushes extremely cleanly before, and rarely does he throw himself down prematurely like he did here. Perhaps it was just a rushed decision in the middle of a pressure moment for Northeastern, but he can’t be entirely to blame given how efficient he was in every other moment of the game.
His ability to absorb pressure and free up a teammate in his own zone took pressure off his teammates on multiple occasions, but Boston was simply too hermetic in the neutral and defensive zones, forcing dump-ins from Northeastern forwards regularly. His teammates had nowhere to go once they got the puck.
The next few games will be telling of Harris’s ability to bounce back from adversity. After winning the Beanpot every year since joining the Huskies, it’ll be interesting to see how Harris responds to a finals loss.
Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East)
Struble’s games against Boston College and BU came and went without seeing the sizable defenceman earn any points, but his impact on the game was noticeable. His physical presence needs no reminding, as the blue-liner has a growing tendency to make his corner of the ice difficult to navigate for opponents.
He laid down more than his fair share of hits, and was especially brilliant in transition, aiding his team to get out of trouble in a slightly different way than Harris’s absorb-and-release approach. Instead, Struble kept his feet moving, creating lanes with lateral movement that would otherwise stay closed. This strategy ended up being slightly more efficient against BU especially, as rarely did the prospect turn the puck over or force a dump-in from his teammates.
The lack of publicly available data sets for the NCAA makes it a bit difficult to back this up with numbers, and there aren’t many highlights of his circulating due to the emphasis on scoring in the public sphere, but Struble really showed what he could bring at the next level in these last few games, especially in terms of transitional play and physicality. The more I watch him play, the less worried I am about his drop in production (seven points in 22 games). Northeastern hasn’t been scoring a ton this year, and plays would often break down long after he had touched the puck.
Blake Biondi, C — University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)
A more in-depth breakdown of Biondi’s game has been long overdue, as the centre’s jump in production compared to last year as well as the small improvements in his game have put him on many Habs fans’ radars. After only managing five points in 26 games, representing a 6% contribution to his team’s total scoring, he now leads the UMD Bulldogs with 12 goals and 22 points in 29 games, a 28% total contribution rate.
His shot and physicality have always been his main areas of strength, but one small improvement I’ve noticed in his game has come in a crucial area: his skating mechanics.
Make no mistake, Biondi’s skating mechanics are still an issue. He’s always been a powerful skater with the lower-body strength to more or less mask the technical deficiencies, but a trained eye can see them: his ankles bend inwards for added stability, a result of suboptimal knee bend and ankle flexion (standing upright requires some compensation in order to remain on his feet). He avoids his outside edges most of the time, relying on a wide base to maintain his balance and handle the puck.
The improvements, however, have come in his crossovers. When he was drafted 109th overall in 2020, Biondi had a lot of trouble creating meaningful push through this skating method, as he tended to land on his heels rather than his toes, and didn’t push as efficiently with his trailing foot in order to create two waves of forward thrust within his motion. Now, the centreman seems to have slightly improved the way he builds up speed through crossovers, and it’s become a consistently average tool rather than an average-at-best, horrible-at-worst skating technique for him.
I don’t believe Biondi will ever be a transitional wizard, especially with his deke selection being hit-or-miss (hit against slow, passive defenders and miss against fast, aggressive ones, which is concerning), but his ability to shield pucks, win board battles, gain inside positioning in front of the net and keep his stick ready at all times for a net-front tip-in might make him one of the most efficient in-zone scorers in the Habs’ system. The closest comparative currently with the Habs is Ryan Poehling, who also played in the NCHC division and has similar strengths and weaknesses.
Brett Stapley, C — Denver University (NCHC)
Playing in the same division as Biondi, we have Denver’s Brett Stapley, the Habs’ 2018 seventh-round pick. Since our last NCAA update in early January, Stapley has played in 10 games and added 12 points, all of which came in six of those games. One thing that could slow Stapley down at the next level is his inability to spread out his production evenly.
He still sits second on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 22 assists in 28 games, albeit on a team which has had no problem at all scoring goals. He has contributed to about 26% of them, which isn’t bad at all, but is one of the team’s oldest and most-deployed players at 22 years of age.
The main thing that makes Stapley an almost surefire signing this off-season is his two-way ability, combined with his hands and playmaking. They are solid bases that could make him a solid AHL addition as soon as next year, although where he goes from there all depends on the work that Laval puts into him over the next few years of his career.
Putting on weight will help him get there, but I’m unsure how much impact he’ll have on an NHL lineup due to his uneven hockey sense. He doesn’t always go for the smartest play, his ability to absorb pressure is inconsistent, and he can seem lost at times when he gets off the boards. He reminds me of Kenny Agostino in some ways, where he puts up points and can connect plays well but could struggle to find a permanent spot in the highest level in hockey due a lack of high-end polishing in any specific area. At best, he could settle into a bottom-six if his defensive game keeps growing.
The Best of the Rest
- 2020 second-round pick Luke Tuch has slowly fallen off my radar after having initially shown confidence in his ability to turn things around. Despite playing on a juggernaut Boston University side, which just won the Beanpot, the left-wing power forward just hasn’t been involved in play at a high enough rate. He’ll glide often, rarely showing off his crossovers or stride to start with, and when he does, he doesn’t generate nearly as much speed as his brother Alex Tuch does at the NHL level. Although he’s picked up five points in his last 11 games, the lack of involvement and consistency is concerning.
- 2019 fifth-rounder Rhett Pitlick has been firing on all cylinders for Minnesota as of late, turning his concerning early-year drought into a point-per-game pace over the last eight games, reaching 14 points in 22 matches on the year. It seems that the Habs acquiring his brother Rem off waivers and his cousin Tyler in the Tyler Toffoli trade has lit a fire under him. Either that, or it’s the added ice-time and power-play responsibilities. Seven points in his last four games bodes well for the rest of his season, but there’s a lot of hockey to be played and we’ll see if he can keep this up.
- Goaltender Jakub Dobeš has continued to offer stellar performances and give his team a chance on any given night, as he sits first in the Big Ten conference with a .934 save percentage through 30 games for Ohio State. The Habs’ 2020 fifth-round pick’s mobility, athletic ability, and puck-tracking have been on full display this season, although he could benefit from being less on the aggressive side of the scale and rely more on his size to make saves for him. Goaltenders seem to be the Habs’ strength in later rounds, so I’m not too worried for the 6’4”, 200-pound netminder.
- 2018 fourth-rounder Jack Gorniak hasn’t really shown much that indicates that the Habs will be inclined to sign him this off-season, as the 22-year-old has added six points in 12 games since January, all of which came in three games. Inconsistency is the name of the game for Gorniak, and is rarely a thing with older forwards who do enough things right to get signed (see Stapley).
- Finally, 23-year-old Arvid Henrikson, the oldest prospect playing in the lowest level of college hockey, the CCHA, is the player I’m most inclined to believe won’t be signed by the Habs. Although he had a three-point game recently, the Habs’ 2016 seventh-round pick still only sits at five assists in 28 games, at a level that any decent prospect would be dominating in that age range. He’s the only drafted player on his roster, and sits 17th in points. He’s big, he hits hard, and he’s mean, but he doesn’t show much of anything outside of that. We’ll see, though.
NCAA Prospects to date
|Brett Stapley||2018||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Denver||28||12||22||34||31|
|Blake Biondi||2020||C||NCAA (NCHC)||Minnesota-Duluth||29||12||10||22||10|
|Sean Farrell||2020||LW||NCAA (ECAC)||Harvard||17||8||11||19||6|
|Rhett Pitlick||2019||RW||NCAA (Big-10)||U. Minnesota||21||3||11||14||10|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW/C||NCAA (Big-10)||Wisconsin||32||5||9||14||12|
|Luke Tuch||2020||LW||NCAA (East)||Boston U.||21||4||3||7||12|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||29||5||12||17||10|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||NCAA (East)||Northeastern||25||2||5||7||51|
|Arvid Henrikson||2016||LD||NCAA (CCHA)||Lake Superior||28||0||5||5||54|
|Jakub Dobeš||2020||G||NCAA (Big-10)||Ohio State||30||GAA: 2.16||sv%: .934||Record: 20-8-2|
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!