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Catching The Torch: ECAC and NCHC season report cards — Sean Farrell, Blake Biondi, & Brett Stapley

Grading Sean Farrell, Blake Biondi and Brett Stapley’s seasons, along with a preamble on Ty Smilanic following his trade to the Canadiens.

Ice Hockey - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 12 Photo by Jean Catuffe/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.

After evaluating the Hockey East division’s prospects last week, it’s time to move on to two more divisions in which the Habs hold promising prospects. We’ll start with Sean Farrell’s season grade for Harvard University in the ECAC, and follow it up with a breakdown of Blake Biondi and Brett Stapley’s seasons for Minnesota-Duluth and Denver, respectively, in the NCHC division.

Before we get into it, I’d like to present a preamble on one of the Habs’ latest acquisition, Ty Smilanic, who plays in Farrell’s division for the Quinnipiac Bobcats.

Ty Smilanic, C/RW — Quinnipiac University (ECAC)

I won’t be grading Smilanic’s whole season, for a very simple reason: I’ve watched isolated shifts, highlights, and one full game of his against Farrell’s Harvard Crimson earlier in the season, but I simply haven’t watched him enough to my liking since his draft year to provide a full season analysis that isn’t heavily outsourced and influenced by outside perspectives. I briefly put out an article on him earlier this week, but I allowed those outside perspectives to inform my opinion on the prospect, and would much rather get a good number of personal viewings on him to put out a full, accurate breakdown of his game.

Strictly from what I’ve seen so far, the 6’1”, left-handed natural centre has been used at the right wing, where his wide overlaps have been a more exploitable strength. A competent, technically-refined goal-scorer with a wide arsenal of shots he can choose from, Smilanic possesses an above-average skating stride while displaying sub-par processing of the game on both sides of the puck.

He can occasionally sneak into pockets to get shots off, but for the most part he hasn’t shown much game-breaking offence or many pro-level habits in the games I watched. His production decreased by 20% from last year (21 points in 29 games) to this past season (22 points in 39 games), which doesn’t bode well for his development, but he’s also playing on Quinnipiac’s third line behind some seniors who shouldn’t be there next year to take up a spot in the top-six.

For more on Ty Smilanic, Elite Prospects subscribers can check out Mitch Brown’s in-depth breakdown of his game here.

Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (ECAC)

Season grade: A

What a season it’s been for the Habs’ fourth-round pick in 2020. After starting his first NCAA season with 17 points in 15 games for the Crimson, the prospect earned himself a spot on Team USA’s Olympic roster for the Beijing 2022 Games. He made an immediate impact for the Red, White, and Blue, scoring three goals and adding two assists in less than 12 minutes of ice time against China. He followed it up with an assist in the Americans’ 4-2 win against Canada, but tapered off in the final two games of the tournament, as Team USA suffered a 3-2 loss to the Slovaks in the quarter-finals.

Upon his first game back with the Crimson post-Olympic break, Farrell was on the receiving end of a massive hit in the first period that left him dazed, leaving him out of the lineup for the last couple of regular-season games. He returned to the lineup in time for the ECAC playoffs, and we’ll get into his performances from that point when the NCAA’s long post-season comes to an end.

Farrell’s fantastic playmaking ability, his ever-improving shot, his high-paced yet calculated game, and his underrated defensive abilities make him a prospect who has a slim but non-negligible chance of making a positive impact on a top line, especially if matched with a defensive-minded play-driver and a pure goal-scorer. The Habs have that exact combination on their top line in Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, and I believe he would be a great fit on their left flank, but the more likely outcome is that he becomes a mainstay in the Habs’ middle six.

There’s still some weight to put on in his case, and his skating technique could use some refining — his stance is a bit more hunched-over than it should be and his first few steps can lack some jump as a result — but the offensive tools and the toolkit to match could be refined into something special for the Habs in the next few years.

Individual skill categories ratings:

Skating: B+
Stickhandling: A-
Puck retrievals/receptions: B
Physicality: C
Off-puck play: B
Passing: A
Shooting: B+

Blake Biondi, C — University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)

Season grade: B+

Biondi’s selection out of high school at 109th in 2020 came with a couple of question marks, the main one being how his game would carry over to the NCAA level and whether he would be able to continue dominating as he did for Hermantown High. There, he scored 175 points in the 75 games he played for the program, whose only prominent NHL product so far has been Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk.

After only five points in 26 games for UMD in his freshman campaign last year, the sophomore went on to lead the team in both goals (15) and points (25) during the regular season, using his 6’0”, 192-pound frame as the foundation for his game. He shields pucks very well, mans the front of the net efficiently, and does a very good job suppressing opposing plays in all three zones.

The main knock on his game is an underwhelming skating technique, which has seen a very slight progression specifically in his crossovers, but overall remains a weakness due to a lack of ankle flexion as well as poor stride and recovery mechanics.

His playmaking also lacks consistency at high speeds as a result of his poor skating. His upper body moves around more than it should in full stride, which in turn results in bobbled pucks and imprecise passes, but from a standstill or when gliding, he’s able to steady his hands and string together plays well. His strong legs can help him close gaps at a decent rate despite the mechanical shortcomings, and his off-puck habits help him win an extra board battle or two per game.

This is the prospect who I feel will benefit the most from Adam Nicholas’s addition to the Habs’ development team, as he excels at improving skating mechanics. He’ll be instrumental in bringing the most out of Biondi’s game in the next few years. If the skating is resolved, Biondi could unlock a transition element that, so far, has gone virtually unexplored.

Individual skill categories ratings:

Skating: C-
Stickhandling: B
Puck retrievals/receptions: C
Physicality: B+
Off-puck play: B+
Passing: C+
Shooting: B

Brett Stapley, C — University of Denver (NCHC)

Season grade: B

Stapley’s senior year for Denver has been decent enough that he almost certainly will be signed to his entry-level contract by the end of it, as the 23-year-old earned 14 goals and 24 assists for 38 points in 34 games for the Pioneers. This places him fourth on the team’s scoresheet, which goes to show how offensively potent his team has been this year.

The 5’10” centre mainly manned the team’s second and third lines and was deployed often for defensive faceoffs because of his decent abilities on the draw and in his own zone. He has great hands that allow him to work his way through traffic efficiently, and has a short release on his shot that lets him mask his intentions decently enough that his lack of raw power doesn’t affect him as much. He also shows above-average awareness in both his passing and his positioning.

Although the comparisons with Jake Evans have been flowing as a result of their similar builds and them both being seventh-round picks, there are key distinctions in their play that will likely make Stapley a bit less of a sure bet for the NHL. Firstly, there’s a distinct lack of high-end speed both in terms of pace and processing, although his edgework, balance, and agility aren’t weaknesses in the slightest.

Secondly, Stapley occasionally struggles to create his own seams when attempting to pass the puck, mostly relying on the openings that are already there. One thing Evans does well that helps him in that regard is changing the angle of his pass moments before releasing, which I don’t see as consistently with the Denver University centre.

Still, a seventh-rounder who signs an entry-level contract and potentially plays an NHL game or two is a rarity in and of itself. He could very well see his day on the Habs’ fourth-line rotation in the next two to three years.

Individual skill categories ratings:

Skating: B-
Stickhandling: B
Puck retrievals/receptions: C+
Physicality: C
Off-puck play: B
Passing: B
Shooting: B-

Thanks for reading — tune in next week as we grade Jakub Dobes, Rhett Pitlick, Jack Gorniak and Arvid Henrikson’s seasons to round up our NCAA report cards. Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to keep up with the rest of my scouting work!