Catching The Torch: NCAA update — Jayden Struble’s potential, Sean Farrell nearing NHL readiness, Lane Hutson drags BU to glory

A look at newly-signed Struble’s upside, why Farrell is next in line for an NHL contract, and how Hutson has continued to improve upon an already historic NCAA campaign.

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.

As March rolls on and the NCAA campaign nears its completion, some teams have already seen their season grind to a disappointing halt. Early playoff exits are a bummer for the team and its players, but can bring a smile to NHL executives’ faces as they get to sign their aged-out or otherwise sufficiently developed college prospects.

Jayden Struble, LD — Northeastern University (Hockey-East, NCAA)

Struble is one such case. On Wednesday, the Canadiens announced that the defenceman had inked a two-year entry-level deal after Northeastern suffered an overtime loss against Providence College, which saw their chances of making the Frozen Four dwindle to zero.

Struble has already reported to the Laval Rocket, and is training with the team. In all likelihood, the 6’0”, 200-pound blue-liner will need to get accustomed to this environment, as there are areas of his game that are far from NHL-ready.

He doesn’t shoot very often, has trouble switching assignments in the defensive zone, and can get too eager to throw his weight around when defending the rush, leaving gaps in coverage. However, there are elements of his game that point in the direction of a player with a high offensive ceiling. Elements that, if refined, could make him a top transition defenceman in the NHL, despite what his stat sheet of 12 points in 31 games for Northeastern this year would indicate.

Firstly, his skating hits the sweet spot of power and fluidity. There is a subtle grace to his edge-work and mobility, which lends itself to good defensive work when faced with straightforward situations. One-on-one, there’s no getting around Struble.

His ability to absorb pressure and make simple, effective plays out of his own zone combines so well with his skating. He doesn’t over-handle pucks, nor does he try to push his way through pressure mindlessly. Instead, he dictates his opponents’ movements. He draws them in before slipping a pass under a stick or between a pair of skates for an easy controlled breakout, making one of the most difficult skills in hockey seem effortless.

Rarely does he get his passes picked off on the breakout. However, when it happens, it’s pure panic from the blue-liner. This is a telltale sign that Struble hasn’t made enough mistakes to learn how to manage them correctly. AHL time should see this improve, as he is bound to see his fair share of gaffes against pros.

Add on top of that Struble’s physical prowess and punishing mindset, and you have a defenceman who dominates the transition game.

Composure is an intangible in hockey that is almost priceless; a defenceman with a high panic threshold is able to manage hard forechecks with a level head, spot the best play, and execute through the chaos. That’s Jayden Struble... with the puck.

Without it, there are concerns,  namely rushed decisions and an over-eagerness to throw the shoulder. But if Stéphane Robidas can show him the ropes and mentor him into at least an NHL-average defender, there is serious upside with Struble. Power-play, four-on-four, overtime, defensive-zone faceoffs ... there are multiple scenarios in which Struble’s combination of offensive poise, skating, intelligence, and physicality would flourish.

Sean Farrell, LW — Harvard University (ECAC)

On to Farrell, who has routinely exceeded every expectation set upon him since hearing his name called by the Canadiens in the fourth round of the 2020 NHL Draft.

The diminutive winger saw his conference play grind to a halt in the finals, as Colgate University pulled off a 3-2 upset against Farrell’s Harvard Crimson to win the honours. After the NCAA Championship tournament, which will see Farrell face off against Jakub Dobes and Ohio State in the first round, Farrell will have an opportunity to put an early stop to his studies at Harvard and sign with the Canadiens.

The odds of that are slim — he is a smart kid after all, on and off the ice — but in terms of his abilities, Farrell looks the part of a top NHL playmaker.

Weight shifts, pump fakes, look-offs, wrist rolls, and toe drags figure among the plethora of tools Farrell has in his arsenal to make a hard pass look easy. He connects effortlessly with teammates cross-ice or in the slot when manning his spot on the power-play half-wall, while having gradually incorporated a surprisingly accurate and heavy wrist shot into his toolbag.

His skating has improved with every passing year and has gotten to a point where his speed and acceleration aren’t anywhere near a concern. He accesses the offensive zone using smart patterns as well, rather than blasting out of his zone at top speed. He slows down then accelerates, threatens the middle, crosses outside and back into the dot lanes, and all of that makes him a headache to defend off the rush.

His board play has also improved. Not only can he easily create off the wall like in the examples above, he can carry it off the wall as well, working his low centre of gravity to his advantage. He still gets outmuscled when he doesn’t have the opportunity to get low on time, which could take some time to rectify, but overall, there have been massive improvements in this area of his game.

Overall, Farrell is NHL-ready, or tantalizingly close to it. Of all the Canadiens prospects not named Juraj Slafkovský, Farrell is the one with the highest likelihood of becoming a staple of an NHL top six.

Lane Hutson, LD — Boston University Terriers (Hockey-East)

Hutson seems to force his way into every other edition of this column. On Saturday, the Terriers lifted the Lamoriello Trophy as the Hockey East Conference’s champions after a 3-2 overtime win over Merrimack college, with Hutson scoring the game-winner as well as the opening goal for BU.

These two goals brought his season total to 14. Hutson also has 33 assists in the campaign for a total of 47 points in only 36 games. This places him third in the NCAA’s entire history for raw point totals by a defenceman in their 18/19-year-old season; their draft-plus-one. Hutson only needs four points in the NCAA Championship to tie John Gibb’s 51-point tally in 1978-79 at the top of the all-time scoreboard.

This two-goal clutch performance from Hutson also earned him the title of Hockey East Championship MVP. If you’re losing track of Hutson’s accolades this season, here is an itemized list of every one of his accomplishments:

  • Hockey East Champion
  • Hockey East Championship MVP
  • Hockey East first All-Star team
  • Hockey East points leader (forwards included)
  • Top-scoring defenceman in the entire NCAA
  • NCAA All-Rookie team
  • PNC Three Stars award
  • Hobey Baker trophy nominee/

With the NCAA championship still to come and a few awards still unannounced, including the NCAA’s top offensive defenceman and top overall defenceman awards which could very well be within his reach, Hutson’s cupboard isn’t yet closed.

While he and the Terriers have a difficult opponent awaiting them in the first round of the NCAA Championship in Western Michigan University, it is not entirely out of the question that Hutson becomes the highest-scoring NCAA freshman defenceman of all time by the time this tourney is done. All he needs is four points, and the Terriers will play anywhere between one and four matches depending on how well they perform.

If they win against Michigan State, the Terriers would face the winner of the Denver-Cornell matchup, and then, would probably face off against Logan Cooley’s Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Frozen Four. There are a lot of hurdles in the way of the record to end all records for Hutson, but if anyone can do it, it’s Bone Boy.

Hutson has so much left to develop; his defensive game is behind the curve, his pivots are still somewhat of an issue, and he is just beginning to come out of his shell and try new things. But two aspects of his game have grown over the past year:

His newfound knack for supporting rushes off the puck rather than jumpstarting each one with a bomb of a pass is particularly alluring. He is now much more comfortable dictating play away from the puck. He will push hard through the neutral zone to back off defenders, or angle wide to stretch the opposing D pair out. His support runs have become more frequent, but also more timely.

On the defensive side, he’s taken a step in the right direction. He is much more active when closing off the slot now, bearing down on opponents along the wall with a better, more hermetic posture. The stretched-out poke-checks that permeated his defensive play last year have been replaced by better, more translatable defensive habits.

Hutson is the highest-upside prospect in the Habs’ pipeline, and his production and accolades this season are unprecedented. If he continues to play like he has, especially in big moments when the Terriers need him most, a Frozen Four spot is not out of the question, which would put that scoring record well within his reach.

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!

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