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2020 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #20 Brett Stapley

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The steady rise continues for another seventh-rounder in the Habs organization.

2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Bill Wippert/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens had their eye on Brett Stapley in 2017 after he exploded offensively in the BCHL, becoming a point-per-game forward for the Vernon Vipers, but they ran out of picks when he came up on their list. They used their last selection on a goalie who flew under the radar in the USHL — Cayden Primeau — which was a great choice in retrospect.

When Montreal came back to the draft floor the next year, however, Stapley was on their list again. This time, they snatched him up. ‘‘We think the world of him.’’ Trevor Timmins said at the end of the draft.

The centreman did not immediately reward the confidence of the organization like Primeau did, but from the start he at least showed he could keep up with the pace of the college game, steadily improving as his freshman season went on. Now entering his junior season, he should be counted upon by the coaching staff to produce good offensive numbers while also facing some of the better elements in his conference.

Elite Prospects

The point-per-game mark seems very attainable for him, and if he continues to show progression, a contract with the Canadiens could await him at the end of the season. We know that the organization values him quite highly. In a recent video interview, Rob Ramage offered Stapley’s name when asked which lesser-known prospect fans should keep an eye on.

Voting

Stapley’s voting was relatively spread out. Multiple participants ranked him confidently in the Top 25, some even as high as 15, but others weren’t as convinced. They dropped him at 32 behind players who were perceived as closer to the NHL, or who will be more valuable should they get there.

I placed him at 20th on my own list.

His progression has been encouraging. He already shows a few qualities that project well to the highest level, arguably more than recently drafted players like Luke Tuch and Blake Biondi.

He is still far from a sure NHLer (very few are on these lists) and he is older than the two prospects mentioned above, with less runway to take flight and rise to the NHL, but his profile and development suggest he might be one of those seldom-seen late-bloomers.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2018: #43 2019: #31

It has been a steady climb for Stapley. He debuted at 42, then moved on to 31, and then all the way up to 20 in the current edition. He is one of the rare prospects who actually rises from the long-shot category.

The NCAA development route should be given some credit here. If he were a CHL prospect, the Habs would have had to make a decision on his contract situation already. Fortunately, the organization still retains his rights for this year and the next. They can keep on eye on his growth and make an educated decision on whether to bring him under their banner.

History of #20

Year #20
Year #20
2019 Jayden Struble / Joni Ikonen
2018 Joni Ikonen
2017 Joe Morrow
2016 Jake Evans
2015 Jeremy Grégoire
2014 Daniel Audette
2013 Gabriel Dumont
2012 Blake Geoffrion
2011 Mark Mitera
2010 Ian Schultz

Strengths

Stapley is arguably the best passer in the organization who isn’t currently on the NHL roster. Only Sean Farrell could challenge him for that title. Farrell executes faster; Stapley is more deceptive and smarter in his passes.

It starts with the way the centreman stickhandles. The puck moves back and forth at his hip, and this way can reach teammates, dangle, or shoot with a flick of the wrists (although he rarely takes that last option). Even standing still on the power-play half-wall, he makes himself hard to read. He moves his weight from foot to foot and rocks his shoulders slightly while rolling the puck rapidly on his blade. The motion captivates the defence. A slide of the puck to the left or the right or a turn of the head and Stapley shifts the defensive box completely, opening passing lanes to teammates near the net or cross ice.

He successfully feints defenders multiple times per game in the NCAA. Opponents attempt to read his eyes or the position of his hips, but they only end up drifting towards him when they can’t extract any information about what he intends to do next. By attracting the defence, the centreman then creates lanes and space for teammates.

He is also proficient in the technical aspects of passing. He can connect with teammates precisely in a variety of ways: saucer passes, backhands, area passes, one-touch passes, and even sliding the puck to teammates with his skates. He also complements his technical ability with restraint. When he gets the puck in tight spaces, he doesn’t immediately try to shuffle it at high speed, but keeps it on his forehand to hit passing lanes as soon as they open.

Stapley wears #7 with the Denver Pioneers

Above all, what makes his passing effective are his vision habits. Before he gets the puck, his head turns to register the positioning of defenders, the openings, and the path of teammates. With the puck, as he rushes up-ice, he looks behind him to determine the space he has with the backcheck and locates teammates approaching in support. As he follows the wall in the offensive zone, his eyes are consistently scanning the slot for openings.

Those shoulder-checks also serve him defensively. He maps the ice to know his next assignment, keep defensive positioning on his opponents, and identify passing lanes beforehand to intercept the puck and start the attack.

Weaknesses

Stapley’s playmaking will take a hit as he rises in level because he doesn’t pass in motion as much, making most of his plays out of a two-feet glide. His game lacks pace and diversity.

The Denver forward is quite one-dimensional. He recorded only 10 markers over 64 games over the past two seasons. He doesn’t shoot as much as he should and his release mechanics lag behind even some of his teammates. This lack of goal-scoring will make him predictable to better defenders; they won’t fall for his deception as much if he isn’t a shooting threat.

His skating is also problematic. He can’t change direction or cut back to explode away from defenders. Since he lacks elusiveness and doesn’t absorb contact all that well, his small-area game suffers.

The many positive and negative aspects of his game will be broken down in a lot more details in the Catching The Torch series that will focus on North American prospects this season.

Projection

It’s more likely that Stapley doesn’t make the NHL, like most of the prospects ranked behind and around him. He has one elite ability — passing — and hasn’t been able to complement that ability with better skating skills or hide it by developing as a shooter. He is also 21 years old. That might not seem old in the normal sense, but in the prospect world, the clock ticks faster. He has to accelerate his development at an age where many of his peers start showing their final form.

From a more optimistic point of view, he is a better offensive player in college than Jake Evans was. Stapley’s passing, one-on-one skills, and decision-making are more advanced, and his defensive reads are about as keen as Evans’s at the same age. Stapley could follow the same path.

Evans had similar skating flaws and wasn’t all that physical in college, but his game evolved under Joël Bouchard. The Laval Rocket coach managed to develop the grittier side of Evans and helped him make his presence felt on the ice a bit more.

If everything breaks right for him, if he follows his narrow path to the NHL without ever getting lost or slowing down, Montreal might get surprised with a top-nine forward in two to three years. It would be another hit in the seventh round for a team that, at least in the past few years, seems to bat well above average at the very end of the draft.