Each offseason, NHL clubs face a mandatory deadline to offer prospects from their reserve list entry-level contracts or else lose their exclusive negotiating rights. The rules differ for prospects based on where they were drafted from, their age, and more. One of the most contentious of these rules deals with college seniors. Hello, David Farrance.
Most of these decisions are easy—for better or worse for the prospect—and sometimes they can have immediate consequences.
It’s become clear that Mattias Ekholm will likely not be on the Nashville Predators’ roster at season’s end. While trade partners are explored, Elliotte Friedman has noted that the organization faces an expansion draft issue, too. With Ekholm gone, Nashville can protect three defenders and welcome David Farrance immediately into the fold once his senior year at Boston University (BU) ends.
But are we being too presumptive? Ever since the Jimmy Vesey saga, jaded fans have consistently aired their fears that no college senior would sign in Nashville (despite the overwhelming number who have). Last April, when David Farrance announced he would return for his senior season to chase a national championship, those concerns only grew.
I’ve yet to hear anything that suggests Farrance will walk himself to free agency this August. But I have frequently heard the popular conclusion that he can step into a top-four role in the NHL right away. In that case, are we being too optimistic?
Since starring for the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in 2016-17—to be overshadowed only by Quinn Hughes—Farrance has built a reputation as an offensively-minded defender who’s hard to stop once his feet get moving.
As a freshman at BU, Farrance took time to find that footing, including skating nights at forward. As a sophomore—when Dante Fabbro was leading the Terriers’ blue line—he progressed, but concerns about his defensive ability persisted.
Then, in 2019-20, the junior defender led the team in scoring (43 points) and was second in goals (14), was sixth among skaters nationwide in scoring, and was the country’s top-scoring defender. Despite earning a nomination, Farrance fell short of being a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
With plans for the 2020-21 season unknown, Farrance chose to return to BU (though the Nashville Predators made an aggressive attempt to sign Farrance last summer) and hopefully capture those elusive team and individual honors. No one could have known the Terriers wouldn’t hit the ice again until January 8, 2021.
In the midst of what could have been a historic season for David Farrance, seemingly very little has gone right. The Terriers’ season didn’t begin until January—well after some other Hockey East teams—; Farrance has skated in just six games, as he’s been banged up since late January (although he should return to game action this week); and the storied Beanpot Tournament has been cancelled in his senior season.
Despite his 14 points in those six games, including four goals, Farrance’s limited game action likely excludes him from winning the Hobey Baker this season. This in spite of the fact that he’s tied for 13th among all defenders in scoring and leads all skaters in points per game, with 2.33. Regardless, he’s proven his dominance at the NCAA level, so how big is the gap between that and being a regular NHL defender?
The biggest knock on Farrance’s offensive skill is that he scores points but relies heavily on the power play to do so. That’s not the worst indictment (Nashville knows better than anyone how critical power-play scoring is), but it can shed light on offensive limitations at even-strength play.
In 2019-20, just 12 of Farrance’s 43 points were primary ones scored at even strength, and he recored a primary point on just one-third of BU’s even-strength goals he was on the ice for. This season, he leads all NCAA skaters in primary points per game (1.50) and even-strength primary points per game (1.00). So far, while shooting at 36.4%, Farrance has recorded a primary point on 60.0% of BU’s even-strength goals when on the ice.
Often heralded as a “fourth forward,” Farrance has a knack for puck possession and controlled transition play. His zone exit skills have remained steady in college with a 70.0% success rate in ten games tracked in 2019-20 and a 62.5% success rate in three games tracked this season. These skills will be critical to any NHL success.
When Farrance first came to college, it was obvious, at times, that he struggled to defend against the rush. Whether the issue was late pivots, poor gap control, or something else, he simply gave up the blue line far too often.
When it comes to playing defense in the NHL, it’s what I’m most concerned about for Farrance and why I’ve suggested time in the AHL could be helpful for him. However, it’s slowly improved. Last season, Farrance was subpar, allowing a controlled zone entry 48.8% of the time and giving up 5.34 high-danger shots per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. This season, that entry rate has dropped to 43.5%, and he’s allowed just 2.05 high-danger shots per 60 minutes.
The mistakes haven’t disappeared, and when they happen, they’re noticeable. But I’m encouraged by the improvements I’ve seen.
What can make David Farrance so dangerous is how quickly he initiates transitions. In the clip above, you’ll notice how he (#4) secures a takeaway from the UMass forward and uses three quick crossover steps to secure a controlled zone exit. His stickhandling and puck possession skills are on display as he navigates past multiple opponents up ice.
Farrance’s end-to-end rushes can be mesmerizing. Watch as he collects the puck behind the net, then uses beautiful crossover steps and a solid knee bend to move swiftly into the offensive zone with his head up the whole time—ultimately delivering a good pass to the slot.
When he attacks zone entries, Farrance is quick to join the rush after turnovers. Notice here how the Maine puck carrier doesn’t conceal his intentions, so Farrance crosses over into the middle of the ice as the forward does and is able to poke the puck loose with proper gap control. Once he recognizes the chance at a quick breakout, he continues into that forward position, hoping for an outlet pass.
Farrance reads breakout plays steps ahead of others on the ice and often puts himself in an excellent position to catalyze rush chances, including above when he delivers a simple primary assist.
In the offensive zone, whether on the power play or at even strength, Farrance is an excellent puck distributor and has lethal scoring skills with his wrist and slap shots.
As you can see above, at times on defense he can hold the blue line well, disrupting entries and moving quickly to deliver outlet passes up ice.
But issues arise when Farrance sits back, letting puck carriers dictate the pace of play and the size of their gap—as he does above against UMass. This particular play isn’t devastating, but it’s a display of his inconsistency that only leads to more possession time for opposing teams.
Other times, Farrance’s foot speed isn’t the best. He’s a good skater mechanically, but his crossover steps can become sloppy at times when his knee bend isn’t where it should be, thus slowing down his stride recovery and making more work for himself.
In the defensive zone, Farrance is often in a good puck support position, but opponents have capitalized on his lack of awareness at times. To me, sometimes he shows a tendency to be too eager to break out the puck, forgetting about opponents who are crashing toward open space—like in the odd-man rush shown above where he neglects the backside.
On some lapses, I simply can’t figure out what his intentions are. In this clip, Farrance makes a quick, smart play to his forward who commits the error. But then, Farrance proceeds to box himself out from the net front, letting two opponents idle, and doesn’t really attack the initial shooter, helping gift the Minutemen a goal.
Farrance’s offensive skills are no secret, and it’s obvious why Nashville thinks he’s close to NHL-ready. There are plenty of pro defenders who cannot move the puck as he can, and I don’t think his defensive lapses are an immediate reason to be concerned. They happen, and they’re coachable. I think it’s important to see areas of the game Farrance has really improved on in college and what can still be worked on. If he’s thrust into a top-four role next season, there will be growing pains, but they’re inevitable.
Simply put, David Farrance has the potential to be an everyday, top-four defender in the NHL. But, in order to succeed, he’ll have to improve his consistency in the little aspects of defense he’s bettered during his time at BU: pivot timing, aggressive gap control, quick outlet passes, and so on.