August 15th is quietly a day of some importance on the NHL calendar as it’s the day that NHL rights expire for some college prospects. The Habs have someone in that situation as Brett Stapley was not signed and thus becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Stapley was a seventh-round pick by the Canadiens back in 2018 (190th overall) and has arguably outperformed his draft stock since then. The 23-year-old centre had a couple of strong seasons with Denver of the NCAA and is coming off a year that saw him record 18 goals and 25 assists in 41 games, helping to lead the Pioneers to the Frozen Four title. He was ranked 24th in our annual Prospect Rankings series this season.
Until somewhat recently, there had been an expectation that Montreal would sign Stapley. However, the managerial change likely didn’t help in that regard as Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton will be more inclined to bring in role players that they’ve drafted over ones brought in under Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins. To that end, the fact he wasn’t brought to Development Camp last month was a strong indicator that he wouldn’t be in the organization much longer. On top of that, Montreal will need to be more selective in which prospects they sign as a result of all of the extra ones they’ve added in recent years.
With the NCAA allowing for a bonus fifth season due to COVID, it’s technically possible that Stapley could have elected to return to Denver. In that situation, he’d have remained property of the Habs. Jack Gorniak is doing exactly that next season and would have been a free agent otherwise. But why would Stapley have done that? He’s coming off a strong year and a national championship. There’s nothing left to prove. Whether it’s an AHL deal or an NHL one (if there are enough teams interested), Stapley should be able to get a professional contract for next season. It just won’t be with the team that drafted him as he has officially been removed from Montreal’s reserve list.