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Francesco Pinelli: 2021 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; Kitchener’s Budding Two-Way Center

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Francesco Pinelli of the Kitchener Rangers had a great rookie season in 2019-20. With the OHL staying inactive, Pinelli got a loan abroad to Slovenia before returning to win Gold for Canada at the World Under-18 Championships. Learn more about this two-way center prospect with this profile.

Kitchener Rangers v Windsor Spitfires
Pinelli (R) was flourishing with Kitchener in 2019-20
Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

One of the major reasons why there is a lot of risk in this year’s draft class is the Ontario Hockey League. They did not play in 2020-21. There was no OHL season. Not a truncated one like the Western Hockey League. Or a shortened season with a bubble for part of the teams in the Quebec Major Hockey League. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic and how the province of Ontario decided to manage it, there was no OHL season held. From the perspective of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, this was a significant loss. The OHL has been a primary source of drafted prospects. Last year saw 31 OHLers picked. In 2019, 25 came from that league. In 2018, 35 were selected. The point is that plenty of prime prospects come from this league. That they were not able to have a season means that scouts and decision makers will have to make do with whatever information they do have - even if it is a season old.

One of those prime prospects is Kitchener Rangers center Francesco Pinelli. Pinelli caught a lot of attention as a 16-year old rookie in 2019-20. With the pandemic undercutting his draft year, what was he able to do? What can we expect from him? Let us find out what we can in this profile.

Who is Francesco Pinelli?

As stated, Pinelli is a center for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. According to Elite Prospects, Pinelli was born on April 11, 2003 in Hamilton, Ontario; he shoots left; and he is listed at 6’1” and 185 pounds. He is not a small player and his birthdate means he would have been 17 for the majority of the 2020-21 season.

In 2019-20, Pinelli played for Kitchener throughout his rookie season and did play on one of Canada’s teams at the World Hockey Challenge, an international U-17 tournament. That rookie season went quite well. He finished fourth in the entire OHL among rookies with 18 goals and 23 assists for 41 points in 59 games. Only Shane Wright, Mason McTavish, and teammate Declan McDonnell finished with more points. Pinelli’s production included five power play goals (so he was on a power play), 122 shots on net (an average of about 2.06 per game), and 104 faceoff attempts. That is a low number of draws; the seventh most on Kitchener in 2019-20. I would think Pinelli was used more as a winger than a center that season. Which is fine since he was a 16-year old rookie and he was contributing on the ice. According to Pick224, Pinelli put up primary points (goals and first assists) at a rate of 0.5254 per game - the third most among 2021 draft eligibles in 2019-20 and only behind McTavish and Avery Hayes. Pick224 estimates that Pinelli played about 15:12 per game, so he did play regularly for Kitchener. It was also the third highest eTOI/GP among 2021 draft eligible forwards in the OHL, again behind McTavish and Hayes.

Pinelli, like so many other players in the OHL, waited to see what would happen with the league in 2020-21. Eventually, Pinelli sought out a loan to a team in Europe so he could at least play somewhere. In late January, he ended up with HDD Jesenice in Slovenia. Jesenice played in both the Alps Hockey League, a second tier league with teams mostly based in Austria and Italy, and the Slovenian league. You may question the quality of competition, but it is better than not playing at all. In games in the Alps Hockey League, Pinelli played in 13 games and put up five goals and six assists. While he did not appear for Jesenice in Slovenia’s regular season, he did play in two playoff games, scored a goal, and can claim a championship with Jesenice. He ended up finishing 11th on the entire team in scoring, with the ten players ahead of him having played many more games than he did. It may have been only fifteen games, but it was a successful set of games.

Pinelli was selected by Hockey Canada to represent the nation at the World Under 18 Championships in Frisco, Texas. Canada won the whole tournament and Pinelli played a productive role on it. He finished tied for third on the team in points with McTavish as Pinelli put up four goals and seven assists in eleven games. As with most U-18 tournaments, the Canadians had loads of players eligible for this year’s draft. At a minimum, Pinelli can say he out-produced most of them.

He was expected to take on a larger role with Kitchener. A full season plus OHL playoffs and the World U-18s could have revealed more about the player. Instead, that will have to wait until after he is drafted in July. From an evaluation perspective, it is far from ideal. After 59 games with Kitchener in 2019-20, he played all of 22 competitive hockey games in 2020-21. Seven of those were at an international tournament and the other fifteen were for a team in leagues that Pinelli will not be playing in again anytime soon. Talk about a small sample to work with. And this could have been even smaller had Pinelli not been able to secure a loan. How do you regard such a player? Let us work it out.

Where is Francesco Pinelli Ranked?

As Pinelli did stand out as a 16-year old rookie in 2019-20, he was garnering attention for the 2021 NHL Draft as early as last year. He did play at the World U-18s, plenty of people got to see what he could do after a scarce 2020-21 campaign. Some were able to follow him closely with Jesenice. Here is how the various rankings and services rate Pinelli:

The range of rankings for Pinelli go from being a safe bet to be a first round draft pick to maybe being a first round pick but do not be surprised if he is not. While the first round for 2021 will have 31 selections, rankings from about 25 to 31 may not mean he actually goes there. These are meant to get a sense of how others regard the player compared to the rest of the draft class. I will say that he is almost entirely within the top 32 picks - Neutral Zone’s ranking is old and Pronman is the only exception - is a plus. It speaks well of his few performances plus what he did as a rookie in the OHL. Let us read more about what others saw in the player.

What Others Say About Francesco Pinelli

Since Pinelli played his last full season in 2019-20, some takes based on how he did then are appropriate to consider.

First, over at our network’s Tampa Bay site, Raw Charge, Lauren Kelly highlighted Pinelli as one to watch last April for the 2021 draft class. Here is a snippet of what she wrote about the player:

Injuries did see Pinelli play more than a few games at center, but he spent most of the season at left wing, on a line with Rangers overagers Greg Meireles and Jonathan Yantsis. Pinelli will likely be a full-time OHL center next season, with Kitchener’s top two centers, Meireles and Riley Damiani, graduating to pro hockey.

When Pinelli wasn’t contributing offensively this season, he was still involved in plays. He is an excellent positional player, and will use his stick to cut off passes and force turnovers. His dedication to his defensive play was evident this season and as he gets stronger, he’ll only become more effective in his own end.

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Pinelli leads by example. He will to go to the dirty areas of the ice, fight for pucks, and play with a physical edge. He showed this season that he’s not afraid to throw a big hit, either. His work ethic is off the charts — he never takes a shift off.

I appreciate that Kelly specified Pinelli’s more common role with Kitchener in 2019-20. It explains why he did not take so many draws. It also explains why the expectations for him were higher going into this season. Kelly noted Pinelli as a playmaker who could stand to use his shot more, but did think he would since Kitchener would need him among others to fill in the roles left behind by Damiani and Miereles. There is a lot to like from her profile of Pinelli a year ahead of his draft year. It is easy to see why he was a player to watch ahead of 2021.

Second, as Pinelli played in the OHL, it is crucial to check out Brock Otten of OHL Prospects. Not that there is a lot of material there these days as there was no OHL season. But he did have a preseason Top 30 for the draft up in November. He ranked Pinelli third with this description:

A personal favourite of mine dating back to his MM days, I’m not sure we got the best of Pinelli last year, or a true indication of the type of dominating force that he can be. With a game built around his aggressiveness, on and off the puck, I don’t think he was strong enough to truly showcase his talent. We got bits and pieces of a larger puzzle, but I think he’s in for a monster draft year. At his best, Pinelli is a driving force in transition because of his skating ability and assertiveness in driving through defenders, rather than around them. He may not be huge (5’11), but he plays the game hard. His shot is also a big weapon, IMO, particularly his ability to shoot while in full stride. Again, I’m not sure that’s something we saw a ton of in his first year. I just see Pinelli as this potentially dominant two-way force down the middle who can be a future star at the NHL level. With some graduations in Kitchener, he’s likely to get all the ice time and responsibility he can handle and I am very excited to see what he does with it.

This aligns with Kelly’s assessment that Pinelli could stand to thrive in a larger role and was anticipated to do so. Otten has been a fan of him for a while and the “two-way” description seems appropriate given his skillset.

This was also repeated by others who follow the league. Otten also held his midseason draft poll held with scouts and media members. I do not know if there will even be a final one since, again, there was no season. This was posted in January and Pinelli came in fourth on the list. All nineteen votes had him in the top ten, ranging from second to sixth. Here are two quotes that I want to highlight among the five Otten included:

“It was a coin flip deciding the placement between Francesco Pinelli and Brennan Othmann, but the versatility that Pinelli brings to the table puts him slightly ahead on this list. The former Toronto captain went on an absolute tear right away with six goals in his first six OHL games and remained consistent the rest of the way for a Rangers team that was competitive in the Western conference. Arguably one of the most complete players in this entire draft class, Pinelli plays a 200-foot game and is already very responsible in his own end, a rare sight for any rookie in the OHL. While the Rangers had him playing both on the wing and in the middle, Pinelli should project as a centerman and would be the perfect swiss army knife for any team at the next level, while also providing offensive upside as well, with very underrated playmaking ability, always making the players around him, better.” - Raine Hernandez

Raine Hernandez works for PuckPreps as an OHL scout and McKeen’s, so she is quite aware of Pinelli’s game. This is an encouraging quote for the player. The “swiss army knife” and “one of the most complete players” references suggests Pinelli can serve multiple roles. That would improve his chances of making it to the next level.

The other quote comes from Tony Ferrari, who is the Director of North American Scouting for Dobber Prospects.

“Pinelli is a player who could rise up the board if given the opportunity to play and move up the lineup. He has a real dual-threat nature to his game with a shot that can beat goalies thanks to a quick release and pinpoint accuracy and good vision in the offensive zone. His two-way play is good but not great although he shows some tendencies that would indicate he is almost there. He anticipates play well at both ends of the ice. If can elevate himself in the lineup, he could be set for a jump.” - Tony Ferrari

This is a little more muted in terms of praise for Pinelli. Stating that he’s not quite there as a two-way player is not a bad thing as this is all based on what he did as a 16-year old player. I agree with Ferrari (and Hernandez and Otten and Kelly) that Pinelli would have needed to establish himself in a bigger role with Kitchener to be a bigger name in this draft class. Obviously, that did not happen - not that Pinelli or Kitchener had anything to do with that.

So how well did he do in his more limited season? Fortunately, McKeen’s has made their scouting profile of Pinelli to be available to the public. If you ever wanted to know what a profile from McKeen’s looks like, then this is a good example. As you would expect from one of the oldest scouting services available tot he public, it is detailed, well-explained, focused quite a bit on his body movement (mechanics, if you will), and organized. This profile, by Josh Mallory, is worth reading in full and does take his loan to Jesenice and his World U-18s into account. I will highlight this part that stuck out to me given the previous quotes and statements about Pinelli’s apparent two-way play:

Smarts – Pinelli is, in my view, one of the most intelligent players in the draft. His ability to process the play in multiple directions and through various layers of pressure allows him to stand out as a high-end problem solver in this year’s draft. He shows heady instincts all over the ice and plays with strong intentionality (ie. makes a play, then immediately starts thinking about the next – like his give and go in his rush clip earlier). He also plays within his means; he is seemingly aware of his currently limited explosiveness and dynamism in stop-and-go states, so he rarely overextends himself on the ice. Pinelli’s timing on support and funnel routes, ability to play between checks and processing both vertically and laterally are all very strong. He sees the ice very well in all directions offensively with the puck on his stick and is subsequently able to make intelligent plays the majority of the time. Grade: 60

This is encouraging to read. Being able to play well in all three zones generally requires a good mind for the game. It not only appears that Pinelli has this in Mallory’s view, but it is one of the positive assets from a prospect perspective. Being able to understand where to go, how to go, and make decisions can make a big difference in effectiveness. This is consistent with what others have said about the player with respect to what they saw in him as a rookie in the OHL. I am more confident that a more recent assessment shows that it still a plus for the player.

Mallory’s profile does note that Pinelli does have some areas to work on. With respect to skating, Mallory thinks improving his body control can help him. With respect to his shot, Mallory believes some adjustments to how receives pucks for one-timers and shots can help him at the next level. With respect to physical play, Mallory states that Pinelli could stand to improve his work in tight-quarters to better handle pressure. In each of these areas, though, Mallory did point out that Pinelli does have good traits - those adjustments are going to be what could help him survive and succeed at the NHL level in the future. To that end, I can understand the hope for the player. Adjustments are a lot easier to develop than trying to become adept something a player is not at all good at.

I do want to highlight an additional opinion about the player. Josh Tessler profiled Pinelli at Smaht Scouting at the end of April. His profile aligns with some of the concerns Mallory had with respect to his skating. Tessler was quite pleased with Pinelli’s offensive skills aside from his stickhandling, going as far as to state that it is where Pinelli has been at his best. Among his praise of his forechecking and puck pursuit, he stated the following:

When it comes to creating scoring chances, there is a lot to like about Pinelli. He has proven that he can be a dynamic playmaker as he will find tight lanes to utilize when passing. It reminds me of Mavrik Bourque‘s (Dallas Stars prospect) ability to feather passes through tight lanes. From a shooting perspective, Pinelli is outstanding in medium danger and can fire home wrist shots and snap shots for goals with ease. He loves going blocker side on his wrist shots. Pinelli doesn’t have a big wind-up and he doesn’t need it. His wrists are powerful and he uses that to his advantage consistently.

This is consistent with the praise others have had for Pinelli’s shot as well as his playmaking skills. Tessler was also complimentary of Pinelli’s defensive game - which is what you would like to see for a “two-way” forward prospect - and his play in transition. However, he was not so complimentary with how Pinelli made decisions on the ice. Which does differ with what others state about his smarts on the ice:

While there is a lot to like about Pinelli, sometimes I find myself questioning his decision making. He will misread routes/trajectories that the attacker will be on and he will skate right to the attacker with the puck. As we mentioned before, given some of his issues when stick-handling, skating towards the attacker isn’t the best strategy.

In addition, there are instances in which Pinelli struggles under pressure. He will draw an attacker in and either not pivot out or pass the puck right to the attacker.

With all of this being said, if you watch fellow 2021 NHL Draft eligible, Matthew Beniers, he is quite similar to Pinelli. But, Pinelli doesn’t have the problem solver instincts that Beniers has. I would love for Pinelli to be a problem solver. But, he seems to struggle with identifying solutions to overcome problems that arise.

This could be a difference of opinion, and I wonder how much of this may be a result of Pinelli’s season. He went from being idle for the 2020 portion of the season, going out on loan to an unfamiliar team in an unfamiliar league, and then playing on a loaded Canada roster at the World U-18s. Perhaps more games and more stability would have helped? It is something to consider, at least.

As a cap on this section, Brock Otten released his final ranking of the top OHL-based prospects for this year’s draft yesterday at OHL Prospects. Pinelli came in fourth. As with all of his rankings, Otten has a summation of what he thinks about the player. Here is a shortened version of that:

You would be hard pressed to find a more complete forward this year than Pinelli. He competes hard in all three zones, but also is extremely intelligent, both in his positioning and anticipation. I think his attention to detail, especially in the defensive end, was especially apparent at the U18’s this year.

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In a lot of ways, I see former Rangers standout Mike Richards in Pinelli.

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I think this assessment is bang on and it is why I would not hesitate to use a mid to late first on Pinelli. At best, you have a top six center who can play in all situations. At worst, you probably have a solid third line center who can anchor your penalty kill with the right adjustments to his stride.

Otten felt Mallory’s assessment of Pinelli is accurate. Which does not shock me too much as both work for McKeen’s. But disagreement within an organization over prospects is not unheard of either. And Pinelli has a lot of things to like as a prospect. I do not know if I would go as far as to throw Mike Richards’ name around. I would hope Pinelli does not share his Philadelphian approach to the game. I do know that the final sentence from Otten is both praise and a reason he is being looked at for later in the first round rather than earlier.

A Little Video

Of course, being able to see Pinelli on the ice helps putting an opinion together. Let us look at some video.

First, from his 2019-20 season, Caitlin Berry put together this compilation of goals by Pinelli. All of this is with Kitchener, where he is wearing #71. I especially like the goal at 1:45 as he circled around the right circle to find space away from the defender and yet make himself open for the finish. While this is a series of highlights, you can observe Pinelli’s off-the-puck movement as a positive in addition the actual goal-scoring shots. You can also see a Michael Vukojevic cameo as the Devils-drafted player was a teammate of Pinelli’s then.

Second, from 2020-21, the fine duo at Devils at the Details unearthed a real find. This is a 19 minute shift-by-shift video when Pinelli was with Jesenice on loan earlier this year. This is from March 3 when they played HK Olimpija Ljubljana. If you ever wanted to see Slovenian hockey in the Alps Hockey League, then this is your chance. He’s wearing #71 here too, a full-face cage, and he’ll be easy to find because the pace of this game is a lot slower than what you may see in the NHL. Or the AHL. Or the OHL. Or a lot of other leagues. If nothing else, watch the part from 7:50 on to see him collect a pass in the neutral zone on a power play, get around a defenseman and his pressure, and rifle in a PPG for Jesenice. And at 15:03 when he supports his teammate by picking up a loose puck on offense after he got checked off on it, curling to the blueline, and finding a teammate for a score.

An Opinion of Sorts

Like a lot of prospects in this year’s draft class, the global pandemic and its impacts really undercut the evaluations of Pinelli. Plenty will be leveraged from his 16-year old season with Kitchener. While that was a very good first season in the OHL, he was 16 and he was largely at wing on that roster. The consensus was that the observers wanted to see him take a larger role with Kitchener in 2020-21. Obviously, that did not happen and it was not at all the player’s or even the team’s fault. Pinelli only played in 22 competitive hockey games this season and all of it has some kind of rationalization. Sure, he was productive with Jesenice and it is impressive to jump to an unknown place and make an immediate impact on loan. But that is a level of play he is not going to be facing anytime soon; the purpose of the loan was to at least be active. Sure, he was productive with Canada at the World U-18s and won Gold. But that was a 7-game tournament - always a risk to over/under value a short tournament - and others on that roster received more attention. Pinelli did not even make Kournianos’ recap of the World U-18 prospects for Canada. Just about any hockey prospect carries some risk, but Pinelli and many, many, many others in this year’s class has more of it than usual.

The general question for this section that I ask myself is “Is the reward worth the risk for the New Jersey Devils?” I think it might be. The praise that Pinelli received for his 2019-20 campaign was not just from scoring a whole bunch of points. Playing and moving well off the puck is encouraging for the future. What Pinelli did do this season did not contradict that; it could be argued that it reinforced what some were thinking prior to 2020-21. Mallory’s profile of Pinelli makes me feel more confident that the player can become successful at the pro level. He identified aspects with his skating, his shot, and his physical play that all can be adjusted and improved upon. At the end of the day, the whole point of a draft is to find NHL players for the future. I do believe Pinelli can and will be a NHL player.

Now, would he be the kind of player the Devils could use in 2 to 4 seasons? I think so. Pinelli may end up being a complementary forward - likely a winger given that the top two centers will be Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier - that can help out in a lot of different ways. Intelligent forwards who can help out in all three zones should be desired. Would he necessarily be a first liner player? Probably not unless he develops far better than anticipated. Is that what the Devils would need in the future? Perhaps not. I think some fans forget that a prospect should be considered with what the team may need in a few years instead of what they need now. As the team’s needs may shift in a few seasons, a prospect like Pinelli would remain relevant even if they hit on other prospects like Holtz and Mercer. I would want the Devils to be honest with themselves and their coaches as to whether they think they can help Pinelli make the adjustments to his game that they see fit. If they are unsure or do not think they can, then they may want to consider other options (or get other coaches since just about every prospect needs work on something).

Would he be available with the Devils’ second first round pick? I do not know. The available rankings suggest it is possible. I am leaning against it as many teams scout the OHL and they certainly paid attention to the World U-18s. They know who Francesco Pinelli is and what he is about. I do not think there are any teams who would not want to add a smart, two-way forward to their prospect pool. They may identify other needs or think better of other players. But would there be enough of them to have Pinelli available at 29th overall for New Jersey? I am not so certain. If he does make it that far, then I think the Devils could do a lot worse than selecting the center from Kitchener. Pinelli has a good chance of being one of those players that we look back in a few years and wonder why he was not selected earlier. Especially if (or when) he returns to Kitchener for 2021-22 and bosses the competition.

Your Take

There is plenty to like about Francesco Pinelli and I think the Devils selecting him at 29th overall would be a good choice if available. Now I want to know what you think. What do you make of Francesco Pinelli as a prospect? What did you learn about the player? What about Pinelli excites you and concerns you? If he does fall to the Devils’ second first round pick, then would you take him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Pinelli in the comments. Thank you for reading.