TORONTO, ON – Typically, NHL training camp is seen as a tool for veterans to round into game shape and a stage for young players to prove they belong in the greatest hockey league in the world. At times it is an exercise of chemistry experiments, where line combinations are cycled through in seeking the ideal mix for opening night. It’s an opportunity for coaching staffs to familiarize themselves with the players at their disposal for the coming season and to lay out the team’s expectations for each individual.
Traditionalists, then, would likely be irked by what has gone on in Montreal in preparation for the 2013-14 season. It has been clear from day one that Canadiens coach Michel Therrien came into camp with a clear vision of the squad with which he would be going to battle on October 1st. And thus far, for better or for worse, he seems to have let little change his mind.
Rather than sprinkle rookies throughout his line-up to provide prospects with the best opportunities to strut their stuff, Therrien immediately reassembled the same units that completed the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. Back together were the high skill line of Lars Eller flanked by Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, the dependable veteran duo of Tomas Plekanec and Rene Bourque, and the inconsistent but productive pairing of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. Even the fourth line – seen only when all of the top nine were healthy at once, a rare occurrence – of Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Brandon Prust were reunited on a unit. The only changes came from additions and subtractions, with free agent signing Daniel Briere slotted exactly where the player he replaces (at least salary wise) – Michael Ryder – had been intended to play (with Desharnais and Pacioretty, where the player he was traded for – Erik Cole – had played), leaving the spot to Plekanec’s right the only mystery as Brian Gionta continues to rehab from off-season surgery. And he hasn’t budged.
So would Therrien audition multiple players for his lone vacancy at forward? It seems even that degree of experimentation wasn’t part of the plan. Christian Thomas entered camp as the “chosen” contender, and was the only player to receive an audition for the role through the first three intrasquad games and two preseason contests (though both Plekanec and Bourque have yet to suit up for an exhibition game).
All of this goes to show that regardless of what the coach may say, he isn’t a believer that “tout est à refaire” from one season to the next. Instead, he has revealed a belief that past performance is the best indicator of future success and a willingness to give supplemental chances to players with quality track records. Rather than set the incumbents on an even playing field to the challengers, he has set a standard that a young player must both prove his worth over the long haul and wait his turn for the right fit.
Nowhere was this more obvious than with the handling of Louis Leblanc. Fans were ready to forgive and forget a disastrous 2012-13 campaign from Louis, in which he managed only 18 points in 62 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs, struggling to regain form after suffering an early high ankle sprain. But this is the final season of the 2009 first round selection’s entry level contract, and at age 22, it should be one that goes a long way towards determining his future as a professional hockey player.
Leblanc came into camp saying all the right things, and was productive from the outset, producing in early scrimmages on a line with Martin Reway, and among the team’s better players in what was a poor showing for the overall group in a 6-3 preseason loss to the Boston Bruins. It was understandably a shock, then, that his name was on the cut list following that game – some four full days before the start of the Hamilton Bulldogs’ camp – with five games still remaining on the team’s preseason calendar.
More evidence of Therrien’s preconceived plan? The one rookie who seems to be getting a real look on the roster is Jarred Tinordi, he who was among the team’s top six defensemen in last year’s playoffs. It’s no coincidence, then, that he was the one rookie invited to the team’s golf tournament back in early September, indicating he was already seen as a member of the core group.
Still, it’s not to say that Therrien was entirely inflexible. It’s doubtful coming into camp that Reway had been penciled into a preseason lineup, but his standout effort and skill level had him rewarded with just such an opportunity. Nor did Therrien stubbornly hold on to an experiment that wasn’t working, dropping a moderately performing Thomas from his core line-up once it appeared likely Gionta would be ready for opening night, and slotting veteran Brandon Prust in his spot for practice. But did Mike Blunden truly earn the right to be the first fill-in on a fourth line – where he lined up in Wednesday’s practice – or was it simply an extension of Therrien’s pecking order of last season? The latter seems far more likely.
If we concede that the avalanche of evidence supporting Therrien running his camp entirely based on last year’s evaluations is too convincing a case to ignore, we must move from the acceptance to the evaluation phase.
Is it really a bad thing? There would seem to be two camps on the issue.
Just two seasons ago, the Canadiens kept a bloated roster through nearly the entire exhibition schedule, blaming the exhausting number of games in such a short time frame for the hesitance in announcing cuts. While this provided a chance for young players to gain experience and a lengthy audition to earn a stay with the big club, it left little time for the team’s veterans – given there were few roster spots actually available for younger players, just like this season – to gel as a cohesive unit and form chemistry within the lines. While developing prospects is important, progress in their games will ultimately come from their work with their respective junior or minor pro squads over the course of the season, rather than the up-to-twenty-days spent in Montreal. The coach’s main responsibility is to have a roster ready to go on October 1st, and if this means giving some up-and-comers the snub, so be it.
Realistically, now that it seems Gionta’s recovery is on schedule, there is realistically no room for a Thomas or Leblanc to start the season with the Canadiens. If one of them had truly blown away management in camp, then perhaps it would have forced Marc Bergevin to make a move that would help them climb the depth chart, but there are no easy bodies to trade at forward on the Canadiens’ roster, and neither player had a camp like that of Brendan Gallagher in 2012 or Guillaume Latendresse in 2005.
So why keep them around? If Therrien thinks he knows the most productive combinations at forward already, why mess around with experiments? Keep them as they are, and hope they work through any difficulties as they round into game shape. Objectively, making decisions on three weeks of practices and half-hearted simulated games over the evaluations conducted from a full NHL season sounds ludicrous. Our brains tend to function with a “what have you done for me lately?” mindset, and that can lead to dangerous and costly judgments on players who are temporarily underperforming.
Others have commented on some of the players kept around ahead of a guy like Leblanc, notably Martin St. Pierre, Nick Tarnasky, and yes, even Thomas himself. Veterans like St. Pierre, Tarnasky, and Dustin Tokarski will have to clear waivers before joining the Bulldogs – something from which Leblanc is still exempt – and the organization may not believe now is the time to expose them to that risk. There is a depth / press box roster spot available at forward, and before deciding which of them (or most likely Blunden or Gabriel Dumont) should remain with the organization in that capacity, there is no reason not to keep them around, particularly as they have been, placed in a separate group aside from the top 12. St. Pierre has earned a second game on a line with Michael Bournival after their unit (with Mike McCarron) produced three goals in the opening exhibition contest, so it isn’t to say that these players will necessarily be ahead of Leblanc in the line for a call-up, but just that they have been the better to date.
Is Therrien (and Bergevin) right in everything he has done to date? There are some risk factors with this approach.
The first is a question of how long he holds to his “plan” if it’s failing to produce results. Many question the effectiveness of a Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Daniel Briere line, and if it isn’t thriving, it’s a waste of your best left winger who is arguably your top forward for the coming season. What if greater defensive awareness of their capabilities has the Galchenyuk-Eller-Gallagher trio in tougher checking than they can handle together? The downside to not experimenting is you have only a single set of tested lines. You don’t have other permutations ready to go on a whim, and must count on finding a spark of chemistry on the fly when needed. It’s not to say that this can’t happen, or that the initial combinations are doomed to fail, but only a few lines across the league stay together even a full season, let alone from one year to the next.
But if we put that risk aside, the bigger concern is the handling of young players within such a system. While we can logically reason out that Therrien isn’t saying Leblanc had a poor camp by sending him to Hamilton, or that Charles Hudon and Martin Reway underperformed with their early returns to their QMJHL squads, it may not be so obvious in the minds and hearts of the players themselves. It’s important for the players to know both positives and areas to improve within their game, and to continue developing with confidence of the team’s support. Communication was a problem for the last coaching regime – notably after the loss of Kirk Muller – and we must hope this organization will take it on themselves to do a better job in that area.
In a world of social media and instant access to information, we have seen a few concerning signs that perhaps it wasn’t always handled in the best of ways. A Tweet from Leblanc’s girlfriend, tennis star Aleksandra Wozniak, indicated her (and his?) feelings that the cut was unjustified, planned from day one (which Therrien won’t deny; stating he knows what Leblanc is capable of already and wants to see him dominate in the AHL as a reasoning for his demotion), and outright unfair to the player. And tweets and interviews from the likes of Reway and Gabriel Dumont – neither of whom has been among camp’s worst players – revealed they believed their demotions (to the QMJHL and to camp’s “group B” respectively) were attributable to poor performances in preseason action.
Working with these players and situations is part of the job of Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois, two members of the organization we haven’t heard much from through camp. With the significant quantity and quality of young men that have already been released from the Montreal roster, it seems their jobs will be starting early this Fall.