MONTREAL, QC. — With the NHL Entry Draft just days away and as we inch closer to the opening of the NHL free agent market on July 1st, I’ve seen a debate pop up online on numerous occasions. You have one side who looks at a weak free agent pool and tries to find any players who might be able to help the Montreal Canadiens, and you have the other who feels that signing any player who might not remain with the team long-term is simply interfering with the development of the team’s prospects by “hogging” a roster spot.
The Canadiens need to do a better job developing the prospects they draft. This is a statement that virtually no one will disagree with. However, it should be noted that this is not synonymous with saying the Habs should rush young players into NHL roles with significant ice time. If you put a player in a position to fail – a spot in the NHL for which he doesn’t yet have the ability, maturity, or physical strength, or correct linemates to thrive in – you are doing the player an injustice, frustrating him, and steering his progression in the wrong direction. There are countless examples of players who have struggled due to these conditions; in Montreal alone, we can think of Max Pacioretty and Guillaume Latendresse as prime recent examples, but there are many more league-wide.
Jumping from a junior league – or even the American League – to the National Hockey League is a big step. Suddenly you’re on the big stage; your mistakes aren’t only hurting your teammates, but they’re affecting the collective mood of an entire city. As a rookie, your opponents are for the most part older, bigger, and stronger than you are. You’re entering a new locker room full of guys who have been around the game for much longer than you. You’re collecting big paychecks, mobbed by fans off the ice who would love nothing more than to take you out and feed you drink after drink all night long. It can be a lot for a young man to handle, especially if their on-ice game hasn’t been perfected, they aren’t disciplined off-ice, or a team is struggling greatly to get in the win column turning fans and media against the players.
All of this is why insulating young players with solid veterans is important. It’s why young players – with very few exceptions – shouldn’t be “handed” roster spots; they have to put in their time and earn them. It’s why you have many hoping Montreal goes out and signs one of the few names available this summer in a Jaromir Jagr or Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. The Canadiens have major issues scoring goals, and it isn’t rookies who are going to be counted on to fill the void. Let them come up slowly while having some experience on board to fill the net and set the example.
The first counter-argument I hear is that some fans aren’t concerned with winning this season and thus the team shouldn’t waste spots or money on these veterans; play the kids even if the results don’t follow. I think this logic is quite flawed.
First, it is way too early to raise a white flag on a season that is months away from beginning in order to enter a Nathan MacKinnon tanking competition. Despite their 15th in the East finish, the Habs aren’t that far off from a few changes and better health taking them back to the post-season. If you concede that you will have a cellar dweller club again next year, the prospects are being brought into a less-than-ideal environment. The best thing for them is to be surrounded by talent that will help them produce and succeed, and hopefully they will get first-hand exposure to the NHL playoffs come April, since that is a step towards the ultimate goal in any case. If a player needs NHL experience because there is a big step between the other leagues and the NHL, then they also need playoff experience since there is a giant leap between regular and post-season play as well. A rookie won’t learn as much playing on an inexperienced line that is stuck in its own end and turning over pucks non-stop as they will from playing on a winning team with quality leaders and roleplayers serving to cover the small weaknesses that remain in their fine-tuned game. Whether a team is a contender or not, it’s important to have the players in place that will allow you to be competitive.
Another argument I hear is that the Canadiens have prospects who are NHL-ready and that the team should stop being conservative or holding them back. Who are these young men with nothing left to learn in the AHL, because the Habs must have acquired them while I was sleeping? Some speak of Louis Leblanc, who I will concede is likely the most NHL-ready of the team’s prospect group up front. But he of one pro season – 42 NHL games and 32 AHL games – of experience hasn’t earned anything yet. I know many who aren’t big Leblanc fans, but I’ll admit to liking his game, and thinking he could be a good linemate – with a veteran on the other side – for Lars Eller this season. He’ll likely be a member of Montreal’s third line for many years to come. But I also don’t want him to come into camp with his name penned in to that spot. He’s a young player whose strength and skating still need work, and if he can’t prove he deserves that spot ahead of a Rene Bourque for example, then I have no problem with him spending some more time with the Hamilton Bulldogs in a big-minute role to round out his game.
A second name mentioned is Blake Geoffrion, an enigmatic young player who shows flashes of being a goal-scorer at times, looks like a hard-hitting energy player at others, and still seems to coast around ineffectively at times as well. I fully agree that him sitting in the press box – as he did frequently towards the end of last season – is the worst option for his development, but unless he has a dominant training camp, I think starting the season with the Bulldogs would be the best thing imaginable for him. He has proven he can be a top offensive player in that league, so let him build confidence by putting up some points early (this is the last season he’ll be able to go down without needing waivers), and then see what he can bring you in Montreal.
A third name some talk about is Aaron Palushaj, the one player that I’d agree has little left to learn in the American League. The problem is, he also hasn’t shown anything in the big league to prove that he’s an NHL caliber forward. No doubt, Palushaj will be given a chacne to show he belongs during camp, likely battling with Leblanc for a job. The two on the same line would be far too weak of a unit for NHL competition, and neither is a tremendous fit on a fourth line. Palushaj’s lack of NHL production has me thinking he could even clear waivers, so if he doesn’t earn a spot, while I’d likely rather just keep him in the press box in case of injury, the team may opt to try to send him to Hamilton.
The final player some suggest holding a roster spot – appropriate given we’re in draft week – is the player-to-be-named-later third overall pick that Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins will select Friday night. In all likelihood, we’re talking about an Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko, or Teuvo Teravainen. In the case of Galchenyuk and Grigorenko, both would attend the team’s training camp in the Fall, and if they earn it, perhaps even get some preseason action. But the reality is, both still have much to work on in their games, with Galchenyuk needing to strengthen back up after missing a near full season with knee surgery, and Grigorenko needing to prove that he can be more effective defensively and provide a more consistent effort. Both are too young for the AHL, so both will return to the CHL. I’m not saying it’s impossible for an Alex Galchenyuk to force his way on to the roster immediately, but I’d be very willing to wager against it happening. Forsberg and Teravainen are players who have competed against men, but who both need to fill out considerably before becoming full time NHL pros. Forsberg has made it clear that he plans to return to Sweden for one more season. So yes, whoever Montreal takes with this pivotal pick will be an important part of the team’s future, but they will very likely not be a part of the 2012-13 edition of the Canadiens.
A final argument I’ve heard is that there is simply no spot available, particularly on right wing, the natural position of both Jagr and Parenteau. It is true that the Canadiens already have Erik Cole and Brian Gionta on the right side, and that thus the team would be better off bolstering the left wing where it has just Max Pacioretty and Rene Bourque, but with the limited names available this summer, to me the team can’t afford to be choosy by side, and must add a scoring presence regardless of his position. Face the fact that Bourque, Gionta, and Tomas Plekanec would be an extremely weak second line, with Bourque and Gionta both coming off very poor seasons leaving questions as to whether or not they can produce sufficiently to fill that role at this stage of their careers. If you could bring in a player to bump either of them to a third line to play with a young Lars Eller, then you have a much better rounded top nine.
Now I will concede that the Canadiens don’t necessarily need to sign a player long-term. There will be top nine prospects like Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival developing with the Bulldogs in the Fall, and the team would be doing itself an injustice committing big dollars and term to players this summer when the next two are projected to have far more tantalizing options. This is why, to me, if you can’t land a legitimate younger superstar like a Zach Parise, a veteran like Jagr on a one-year deal might actually be a perfect fit for the Canadiens. As a worst case scenario, if the team struggles even with his addition, you could certainly get a second round pick or other reasonable return for him by the trade deadline – more “free” assets to help build for the future.
So remember all of that this weekend and the next. Don’t put immediate pressure on the player pulling on a Habs’ sweater at third overall this Friday night, and also don’t take any of this summer’s signings as the team lacking faith in its younger players. We should take the hirings of people like Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois as an improvement in the area of Player Development off-ice, and any further moves will serve to help the young men deal with the on-ice situations they’ll be encountering.