MONTREAL, QC. — Imagine, for a moment, a farmer planning out his crops for the next five years. He knows what types of plants his fields are lacking and searches diligently to find the perfect seeds to fill those holes. Seeds which will thrive in his climate and geography. He knows it will take time before he can reap the rewards of these plantings, but when it happens he’ll have bountiful amounts of just the right products.
Does the farmer simply plant the seeds and watch them grow? No. He needs to water them, fertilize them, and protect them from the harsh sun. If he pulls them out before they’ve fully matured, he risks losing the entire plant. He must ensure that the soil they grow in is just the right balance of acidity and alkalinity, giving the seedlings a good foundation in which they can spread their roots and grow up to be strong and productive.
Now apply that same scenario to hockey development in the Montreal Canadiens system. Canadiens VP of Player Personnel, Trevor Timmins does a superb job of searching out the best young athletes who have the potential to turn into NHL-caliber power players. Star junior athletes are drafted and sent off to hone their skills over the course of two or more years before testing their abilities in the big leagues. Yet time and time again we see promising hockey players seemingly stagnate during training camps and unceremoniously getting sent back to their minor teams or, even worse, traded.
Could it be that these players simply don’t have the talent to develop into NHL athletes? Are their best hopes for success found as career-AHLers? In some cases, sure. It happens from time to time. But in Montreal, it happens entirely too often and with athletes who DO have the talent to become substantial NHL contributors.
So where’s the problem? It’s in the soil. How can a team expect to produce healthy, thriving, motivated prospects when their development is either bogged down in an acidic environment or cut short due to pushing them too much too soon. And after watching last night’s display of head coach Michel Therrien making decisions behind the bench and in front of the media which only serve to push a negative agenda, this commentator has reached a boiling point.
Nikita Scherbak is undeniably an extremely talented winger. He sees the puck well, reads plays even better, and quietly creates scoring chances at every turn. His performance in this year’s Rookie Tournament was outstanding on a line with Artturi Lehkonen and Mike McCarron – the top producing line for the Habs in the tournament with five goals and eight assists. Scherbak wasn’t a bystander on that first line, he was a major contributor.
In one of the Canadiens preseason games against the Senators, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare for the breakaway chance Scherbak had in OT when he skated the puck quickly up the ice, with a defender right on his heels, and delicately tried to backhand the puck into the net. It was a highlight reel attempt, and he got zero credit for it.
Which brings us to last night’s game, where Scherbak saw just 7:24 of ice time. Seven minutes. The lowest of anyone else on the roster for the night by far. The next closest was Stefan Matteau with 10:14. What was the reason? Per Therrien’s comments after the game, he allegedly didn’t like Nikita’s compete level in the first period.
Michel Therrien says he wasn't happy with the play of Nikita Scherbak tonight. Said he didn't compete in the first period.
— Dan Robertson (@DRTSN690) October 3, 2016
Didn’t like his compete level? Well how exactly do you expect a young athlete to have any fire in his belly if you bench him and bark at him and not have the understanding of your player’s gameplay style to know that he plays in an unassuming manner? I could list off at least eight other guys on the ice last night who looked like THEY didn’t have any compete level in them, but I see all of their TOI in double digits. And I don’t hear Therrien publicly throwing any of them under the bus, either. In fact, comparing Mike Babcock‘s coaching performance last night against Therrien’s, perhaps it was Michel who didn’t have a whole lot of “compete” in him.
A competitive coach would have his best players on the ice for a six-on-three advantage late in the third period when his team is down by a goal, right? Instead, the special teams objective was obviously to cycle the puck to David Desharnais at the point over and over and over again while he failed to put a one-timer past Garret Sparks, even with McCarron trying to screen the goaltender and bang in the rebounds in the crease.
Speaking of McCarron, did you see how good he was in the three-on-three overtime? You didn’t? Well that’s because the physical power forward was on the bench so that Desharnais and Chris Terry could work their magic to win the game. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.) He’s also been relegated to third and fourth line positioning, despite obvious off-season hard work to improve his explosiveness and speed.
But hey, who needs a six-foot, six-inch physical center when you’ve got diminutive Desharnais to push guys off the puck and defend teammates, right? (Where’s the sarcasm emoji when you need it….) It’s utterly frustrating to watch players like number 51 get special treatment when others are waiting to actually make a difference in the lineup.
Set up Desharnais as the shooter. No way that Muller came up with that tactic. #Habs
— All Habs (Canadiens) (@AllHabs) October 3, 2016
Two years ago, Jacob de la Rose was on the cover of The Hockey News World Junior Championship preview edition. From the time he was drafted, De la Rose has been a top prospect for the Canadiens and a player held in high regard playing for Team Sweden. He’s a smart hockey player, works the boards well, and has a tremendously accurate shot. But you’ll mostly hear fans complain about him, saying he doesn’t seem motivated, doesn’t create plays, doesn’t offer any offense.
Well let’s rewind a year to training camp last year. Jarred Tinordi and De la Rose survived the Habs final cuts and, as of October 5th 2015, were poised to be in the lineup come opening night of the NHL season. Imagine how it then felt to de la Rose just a day or so later when Paul Byron was claimed off waivers from Calgary and De la Rose found himself en route to St. John’s. As he put it in my interview with him just a few weeks later, he was “shocked” when it happened. So what does that do to a young player’s confidence? Even with a lengthy NHL call-up last season, De la Rose has been buried on the third or fourth line, as well as during training camp. Fans feed off of the reaction of the coaches and he’s not getting much support there, is he?
Fast forward to 2016 and this time De la Rose is cut from camp with two more preseason games left to play. Does anyone think this kind of handling will help boost his confidence and/or motivation? And sure, Scherbak can perhaps display a bit more hunger for a roster spot but that comes with maturity. If McCarron doesn’t crack the lineup he’ll most certainly be one of the first callups and/or have a stellar AHL season.
But that’s not the point of the exercise. I don’t want to hear all of the “Well at least the IceCaps are going to have a really good roster this year!” business. They’re not looking to make the best American League team, they’re looking to make the best NHL team using the best assets they have available. As it stands now, it looks like most of those assets are going to be squandered yet again.
Working for Rocket Sports Media affords me the privilege of watching the Habs AHL athletes put everything they have on the ice every night, many times observing them in person for games and practices. They work hard and the common theme among them is that they’re all trying to make it to the NHL. None of them are coasting. They’re all hungry for it. Their coaches and staff at the AHL level push them to get better, stronger, faster. Perhaps if they had someone in the big club who was more interested in helping them achieve those dreams, the organization in general would enjoy a lot more success in the standings.
With Therrien, it seems one mistake is all it takes to get brushed aside – sometimes for good. He doesn’t seem to know how to cultivate and nurture the young prospects in his system. Instead of giving them the tools and support they need to succeed, he seems to prefer setting them up to fail and writing them off. That may sound harsh, but it’s been proven, at least in my eyes, plenty of times in recent years and most certainly during this preseason. My only hope is that the Canadiens top prospects who don’t make the roster focus their energy on proving to management why it was a mistake not to select them. They deserve a fair chance.
How do you feel about the coaching situation in Montreal when it comes to prospects? Leave a comment below or join the conversation with me on Twitter @FlyersRule (don’t let the handle fool you!)