For the Montreal Canadiens, the future — in large part — is now. After years of sowing the seeds for the future with a commitment to the draft, developing players at a sensible rate, and patience, the Club de Hockey Canadien is starting to reap the benefits of their efforts.
Homegrown talent — such as Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Christopher Higgins, and Guillaume Latendresse — has joined season veterans like Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev in forming the foundation of a competitive franchise. And now, the first bumper crop of rookie talent has joined the ranks.
Carey Price (1st round 2005), Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round 2003), Kyle Chipchura (1st round 2004), Maxim Lapierre (3rd round 2002), Andrei (1st round 2003) and Sergei Kostistyn (7th round 2005), and Josh Gorges are seven rookies who were in the active lineup as the Habs rang in the New Year against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 3rd. Few other clubs use that number of rookies in general – fewer still have their rookies play in the key situations that the Habs do.
Over the season, Chipchura and Lapierre have seen duty protecting late-game leads, the Kostitsyn brothers get regular power-play time – including Sergei reprising his junior experience manning the point with the man advantage, and Price had played some key games between the pipes prior to being sent down to Hamilton during a light part of the Habs’ schedule.
Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens’ Director of Player Recruitment and Development, explained that the number of rookies on the NHL roster is a direct result of the club’s organizational focus.
"At some point in time, when you’ve committed to building a team through the draft, you’re going to have to suffer some growing pains," Timmins said. "But those can be lessened when you have quality veteran players surrounding your youth."
However, Timmins said the Canadiens are not in a situation like one sees in Chicago or Pittsburgh, where the youth are the primary focus of the club and the team’s success or failure rests solely on their performance.
"We look at it as we’ve got a team that we’re complementing with youth," Timmins explained. "The rookies bring energy and enthusiasm to the roster and the young guys push the veterans to perform.
"I think internal competition for a roster spot is good on any team – the younger players have been able to step up and embrace their roles."
Several of the rookies feel that the blend of veterans and youth on the Habs has made it easier for them to adjust to the NHL ranks. That, combined with the fact that the coaching staff has been there as well, has helped lead to the club’s successful integration of youth into the roster.
"A lot of the older guys are there to help you. The coaching staff, with Carbo (Head Coach Guy Carbonneau) and Kirksie (Assistant Coach Kirk Muller) and Jarvie (Assistant Coach Doug Jarvis), they help us a lot with things like positioning and face-offs, amongst other things," Kyle Chipchura explained. "As far as players go, the young guys who have been through it just a couple of years ago like Higgins and Komisarek — they kind of feel what we’re going through a little more and they’re always there to help us.
"Then you’ve got Smoke (Brian Smolinski), Sak (Saku Koivu), and Kovy (Alex Kovalev) and they know the game pretty well – they’ve been a lot of help."
As accommodating as the veterans have been, Chipchura said that there are also adjustments that the rookies must make upon joining the ranks. For example, Chipchura – who has been a leader at every level he’s played at – has had to channel that leadership into on-ice play as opposed to standing up in the dressing room. However, he added that changing the style of play on the ice that got him to this level is not in the cards.
"I think off the ice you have to be a little more open to what the veteran guys have to say. They’ve been great with us. Each one of them is willing to help us and you can see, I think here the greatest thing I’ve learned from them is how to be more professional," Chipchura said. "Off the ice I think you try not to change too much, you try to do the little things that will earn you respect with the guys. They make us feel comfortable, so you don’t feel like you’re stepping on a guy’s toes or anything."
Netminder Carey Price shared Chipchura’s sentiments. "The guys here have really helped me along, just getting used to the pro life," he said. "We’ve got a lot of young guys here that I hang out with outside of the rink and they really make me feel comfortable. The guys play hard for me so it really makes it easier on me.
"The biggest change I think it was just being out on your own. I mean, the whole life is a lot different than in junior. Obviously the hockey is a lot better and the pace is a lot faster. Everybody is always dangerous on the ice.
And for a kid from the tiny hamlet of Williams Lake, BC, adjusting to the big city experience of Montreal went relatively smoothly. "It’s a lot different than where I’m used to. I think going to Hamilton kind of helped," Price said. "I don’t think the size of the city really makes that much of a difference. I pretty much stick to the same areas."
Price and Chipchura have been sent back to Hamilton, but more for a conditioning assignment. Management believes that both players will benefit from more ice time and an opportunity to focus on the parts of the game they need to work on. Yet Timmins expects both players to be back up in the not-too-distant future and playing key roles on the squad.
Injuries have also played a role for the rookies this season – some good, some bad. Sergei Kostitsyn was called up as an injury replacement and impressed the club to the point where he’s earned a roster spot for the time being. On the other end, O’Byrne’s outstanding season was derailed by a thumb injury. His size and physical presence was welcomed on a Habs’ blueline that, save for Komisarek, is notably lacking in both.
Sergei Kostitsyn, O’Byrne, and Gorges have all earned a roster spot after a mid-season call-up. All three started the season in Hamilton, while Price, Chipchura, Lapierre, Mikhail Grabovski, and Andrei Kostitsyn broke camp with the big club. All except Andrei Kostitsyn have spent time in both Hamilton and Montreal, a testament to what Timmins explains is the benefit of having depth, which allows youth to push veterans and ensures that everyone must be playing at their best.
For Timmins, it’s all about making the most of your opportunity – and he’s got a historical reference to back up his statements.
"Opportunity is important, sure, but so is being in the right place at the right time and making the most out of the opportunity given to you," he said. "Back when I was in Ottawa we had Alexei Yashin holding out on us. We signed Todd White out of Grand Rapids and he became our No. 1 center.
"He made a lot of money for himself that year."
The Canadiens rookies join a club that’s laden with youth. In addition to the eight aforementioned first-year players, players like Latendresse (20), Higgins (24), Plekanec (25), and Komisarek (26 on Jan. 19th) all play key roles. And some of those roles have been to help transition the new players onto the team.
"Oh yeah, I’m hanging out with those guys all the time," Higgins said. "I mean, Pricer and Chip and Gorgie – I’m pretty much hanging out with those guys every single day, so it’s nice to see them off the ice and when you get on the ice you can work with their personalities. Those are great guys – they’re eager to learn they’re eager to get better and I think we did a great job of drafting them.
"I think rookies are really important. When they can contribute it’s just something that – before the season you don’t know, it’s a question mark, rookies are a question mark – when guys like Chipchura and Andrei and his brother Sergei step up and play great games, it helps the team. It pushes the veterans to play better and it just gives [the rookies] the confidence to help their progression towards getting better move faster and faster."
When those rookies contribute, it’s even better. The elder Kostitsyn brother is among the team’s leaders with 12 goals and 26 points. The younger Kostitsyn has cooled down after shooting out of the blocks. He’s now settled in with eight points in 17 games. Other players’ numbers don’t show their value to the club: Chipchura only has 11 points in 36 games, but has played a key checking role. And Lapierre’s six points in 20 games do not do justice to his defensive play and agitator role. Add to that Price’s 9-7-3 record, behind a 2.90 GAA and .907 save percentage, and the fact that for much of the year he and nominal starter Cristobal Huet were pretty evenly splitting the starts. That contribution is something that Chipchura – who was initially surprised that he broke camp with the club – takes pride in.
"Yeah, I was surprised. Earlier in the summertime we spoke about coming to camp and coming to make the team. Obviously that was my goal, but I knew that going back to Hamilton wasn’t the end of the world," he explained. "I came in to make the team and I was able to start here. I was able to prove myself, it’s not like I came to play three minutes a night – I was able to play about 10 minutes per game, so it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot about the level of consistency I have to play with."
Beyond the strides the team has made this season, the club’s youth is something that everyone involved with the franchise feels will be a key to the club’s future success.
"If we can trait that chemistry early and have some success early, we’ll learn how to win together and that only bodes well for the future," Chipchura said. "I mean it’s going to be tough with a lot young guys coming up, there’s going to be a lot of added pressure just making the team each and every year, but it’s something that I’m looking forward to being a part of hopefully for many, many years."
And if the youth of the club is integrating well, chalk that up to an organizational success. A commitment to instilling the Canadiens’ Way, through rookie camps and other team events ensures that everyone drafted by the club understands what’s expected of them and how to train.
"It’s a base from which you can develop a team concept, Timmins said. "Take a look back at when Carey won the Calder Cup. He was asked what it was like making the jump to the AHL and he replied that he felt like he already knew all the guys from our development camps and rookie camps.
"These players have played together for years – they’ll sort themselves out, between the leaders and the followers, and that carries over onto the ice."