For the Montreal Canadiens, youth has been more than served – this season it was eating with exquisite silverware off the finest china. And even a bitter-tasting final course couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the meal.
The Canadiens shocked many by finishing first in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. The fact that they reached that pinnacle behind a rookie netminder and relying on youth in key roles amplified that shock. Yet despite flaming out in the second round, the Habs look to have a strong, deep, and talented foundation of youth upon which to build.
“Look at the guys we had in the press box at times: [Guillaume] Latendresse, [Michael] Ryder, [Tom] Kostopoulos, [Bryan] Smolinski – these are guys that could play on other teams in the league,” said Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens’ Director of Player Recruitment and Development. “That’s a testament to the quality of the youth we had in the lineup.
“It’s gratifying to have a young team in the playoffs but that’s what we get paid to do. We want to win the Stanley Cup and everyone’s got to be a piece of the engine.”
Timmins has been behind many of the rookies who graced the Bell Centre’s ice this season, but he refuses to take too much credit for it. “It’s just not me; it’s the scouting team, management, coaching staff – as a group, we work well together,” he explained. “It’s critical, crucial with the new CBA that you have to have new players come up and contribute on the top lines.
“Kudos to Mr. [Bob] Gainey for keeping our draft picks and kudos to Mr. [Guy] Carbonneau for giving our young guys a chance, because he really did.”
Arguably the most important piece of the puzzle this season was – at the time – the most controversial.
Carey Price (1st round, 5th overall, 2005), 20
“If our [draft] philosophy was different, we wouldn’t have drafted Carey Price and that would have been a mistake,” Timmins said, passing on the chance to send an ‘I told you so’ to pundits who questioned the sanity of taking a goalie with the fifth overall selection despite having a solid collection of goalies – including a former Vezina Trophy-winner in Jose Theodore. “People are entitled to their opinions – what matters most is that within the organization we all have the same goal.”
Price surprised many by breaking camp with the Canadiens as backup to Cristobal Huet. Then the Habs surprised many more by parting with their nominal starter for a second-round selection in 2009. But this decision was a long time coming, Timmins said.
“I think we took the decision, after training camp, that the organization was going to groom Carey to be the No. 1 goalie – that was the main factor behind the decision to keep him in Montreal,” he said. “We saw how he progressed in the second half of the season after Cristobal was traded.”
In 41 NHL regular season games, Price posted a 24-12-3 record with two shutouts en route to a .920 save percentage and 2.56 GAA. A mid-season demotion to the AHL was more about getting him regular playing time as, as Timmins explained, Price is a goalie who thrives on it.
In the playoffs, Price was alternatively brilliant and bewildering. However, in the end his numbers were more than respectable with a 5-6 record, a .901 save percentage, a 2.78 GAA, and two shutouts – including the Game 7 winner over Boston.
“Instead of being 27 going through this he was just 21,” Timmins said, adding that the experience this year will benefit him long-term. “No doubt he was ready and he will bounce back [from any disappointing performances]. That’s what makes Carey Carey.”
Jaroslav Halak (9th round, 271st overall, 2003), 23
Some consternation came about due to the fact that the Habs went into the playoffs with no netminders with NHL experience. That was quelled, to an extent, when Halak performed well in relief of Price.
However, the season didn’t start well for the young Slovakian. After finishing last season strong with a 10-6 NHL record and a 2.89 GAA, Halak was disappointed to start the season in Hamilton, having been surpassed by Price.
“Initially he wasn’t too pleased, he was hoping to start the season in Montreal,” Timmins said. “He got his feet under him and he certainly had the stats, so he was ready to play.”
In 28 games in Hamilton, Halak posted a 15-10-2 record, with two shutouts, a .929 save percentage, and a 2.10 GAA. In limited action as Price’s backup following the Huet trade he performed well too, with a 2-1-1 record in six games behind a 2.11 GAA and .934 save percentage.
While Price may have been groomed for the starting role, it’s not one that Halak is planning on simply ceding to him. In fact, Timmins said that the team wouldn’t want someone on their squad who is content as a backup.
“I don’t think you judge goaltenders that way. I don’t know anybody who wants to be No. 2 in life. Jaro wants to be the No. 1 guy,” he explained. “You find someone who wants to be No. 2, how competitive is that? I’m not going to go to war with that guy – no player would either.”
Sergei Kostitsyn (7th round, 200th overall, 2005), 21
In a season of surprises, the biggest may have been the play of Belarusian Sergei Kostitsyn. Last year he played in the junior ranks, but after a brief sojourn in Hamilton, the younger of the two Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei also plays for the Habs and, in the playoffs, was a frequent linemate of his brother’s) forced his way onto the Habs’ roster to stay.
“He was a bit of a surprise for a lot of people,” he said. "Sergei had a great training camp and two and a half months into the season he was in the NHL and never looked back.
“It’s a great story – two brothers come from the same country, the same house, take two completely different routes, but come to the same location.”
Sergei was playing at a point-per-game rate in the AHL prior to a Christmas call-up to Montreal as an injury replacement. After scoring six goals and 16 assists in 22 games in Hamilton, Sergei added nine goals and 18 assists in 52 NHL games. He also showed his robust side with 51 PIM and displayed the outstanding defense and versatility (manning the point on the power play) that he developed as a standout for the OHL’s London Knights.
Helping him along the way was a resurgent leader who enjoyed an MVP-quality season as well. “It’s great when you have a leader like [Alex] Kovalev – he’s a player these young players looked up to and now they’re playing alongside him,” Timmins said.
While there were many positives Sergei picked up playing for Dale Hunter in London, he did have a negative habit that was of concern to the club initially – exceedingly long shifts. But Sergei showed he was a fast learner.
“I thought it was going to be more difficult to break,” he said. “He spent a couple of months in Hamilton being groomed and was ready.”
Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round, 79th overall, 2003), 24
The Habs have long been criticized for their lack of size on the blueline. No more. Along with the beefy Mike Komisarek, Ryan O’Byrne continued his meteoric rise from the collegiate ranks by earning his keep at the NHL level. Only a Christmas time injury derailed temporarily what was a promising season.
“He had a good season, but Carbo went with more veteran players in the playoffs,” Timmins said. “He’s similar to Komisarek in that he fills a need.”
That need is size, because O’Byrne’s not going to be chasing Bobby Orr or Denis Potvin in the record books any time soon. In 20 games in Hamilton, O’Byrne scored two goals and added six assists. In 33 Montreal games, he found the back of the net once and added six assists. However, with 49 PIM in Hamilton and 45 in Montreal, he showed that the welcome mat for opposing forwards in the Habs’ crease has been rolled up for a while. O’Byrne was held pointless in the four playoff games he appeared in.
O’Byrne is a product of the much-shorter NCAA season, but the team has been pleased with his transition to the longer professional campaigns over the past two years.
“I’ve been impressed with his ability to play the number of games he has over the past two seasons after coming out of college,” Timmins added.
Kyle Chipchura (1st round, 18th overall, 2004), 22
Playing time and numbers – both in players and in poorer faceoff percentages – conspired to return Chipchura for a second season in the AHL. But the former Team Canada captain certainly took advantage of the extra time.
After a modest four goals and seven assists in 36 NHL games, Chipchura scored 10 goals and added 11 helpers in 39 AHL contests following a mid-season demotion.
“He was our best player down the stretch in Hamilton, but he got hurt,” Timmins said. “Game in, game out, he played his heart out."
Best of all, Chipchura was able to continue developing his leadership qualities. “At the AHL level, yes he was able to show them,” Timmins explained. “But you can’t ask a 22-year-old to do that at the NHL level.”
Mikhail Grabovski (5th round, 150th overall, 2004), 24
Grabovski has been a bit of an enigma for the Habs. With all the speed and talent in the world, he hasn’t been able to translated that prowess to the NHL level. Injuries have hurt, including a high ankle injury akin to the one suffered by Sidney Crosby. So has a solid and successful NHL roster.
“Take a look at the lineup and where are you going to put him?” Timmins said. “The injury set him back a little bit. He dominated in the AHL and proved he can be a scorer.”
In 24 games in Montreal, Grabovski scored three and added six assists. In Hamilton he was dominant with eight goals and 12 assists in 12 games coming back from an injury. In 2006-07, Grabovski had 54 points in 66 games, so the progression is there. Now he’s just got to find a way to crack the NHL roster.
That’s something, thankfully, that Timmins doesn’t have to worry about. “We just provide players – they have the headaches of how to use them,” he added, laughing.
Matt D’Agostini (6th round, 190th overall, 2005), 21
Solid play in Hamilton got this sixth-rounder an NHL call-up. And an ability to play a game similar to an unrestricted free agent not expected to be back next year may get him a roster spot.
“He’s a similar type to Ryder – a goal scorer,” Timmins said. “He’s going to have to improve his play without the puck and have a presence on the ice.
“He’s come a long way in a short period of time.”
D’Agostini scored 23 goals and added 30 assists for the Bulldogs. In one NHL contest, his name only graced the scoresheet in the penalty column.
Players watching playoffs
This season, a number of young prospects made the trip with Montreal through the playoffs. Last year Sergei Kostitsyn, Price, O’Byrne, and Chipchura were among the players who taxied with the club in the late stages of the season. Timmins feels this taste of the pro lifestyle benefits the players long-term.
“They see from being right there watching the games what it takes to compete – each round, each series gets harder to win,” he explained. “It shows you have to pay the price and have the passion it takes to succeed.”
And if the next crop learns its lessons as well as the previous graduating class, then the Habs have high hopes for brighter days in their 100th anniversary season.