Canadiens 2008 system audit

By Jason Menard

Years of solid drafting under the Bob Gainey/Trevor Timmins regime have flooded the organization with talent. The first wave of talent has already made it difficult for opposing teams to navigate their way towards success at the Bell Centre. Players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, and Maxim Lapierre are well on their way to being key veterans; Sergei Kostitsyn, Ryan O’Byrne, and the sophomore goaltending duo of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak are poised to take the Canadiens to the next level; and Kyle Chipchura, Matt D’Agostini, Greg Stewart, and the surprising Max Pacioretty may play supportive roles in this season’s 100th campaign.

And while that impressive collection of talent alone would be enough to carry the Habs to the upper echelon of prospect development, it’s the other players who may not be ready for a few seasons who have the talent to ensure that the Habs remain at the top of the NHL standings for years to come.

Centers

 
For years the Canadiens were known as being bereft of depth and size down the middle. While size may still be an issue, the club has seriously improved its depth with a variety of players ranging from offensively gifted long-range prospects, to grittier centers with solid third and fourth-line potential.

The best two players to illustrate the opposite sides of this spectrum are Matthieu Aubin and Kyle Chipchura. The former has struggled to stick at the AHL level, despite an impressive array of offensive moves and potential, while the latter has had a couple of cups of coffee in the NHL, despite limited offensive ability. The reason? A commitment to defense.

Like most NHL teams, the Canadiens demand defensive accountability out of all its forwards — from the first line center, to the reserve in the press box. Evidenced by his recent return to the Canadiens’ line-up following an early season demotion back to Hamilton, Chipchura remains a valued part of the Canadiens’ future, with some suggesting he could be a future captain. He certainly has the pedigree. He was a leader in the WHL, captained a gold-medal winning Team Canada entry at the World Junior Championships, and Chipchura has since been a vital member of the Bulldogs, including participating in their Calder Cup-winning run two seasons ago.

Aubin, on the other hand, is blessed with solid size and incredible hands, but has yet to display the full-game commitment that will see him make the jump to the AHL on a regular basis. However, the organization remains high on Aubin because he has those innate offensive talents that just can`t be taught.

Aubin needs to put it all together soon as the Canadiens have other marquee talent that’s poised to lay claim to his desired roster spot. One of those players is Ben Maxwell — and he is one center who is happy to put his junior career behind him following a pair of injury-filled seasons in the WHL. The Canadiens chose Maxwell with their first of two second-round selections in the 2006 NHL entry draft. The club likes his offensive upside and solid defensive play, all of which are augmented by solid skating ability. Maxwell will have plenty of time to develop, as the club foresees his future as a top-two line player. Starting by showing an ability to avoid freak accidents and complete a full season would help.

Also taken in that draft, albeit one round later, was Ryan White. At the time, White was projected as a late first-rounder, but fell to the Canadiens in the third round. Since then, White has played with a chip on his shoulder, willing to prove doubters wrong — and that chip could carry him to a solid third-line forward role in the NHL. White is an appealing prospect, as he plays a gritty energy game, with the ability to chip in timely goals.

The club gained a bonus prospect. Brock Trotter, who left the University of Denver mid-way through last year’s campaign, was signed to a pro contract by the Canadiens. The club had him on their radar for a couple of seasons and jumped at the chance to acquire the offensively solid forward without having to surrender any assets. Trotter is a solid scorer with good instincts from the blueline in. Like Maxwell, Trotter will have plenty of time to develop in the minor leagues, but is a very high-reward/low-risk asset in the organization.

A pair of 19-year-olds in Olivier Fortier (3rd round, 2007) and Patrick Johnson (7th round, 2008) round out the drafted centers, with the former in his fifth season in the QMJHL and the later entering his second season in the collegiate ranks. The club also obtained Guillaume’s older brother Olivier Latendresse last season in return for Cory Urquhart. And like Urquhart, Latendresse has spent much of his time in the ECHL and will likely remain a depth player. He’s joined in Cincinnati by Ryan Russell, who was obtained by the Habs from the New York Rangers organization in return for a seventh-round selection in 2007.

Left Wing

Quantity, not quality, is the key here. The Canadiens have two premier left-wing talents in the organization in the forms of Sergei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty. Kostitsyn surprised many by joining his older brother Andrei at the NHL level. Gifted with superior passing abilities that are complemented by a willingness to get his nose dirty and play defensive hockey, Sergei has carved out a sizeable niche for himself on the Canadiens roster.

Pacioretty, while currently in Hamilton, made it very difficult for the Canadiens to leave him off the opening-night roster. In fact, the 6’2, 205-pound winger was among the last cuts at training camp and continued his solid progression. The club, impressed with his monumental developmental gains last season, where he scored better than a point-per-game as a rookie with the University of Michigan, signed him to a professional contract after just one season in the collegiate ranks, to help him better develop his game. Pacioretty, the second of two first-round selections in 2007, is looked upon as a power forward in the future and the hope is that he will join Kostitsyn to form the foundation of the Habs offense for years to come.

The remaining left-wing prospects are very much complementary players. Like Kostitsyn (6th round, 2005), Greg Stewart, who joined the NHL club for a stretch at the end of last season, is a late-round pick made good. Selected 246th overall in the 2004 entry draft, Stewart has simply worked his way into the club’s long-term projections. Not a gifted goal scorer, Stewart uses his size and positioning to fight battles along the boards and is willing to go into the corners to compete.

That’s also the resume of the rugged Andrew Conboy. At 6’4, 200 pounds, the Burnsville, MN native has the imposing size to play an enforcing role on the club. However, despite his size and familiarity with the penalty boxes around North America (188 PIMs last season in the USHL), he’s also shown an ability to put the puck in the net, including a 25 goals season in his first year with Omaha. Conboy currently is suiting up for Michigan State University and will look to grow into his size and continue to refine his game. But in a league where intimidation and physicality are returning to vogue, Conboy could be a long-term solution as a replacement to the Georges Laraque of the club.

Right Wing

There is a lot of potential among this quintet of wingers — although whether it goes boom or bust still remains up in the air. The surest bet among them is Matt D’Agostini. Rarely flashy, D’Agostini is a proven, consistent performer who will likely be good for 15 goals a season while being extremely responsible in his own end. The club’s brass is very impressed with D’Agostini’s work, which has resulted in two 20+ goal seasons in the AHL. This year, he’s working at better than a point-per-game rate in Hamilton to start the season and will likely be among the first injury call-ups with the Canadiens should it be required. D’Agostini’s upside remains modest, but he is the type of player that successful teams must have to win.

James Wyman has been in the organization for a number of years and recently graduated out of Dartmouth’s organization to a role with the Bulldogs following a late-season, eight-game sojourn with Hamilton. Again, another power forward prospect in the organization, Wyman has solid size and an ability to put the puck in the net on occasion.

The remainder of the Habs’ right-wing prospects are all of the long-term variety. An 18-year-old, Danny Kristo was selected with the Habs’ first pick in this year’s NHL entry draft, which came in the second round. Solid skating and an ability to move up and down the wing, Kristo is a member of the U.S. development program and has a few years of seasoning (one year of high school and a college commitment in the offing) to work his way through the system. He could develop into a second-line player, or a high-end third-liner.

In the third round this season, the Habs selected 6’4 Steve Quailer. Admittedly very raw, Quailer has years of development ahead of him and is a low-risk, high-reward prospect. He combines solid skating with impressive size — and with 19 goals in his rookie season at the USHL, Quailer has shown he can chip in on the scoresheet in more ways than just racking up penalty minutes.

The final prospect was selected in the fifth round this season and has been described by the organization as a combination of the two Kostitsyn brothers. Truly heady praise, but Trunev has years to live up to those lofty comparisons. A willingness to mix it up with a shot that finds its way to the back of the net, the young Russian could become a vital addition to the roster in the next five years.

Defense

The blueline was once the club’s Achilles heel, but that’s turned around over the past few years through shrewd drafting. The Habs have focused on bolstering their blueline attack — and they’ve done so by adding a variety of defensive types to their roster. From rugged, stay-at-home types to offensively gifted puck movers — and one elite prospect that combines both — the Canadiens’ blueline depth at both the NHL and AHL levels is among the, if not, tops in the league.

One prospect has already made it. The burly Ryan O’Byrne has solidified a roster spot with the Canadiens thanks to his solid defensive play and imposing physical presence. He scored seven points in 33 games, but it was his awareness in his own end and crease-clearing abilities that truly endeared him to the club’s brass. While he will never be among the league’s elite blueliners, he’s a solid anchor on the second pair and should retain that role for years to come.

Heading this heady list is 2007 first-round selection Ryan McDonagh. Combining solid size, an impressive shot, superlative skating abilities, and a two-way game that’s mature for his age, McDonagh projects to a top-two blueliner in the not-too-distant future. In his rookie season, McDonagh totalled 12 points in 40 games with the University of Wisconsin. This year, in addition to taking on a greater leadership role, McDonagh is playing at a point-per-game pace in the first four games of the season. He is also expected to play a key role on Team USA at this year’s World Junior Championships after being passed over last season.

Another player who was a surprise cut from Team USA was the club’s 2006 first-round selection, David Fischer. Joining a stacked University of Minnesota club three years ago, Fischer was a rookie buried on the depth chart, but he made impressive gains last year. This year, as a junior, he’s expected to take on an even greater role and the club is looking to him to fill out his 6’3, 190-pound frame. Fischer is a smart, defensively responsible blueliner with a keen ability to get the puck out of his end. Initial expectations may have been dampened a bit, but he’s still a valuable prospect in the organization.

In regards to offensive-minded blueliners, the club has a pair in the system who are looking to make an impact in Hamilton this season, with one expected to make the jump to the pro ranks soon. Second-year pro Matthieu Carle and rookie Yannic Weber are excellent puck movers who can skate, make solid first passes, and contribute offensively from the back end. The club thought so much of Carle that they manuevered in the second round of the 2006 entry draft to obtain his rights. He’s the prototypical defenseman of today’s NHL, combining speed, superlative passing, and grace in a package that should see him one day be a quarterback on the Habs’ power play.

Weber, on the other hand, may not have the same offensive upside that Carle does, but he plays a more well-rounded overall game. The Swiss rearguard also has displayed a solid leadership streak, leading both last year’s Kitchener Rangers and the Swiss entry to the WJC. The third member of this trio is OHL blueliner P.K. Subban, whose gift for the gab is only matched by his nose for the net. A peripheral member of Canada’s WJC entry last season, Subban is expected to play a larger role this year — akin to the development path of Karl Alzner. Subban has regularly displayed the offensive potential he has quarterbacking the Belleville Bulls’ offense, including a 23-point in 21-game performance during last year’s OHL playoff run.

The club has not just looked to North America (Weber was selected out of the OHL) for its blueliners. They’ve also done an admirable job mining the former Soviet Union — although the long-term prospects for one of their players is currently up in the air. Pavel Valentenko and Alexei Yemelin both play similar types of games. Unfortunately for Yemelin, it’s a game that doesn’t have much place in the Russian league, while Valentenko has found the AHL much more receptive to his style of play. Although, while the league may be more accepting, Valentenko’s opponents have found little to like. In fact, Valentenko is among the league’s most hated — and feared — blueliners, for his penchant of laying out solid checks. They are legal, but they’re often on the outer edge of legal. That said, Valentenko balances his booming hits with a booming shot — earning honors as the AHL’s hardest shot last year. Yemelin, in a cloak-and-dagger operation that ended with the player re-signing in Russia after the Habs had thought they’d secured his rights, has languished in Russia, spending more time in the penalty box than on the ice. Both players would be valuable depth defensemen at the NHL level — playing the fourth to sixth role perfectly — but the difference is that Valentenko is likely to realize that dream; Yemelin may have bartered himself out of his chance.

The Canadiens also obtained a veteran prospect in return for the disappointing Corey Locke in the form of former Minnesota prospect Shawn Belle. While not possessing the upside of some of the other members of this organization, Belle is likely to be among the first few blueline call-ups to the Habs, in light of his experience in the professional ranks.

There are a number of other, longer-term, prospects in the organization, drafted over the years. These players include: Scott Kishel, Gregg Pateryn (obtained from the Maple Leafs in return for Mikhail Grabovski), Phillipe Paquet, Joe Stejskal, and Nichlas Torp.

Goaltending

While the discussion of elite prospects within the Canadiens’ organization doesn’t end with goaltending, between the pipes is certainly where it begins. And the first name on that list is Carey Price. Recently named Hockey’s Future’s No. 2 overall prospect, Price could one day be among the league’s elite puckstoppers — and that day may be coming soon. There has been some discussion in the media that Price could be named to the Canadian 2010 Olympic entry, and while that may be premature, the projections of greatness for Price certainly don’t seem to be out of place.

Price has played at an elite level at every stop along the way. He almost single-handedly kept a bad WHL squad in contention for years, before backstopping Team Canada to world junior gold. He then ended his junior career with a call-up to the AHL and a Calder Cup victory. In both the WJC and the Calder Cup he was named MVP. Last year, he backstopped the Habs to the top record in the Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff victory.

With a calm that belies his intense passion for the game, Price combines elite physical abilities with a sound understanding of fundamentals and positioning — a combination that should see him remain the starter in la belle province for years to come.

That said, there is certainly one person who is willing to challenge Price for that title — Jaroslav Halak. The Slovakian netminder could very well be considered goalie 1B in the Habs organization, and likely would challenge for a starting role on many teams throughout the league. A year older than Price, Halak has displayed the poise and mental make-up that leaves the club confident in entrusting its fate to a pair of sophomore players. Like Price, Halak has excellent athleticism and knows how to play the puck. For the immediate future he provides a welcome support system between the Montreal pipes, although his long-term happiness as a backup has yet to be determined.

Cedrick Desjardins is a feel-good story for anyone who loves the underdog. Undrafted out of Quebec in the QMJHL (where he backstopped the club to a Memorial Cup, and earned tournament MVP honors in the process), Desjardins worked his way through the Canadiens’ minor league system starting in the ECHL and working his way up the ranks to Hamilton. With Price and Halak ahead of him, Desjardins serves as a capable depth goaltender, learning the craft behind recent veteran signee Marc Denis.

The Canadiens also added two more goaltenders to the system this season who are currently playing in the CHL. They drafted towering Jason Missiaen, a 6’7 goaltender who is splitting duties with Trevor Cann in Peterborough. Missiaen last season was Cann’s backup and is looking to get in more games this season, a fact that will be facilitated should the Petes trade their veteran, as expected. And in late September, the Habs signed free agent Robert Mayer, a goalie with dual Swiss/Czech citizenship, who currently plays for the St. John Sea Dogs and represented the Swiss squad in last year’s WJCs. Both goalies are welcome additions to an organization that lost a pair of netminders through trades and attrition last year in Cristobal Huet and Yann Danis. Missiaen and Mayer will have plenty of time to develop and represent solid depth and excellent value for the club.

Production

The proof is in the big club’s first-overall standing last season and the impressive early season start this year. Key youthful contributors to the club include Guillaume Latendresse (who bypassed the AHL and jumped straight from junior), O’Byrne, the Kostitsyn brothers, Max Lapierre, Chris Higgins, and Tomas Plekanec playing key roles — many as top-two forwards, the club’s prospects have allowed them to take chances.

Last season, due to the solid play of Price and Halak, the club peddled its starting netminder for a second-round selection next year. And due to the phenomenal depth in the system, the club was comfortable trading its first-round selection for instant production in the form of Alex Tanguay.

Overall

Starting between the pipes and moving forward, the Canadiens have a very strong contingent of prospects. These players are spread throughout the hockey-playing world: from the NHL to the AHL to junior league; in North America and overseas.

What the Canadiens have done is set themselves up for a continual renewal of young, inexpensive talent to fill out their NHL roster for the foreseeable future. In the salary cap era, it is important to be able to replace talent as it either becomes too expensive or redundant. As much as the Habs can be considered contenders now, the seeds they’ve sown throughout their minor league and farm system ensures that they’ll enjoy the fruits of their labor for years to come.