For three straight years the Montreal Canadiens have gone south to get better.
Chris Higgins, added with the 14th overall selection of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, gives the Canadiens one more solid American prospect to add to its collection.
He joins an already impressive list of U.S. Collegiate players plucked in the first round of each of previous two drafts by the Habs. Ron Hainsey, 15th overall in 2000, and Mike Komisarek, 7th overall in 2001, mark the other highly touted American prospects currently making waves in the Habs’ system. Hainsey was an American Hockey League All-Star this past season with Montreal’s farm team in Quebec, while Komisarek rounded out his game this past season at Michigan University by adding an offensive element to his play. Andre Savard, the Canadiens’ general manager, says he expects both of those players to attend training camp.
The scouting report on Higgins, currently attending Yale University, isn’t an overly impressive one at first glance. He doesn’t own an amazing set of wheels, doesn’t break the all-too-important six-foot barrier and he won’t make defenders look like fools with this deft stickhandling.
But instead of focusing on his negatives, Savard and his scouting staff chose to see the positives, which landed him the distinction of the ninth ranked North American skater by the Central Scouting Bureau.
“He can chip in offensively and has a good base of talent,” says Savard. “He’s not extremely talented, that’s for sure. But he’s strong in tight and he’s got a consistent work ethic.
“Above average is pretty good and above average in a lot of areas plus a really good work ethic – that’s pretty good, and I like that.”
Savard says he came away impressed with Higgins after seeing him excel at the 2002 World Junior Hockey Championships held in the Czech Republic. Higgins’ four-goal and two-assist performance in seven games earned him several subsequent scouting trips from the Canadiens’ staff. To ensure the team got its man, the Habs then packaged an eighth round draft choice to the Edmonton Oilers in able to move up one spot and nab him.
“He had a good show at the World [Junior] Championships and that left a good taste,” says Savard. “From there, we evaluated him where we took him.”
“That was a big step for me,” says Higgins about his play at the WJHC. “I felt really confident that I was going to play well at the tournament and I played with some really great players over there. We had a great tournament as a team and I think that helped me.”
Higgins’ overall speed is not exceptional, but his skating proved strong enough an asset to help him produce at a healthy clip on the large international ice surface.
“It’s a bigger ice surface over there and speed becomes a factor and I guess that’s what they were looking for,” he says. “I want to get faster but I’m working really hard to improve on that this summer.”
By adding Higgins, the highest draft pick in Yale history, the Canadiens continued to bolster their system with talented Americans. But, both Higgins and Savard denied the pattern was anything outside of coincidence.
“It was like, here we go again, but it was coincidence and that’s how it is in the draft,” says Savard. “You can go and pick Europeans for three straight years, or go and take three Americans in a row like we just did. That’s just how it is, it doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they’re the best player you have ranked.”
“I think they’re just looking for hard working kids and I know Mike’s that and I know I am,” says Higgins. “We give it all every shift.”
The fact Komisarek and Higgins were good friends growing up was also a coincidence.
“I skated with him five days a week before school some times,” says Higgins. “We’re pretty close and played on teams growing up together. He started a little bit later than me and we haven’t played on a team together in a while, except at the World Juniors.”
Higgins says those practices, and trying to avoid the massive frame of Komisarek, helped him improve his work along the boards and his drive to get the puck.
“He’s a lot when you go against him one on one in the corner,” Higgins says with a laugh. “He’s definitely got a lot of skill and talent and he’s a big guy.
“(Practicing with him) made me a better player as far as getting away from him in the corners and stuff like that.”
After compiling 29 points and 32 penalty minutes in 25 games in his first year at Yale, Higgins plans on returning to the school for at least one more year. He believes he really benefited from the coaching of Tim Taylor at the school and could still learn a lot from his coach.
“He helped me out a lot this year,” says Higgins, who plans to focus on strengthening his body to prepare for the grind of the larger NHL schedule. Though listed at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, Higgins has a combination of large hands and feet that would suggest he’s not done growing yet.
Savard also thinks Higgins will be back in school for the upcoming year, but doesn’t foresee a long timetable for him before fans will be able to see him in the NHL.
“If he wants to keep going to school that’s OK,” says Savard, who says the wait shouldn’t be too long. “We have confidence that in two or three years this guy will be in the NHL.”
There is no doubt that Savard’s prediction is just that: a somewhat educated, maybe hopeful guess that GM’s are obliged to take part in. But after shaking hands with Higgins, feeling a strong grip you’d assume belonged to a 30-year-old and having him look you square in the eyes with the confidence of a veteran, you know where this kid gets the label of an “honest player.”
He’s a worker and a competitor, and it just may be what the Habs need to bring back the glory years.