While a young trio has stepped to the fore for the Montreal Canadiens this year, a few others also got an opportunity, and a surprise was acquired via trade.
Three young forwards – Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, and Alexander Perezhogin – found a home in la belle province after training camp and showed they were ready to stay. Best of all, these players – and the others that followed – weren’t forced to join the club before they were ready and were able to experience success at their own pace.
“I think overall as a hockey club, we’ve done a good job at developing these players and showing patience in allowing them to develop,” explained Trevor Timmins, the Montreal Canadiens’ Director of Player Personnel. “When they’ve been given the opportunity, they’ve taken advantage of it and it’s been an easy adjustment.”
What Timmins is most pleased with is how the onslaught of rookie success has maximized the return on the team’s veteran core. “At the beginning of the season they pushed the veterans and forced them to bring their ‘A’ game,” he explained.
Center Higgins, a 22-year-old out of Smithtown, NY, paced all rookie scorers on the Habs with a 38-point total that was good enough for seventh overall on the squad. The first-round draft choice (14th overall) in 2002 played in 80 games this season, continuing to grow and develop and show the promise, play, and passion that has had both the team and the fans salivating for years.
“Chris is now playing on the first unit and contributing well,” Timmins said. “Since the Christmas break he’s been absolutely dynamite. In fact, he was scoring in almost every game for a while there.”
Higgins ramped up his production to the point where he became the first first-round pick to net 20 goals since linemate Saku Koivu 10 years ago.
“We knew he could score goals but we didn’t know he could produce at this pace,” Timmins added. “He’s been given the opportunity to contribute on the first and second lines and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity he was given.
“A lot of having good seasons and being able to produce is as much opportunity as anything else. If you never get to play, you’re not going to produce.”
Higgins finished the year at –1, showing a strong commitment to the two-way play that’s seen several observers compare him to his coach, Bob Gainey. With seven power-play goals and three short-handed markers, Higgins has displayed his versatility and his on and off-ice comportment speaks to his leadership abilities.
The New Yorker was joined on the big club out of training camp by two European prospects who enjoyed some success in Montreal: Plekanec and Perezhogin. Plekanec, a 23-year-old winger out of Kladno in the Czech Republic, was enjoying a solid season before a knee injury slowed his progress.
“I don’t think he’s fully recovered from that,” Timmins said. “There’s some validity in the idea that rookies push too hard to come back and try too hard to produce. It can be an added pressure on them.”
Plekanec finished the regular season with nine goals and 29 points overall in 68 games. However, his play tailed off after the injury and the third-round selection from 2001 never caught the lightning in a bottle that fueled his early season exploits.
The third member of this trio, Perezhogin, returned from a one-year enforced exile to Russia following an infamous stick-swinging incident in Hamilton to crack the NHL roster. And while he was able to play on a line with Jaromir Jagr during the lockout year, Timmins said that he felt his development may have been stunted by that experience.
“Playing in Russia last year, the competition wasn’t as intense as if he played at the AHL level,” Timmins added. “This year was a real eye-opener for him as the intensity in these games is huge.
“The bar has been raised for him and he knows what he has to do to reach it.”
Perezhogin enjoyed limited success, netting nine goals and 19 points in 67 games, sandwiched around a stint back in the minors.
Higgins, Plekanec, and Perezhogin were three of the big stories coming out of the Habs’ training camp this year, but there was another story that was no less voluminous – if not for all the wrong reasons. Many fans were up in arms when Gainey traded Marcel Hossa to the New York Rangers for little-regarded Garth Murray. But, to the delight of many, Murray played a key role in the Habs’ drive to the playoffs.
“When we traded for him we were of the opinion that he never got a chance to show what he could do in New York,” Timmins explained. “We needed some sandpaper and grit, and he’s done that, but what he’s also done is he’s added production.
“He did that in junior and it’s been a benefit for us as he’s been able to regain his scoring ability in our system.” With the Regina Pats, Murray twice enjoyed 25+ goal seasons, netting 28 in 2000-01 and a career-high 33 in 2001-02.
Although he only suited up for 37 games, the Regina, SK native netted five goals while throwing his body around and creating space for his teammates. Fast becoming a fan and locker-room favorite, Murray’s given the Canadiens a physical presence it’s been lacking over the past couple of seasons. The 23-year-old winger finished up the season with five goals and 44 penalty minutes this NHL season.
In an injury-filled season, the Canadiens prospects made frequent trips up and down the 401/20 between Montreal and its affiliate in Hamilton. Two of the most-traveled players were Andrei Kostitsyn and Yann Danis.
Kostitsyn, a flashy winger from Belarus, played in 12 games with the big club over the course of several call-ups. While he ended the season with but two goals and one assist, more importantly he finished the year with an understanding of what he needs to work on to make the permanent jump to the NHL.
“He showed that he can play at the NHL level and he showed why we drafted him,” Timmins said, of the Habs first-round (10th overall) pick in 2003. “With that shot of his, when he gets in the slot he’s going to bury it.
“He has to learn how to get himself available. It’s an uphill battle, but he’s finally figured it out. He’s got the size and the strength to do it. He’s not going to be the guy that beats you one on one – he’s going to bull his way through and rifle the shot.”
Danis, the much-heralded netminder, may have hurt himself with his early success and expectations. “It’s all up to Yann now and it’s more of a mental game,” Timmins explained. “All the up-and-down movement was hard on him and I think it took a while for him to get his head on straight after all that happened with our goaltending situation.”
The St-Jerome, QC native, a free-agent signee in 2004, started the season as Jose Theodore’s backup with Cristobal Huet healing an injury. He started off the season well, earning a shutout in his first appearance. Sent down when Huet returned, Danis was recalled when Theodore injured himself on a patch of ice outside his home. Following Theo’s trade and the arrival of David Aebischer in return, Danis found himself back in the Steel City, nursing a bruised ego and facing stiff competition from fellow prospect Jaroslav Halak. In total, Danis appeared in six games, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.69 GAA and a save percentage of .908.
A trio of other rookies made less notable impacts on the club this season: Jean-Phillipe Coté (8 games), Jonathan Ferland (7 games), and Maxim Lapierre (1 game).
“Lapierre’s had a pretty good season in Hamilton and he was rewarded with his call-up,” Timmins explained. “He’s a type of guy who can bring what [Steve] Bégin brings at our level.”
The gritty Lapierre parlayed hard work and defensive responsibility into a one-game call-up and a three-minute cameo performance. Coté averaged 11 minutes a game and finished his eight-game NHL excursion with a +2 rating and a solid performance in bridging the gap while the Canadiens’ blue line was facing injury challenges. And the robust Ferland rang in the New Year with his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. Although he was held without a point after that, his seven-game call-up saw him post a respectable –2 plus/minus figure over an 11-minute per game average.
Timmins said that the solid nucleus of young talent that Montreal has not just at the NHL level, but coming through the ranks in Hamilton, bodes well for the future – especially considering that we’re in the salary cap era.
“It’s difficult in markets like Montreal, Toronto, New York when the pressure is there to win now,” he said. “But in this new landscape you need to come in under the cap and you can’t just trade to improve.
“You have to build well from within and our franchise is reaping the benefits of that commitment.”
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