Following a season of upheaval that saw a bevy of talented rookies crack the big-league roster, this season for the Montreal Canadiens is more about maintaining the status quo and building upon the foundation set last year.
Of course, while that stability is a boon for the team’s expected performance, it likely means a bad news for a talented group of young players in the Canadiens’ farm system. And while the short-term pain for these players may be acute, a more measured approach to allowing prospects to develop should pay off long-term for both the players and the franchise.
Last season, opportunity certainly was knocking loudly as there were a number of jobs up for grabs with the big club. And dynamic prospects like Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, and Alexander Perezhogin stepped up and answered the call. In addition, Garth Murray was a late-season call-up who impressed and stuck with the club, while goaltending prospect Yann Danis rode a roller-coaster of injuries, trades, and call-ups shuttling between Hamilton and Montreal.
This year, the door appears to be more firmly shut. For a prospect to break camp with the club, he is going to have to steal a job from a veteran. The Habs’ top four lines are pretty much set, especially with the addition of players Sergei Samsonov and Mike Johnson. The blue line has some depth, although the injury to Francis Bouillon may open up a spot on a trial basis. And a goaltending prospect’s hopes look pretty grim, as the Habs currently have two NHL-starting caliber netminders on the big-league roster. Barring a trade later in the season, most players will be auditioning for the future.
Indeed, this fact has been evidenced by the Habs taking on a greater role in their AHL franchise. Although they’ve signed a player-share agreement with the Edmonton Oilers, it will be nowhere near as extensive as last year’s arrangement and will only see two or three Edmonton prospects in Hamilton. The rest of the roster spots have been reserved for Canadiens prospects.
Yet one can never say never to a youngster making the NHL roster. Last year, forward Guillaume Latendresse (2nd round, 2005) took a solid run at the NHL with an outstanding training camp. This year, after an offseason that’s turned heads for all the right reasons, Latendresse will try to crack the roster again. He’ll be joined by Andrei Kostitsyn as the two Habs prospects most likely to break camp. However, both of these players would only benefit from playing on the top two lines at the NHL level, and their development would be better served by a year of junior and AHL experience, respectively.
Ironically, the top-end prospects may find it harder to crack the NHL roster than the lower-end players. In addition to such blue-chip prospects like Latendresse, Kostitsyn, and Kyle Chipchura, the Canadiens are blessed with a bevy of workhorse players who could step up and grab a role on the third or fourth lines. And while those spots seem to be set going into the season, players like Francis Lemieux and Jonathan Ferland may be able to latch onto a roster spot – and are certain to be injury call-ups.
On the blueline, a pedestrian crop of defensemen may have the opportunity, but not the wherewithal to claim a roster spot. Ryan O’Byrne signed his first professional contact this year, forsaking his final year at Cornell, but this training camp will be about him acclimatizing to the NHL game.
Finally, in net, the Habs are pretty much set this year, next year, and for the foreseeable future. With Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer manning the pipes in Montreal, Danis will most likely begin the season as the No. 1 in Hamilton. However, he will enter the Habs’ training camp to prove that he’s ready to assume at least a back-up role in Montreal – and give the club the confidence to explore any potential trades later in the season.
But while Danis will be looking forward in camp, he’ll have to ensure that he’s got an eye on the rear-view mirror as Jaroslav Halak is nipping at his heels. The Slovakian netminder shook off injuries last season and made an impression with his stint in Hamilton.
In addition to enviable depth at the NHL level, the Canadiens’ prospects also face the reality of a new CBA which incentivizes keeping players in the minor leagues longer. Essentially, with unrestricted free agency available after a number of years of service, it behooves clubs to delay calling up their prospects until such time as they’re ready. A player is more valuable to the team at 27 than 19. Because of that, patience is no longer just a virtue – it’s an essential component of sound franchise management.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.