Although the club missed out on a playoff berth in the last game of the regular season, when it comes to the development of the Montreal Canadiens’ future, this season was – hands down – a success.
From a highly prized rookie successfully dealing with the burden of unrealistic expectations, to an unheralded Slovakian netminder whose meteoric rise was the spark that rekindled once-dormant playoff hopes, to an energy player who made an entire city, and an oft-cynical media, fall in love with him, the Canadiens reaped the benefits of superlative contributions from key prospects.
But the harvest reaped this season was sown by years of recent diligence at the draft table.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth in the past and that’s what hurt this club,” explained Montreal’s Director of Player Recruitment and Development Trevor Timmins. “Now we’re starting to build up depth and when we call these players up, they’re not just occupying a roster spot – they’re playing a role.
“We’re seeing players come up, play on the first, second, and third lines, and perform!”
The most heralded rookie addition to the club this season was 19-year-old forward Guillaume Latendresse (2nd round, 45th overall, 2005). After impressing the club last season at the tender age of 18, the Ste-Catherine, QC native made it impossible for the coaching staff and management to send him back to junior this season with a superlative training camp.
As a Quebecer, Latendresse had to deal with the often unrealistic expectations placed upon him by a rabid fan base that’s been dying for a hometown hero. “I think any French Canadian player is going to have it tougher playing in Montreal, but he handled himself well,” Timmins said. “This season he’s matured both physically and in the way he thinks the game and that’s only going to help him in the future.”
After a solid start, Latendresse’s production tailed off a bit as the season wore on. In the end he finished 10th on the club in scoring with 16 goals and 13 assists in 81 games. He averaged 12:27 minutes per game and saw some time on the power play, chipping in with five goals. And while some still question whether Latendresse should have stayed in the NHL for the entire season, the answer is clear to Timmins.
“No way would he have been better served in junior and if anyone thinks otherwise, I have a lot to say about that,” he explained. “If he goes back to junior, he’s never going to improve on his weaknesses because he’ll still be able to get away with it at that level with his talent.
“With his size, he’s physically ready to play in the NHL. He couldn’t go back and play that physical game in junior – he’d get called for too many penalties because it’d be like a man playing amongst boys.”
And while the opportunity to dominate and gain confidence is often cited as a reason to send player back to the junior ranks, that was an issue that didn’t need to be taken into consideration. “His confidence has never been an issue – ever,” Timmins said.
Timmins added that Latendresse showed much of his potential when he was able to fill a role on the top line. “When he was given an opportunity to play Saku [Koivu]’s line, he showed what he was,” he said. “That line continued to perform at the same rate with him on it, so it certainly wasn’t hurt by his presence.”
With a full year under his belt, both physically and mentally, Latendresse should make a serious impact on the Habs roster next season.
While Latendresse was an expected addition to the Habs’ party, Slovakian netminder Jaroslav Halak (9th round, 271st overall, 2003) barged through the door and became a more-than-welcome door crasher. And his superlative late-season play filling in for an injured Cristobal Huet and an ineffective David Aebischer almost propelled the Canadiens into the postseason.
“I’m not surprised with the way Jaro played,” Timmins said. “What I am surprised at is that it happened so quickly. I mean, last year he was in the East Coast league and now he’s in the NHL.”
Exceeding expectations is becoming the expected for Halak. Last year, he finished the year with a number of eye-catching performances in Hamilton, announcing that Yann Danis’ starting job wasn’t safe. This year, he was arguably the top netminder in the AHL, was an all-star, and had firmly wrested the No. 1 spot from Danis before getting a late-season call-up to Montreal. It was in there that his legend grew.
In 16 games, Halak posted a 10-6 record behind a 2.89 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Those numbers compared favorably to his AHL season totals of 16-11 in 29 games, with an even 2.00 GAA and a .932 save percentage. And while Halak’s late-season surge had pundits hearkening back to former rookie Canadiens Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, Timmins explained that his success comes from his ability to listen to another former Habs netminder (well, for nine games).
“He’s a student of the game and he pays attention to detail,” Timmins explained. “He’s been an excellent student for Rollie Melanson.”
With the expected arrival of Carey Price (1st round, 5th overall, 2005) in Hamilton next season and the expected departure of the free-agent Aebischer, Halak looks to have a solid lock on at least a backup position in Montreal next year.
The third key rookie contributor this season was a player who doesn’t often find himself on the score sheet, but is often in the thoughts – and nightmares – of opposition players. Not only that, St-Laurent, QC native Maxim Lapierre (2nd round, 61st overall, 2003) has worked his way into the hearts of fans, pundits, and front office staff alike.
“Maxim will do everything he can to win,” Timmins said. “We don’t have a lot of guys like him and he brings a dimension that we don’t have even at the big-league level.”
In 46 games, Lapierre accounted for only six goals and six assists, averaging just over 11 minutes per game. But his grit, defensive awareness, and infectious enthusiasm spilled out on every shift. He rapidly became a fan favourite and the Montreal media lauded his overall contributions to the game.
“You need all types of players to be a team,” Timmins explained. “You can’t just have all finesse guys and Maxim brings that grit to the team. – that’s the type of athlete he is.”
Former first-rounder Andrei Kostitsyn (10th overall, 2003) may not have barged through the door like Halak did, but he knocked often enough to announce his arrival for next season.
The young Belarusian turned the corner in his development this season, Timmins explained.
“Andrei was behind developmentally a little bit because he stayed back a year [overseas],” he said. “Now, when I see him off the ice, he looks like a different athlete.
“He’s fit and he has that hunger.”
In 22 games, Kostitsyn only found the back of the net once, but added 10 assists in an average of approximately 13-and-a-half minutes per game. Most impressively, he finished his NHL campaign a +3 – evidence that organizational requests to play better away from the puck have been applied.
“He’s improved in that respect,” Timmins said. “He needs to continue on the path he’s on and he’ll definitely compete for a job next year.”
While he posted solid numbers in the AHL this year, scoring 21 goals and adding 31 assists in 50 games with Hamilton, he wasn’t able to find a home in Montreal – called up and sent down repeatedly and bouncing from line to line. Timmins added that consistency will help his development.
“A big part of it is opportunity,” he said. “And I feel a guy needs 20 solid games to really get adjusted to the league.”
There were two other Habs rookies this season – one an old familiar face and the other an exciting newcomer who burst onto the scene. Turn of the century draftee Duncan Milroy (2nd round, 37th overall, 2001) finally tasted life in the big leagues after four full years in the AHL. He appeared in five games, getting his name on the score sheet with an assist. In Hamilton, Milroy dominated with a professional-best 58 points buoyed by 25 goals in 64 games. Timmins said the club had a hint in the offseason that something may be in the offing.
“His fitness testing scores were up this summer,” he explained. “It showed us that he did his homework.
“He figured something out this offseason – something triggered and he’s a better player for it.”
Conversely, it didn’t take Mikhail Grabovski (5th round, 150th overall, 2004) long to make a jump from Hamilton to Montreal. In just his first season in North America, the young Belarusian appeared in three NHL games. While he was held pointless, he dazzled fans and coaches alike with his blazing speed and deft moves with the puck.
“He’s not a surprise,” Timmins said. “He has been one of the better players at the men’s World Championships and he was one of the top players in the Russian league.”
In 66 AHL games, Grabovski netted 17 goals and added 37 points despite suffering a shoulder injury in his first NHL preseason game. He also showed that he doesn’t just have an elite set of wheels – he’s got the frame and the horsepower to move at the NHL level.
“He has dimensional, high-end speed and he’s got the tough skills you need,” Timmins said. “He’ll compete for a job next year.”
These six players represent just the latest infusion of youth to a Habs roster that already includes promising youth such as Tomas Plekanec (3rd round, 71st overall, 2001), Chris Higgins (1st round, 14th overall, 2002), and Mike Komisarek (1st round, 7th overall, 2001). And with Price, Kyle Chipchura (1st round, 18th overall, 2004), and Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round, 71st overall, 2003) amongst those hearing opportunity knocking next year, the Habs appear deep in promising youngsters. But that infusion of youthful talent is key to the success of any franchise under the new CBA, Timmins explained.
“With the new system it’s vital for your team to have young players to play on your NHL club,” he said. “You have to have people on their entry-level contracts or in their second contract who are young and able to contribute effectively. If you can do that, it allows you the freedom to sign higher-priced free agents to complement your squad.
“You need to continually keep stocking the cupboard with talent.”
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