Saturday, June 25, 2011

Assessing Habs Class of 2011

Admittedly, my first reaction to the overall Montreal Canadiens draft class this weekend was one of frustration. I went in looking for the Habs to pick up some help offensively, particularly from some big bodies who could win battles in the corners and would go to the net. That was the basis of a previous article on this site which included my top 10 hopefuls for Montreal's first round pick. Two forwards (one of whom is 5'11") and 5 defensemen later, clearly my wishes did not come true. Nor did my hopes of picking up a 2nd rounder or finding a taker for Jaroslav Spacek's contract. Now that it's all settled in, however, the Canadiens did do a reasonable job of adding some at least intriguing names to their prospect cupboard, and we'll take you through them one-by-one.

But before we do, let's talk draft strategy. With a few rare exceptions (e.g. Jeff Skinner, Cam Fowler...), few players outside the Top 3-5 are able to make a jump straight from being drafted to the NHL. Most players require 2-4 years before they play their first game with the club that selected them. This has a few ramifications, most importantly being that a team should not draft based on what they were lacking in the previous NHL season. The draft is not where you find that kind of help. For immediate assistance, call free agency or the trade line.

While drafting is not a science, it does require a lot of preparatory work. Certainly all teams will come in saying their position is to take the "Best Player Available" (BPA), but a club must also consider where that player will fit in the organization. This means having an idea of what your team MIGHT look like some 3-5 years down the road. Pierre Gauthier wasn't wrong when he said Thursday night that he felt Montreal would be able to get a Top 10 talent at pick #17, but whoever that player would be would definitely require some time before paying off.

So what DID Montreal need? Looking at last season, the lack of NHL talent depth on defense was apparent when injuries struck, forcing Gauthier to give up valuable picks to get first James Wisniewski, and then later Paul Mara and Brent Sopel. Looking at next season, depending on what happens with the unrestricted free agents slated to leave the team, the situation hasn't much changed, with Alexei Yemelin and Raphael Diaz representing wildcards which no one is certain how will perform. But of course, as we've stated, the draft is NOT for fixing short-term problems.

Offensively, the team definitely needed help scoring goals 5 on 5. The issue of team toughness was also raised, so the team should be looking for some size and muscle (not necessarily in the form of a traditional "enforcer"). Clearly, then, there is a glaring need up front as well.

One would assume the situation in 'nets was adequate, but hold on there. What if (knock on wood) anything were to happen to Carey Price? There is no one in the organization who would be qualified to start many consecutive games (despite a few capable back-ups) and seemingly absolutely no potential starters in the pipeline. So this may be a need as well.

Next we turn to some prospects the team did have. There appears to be a never-ending list of potential third and fourth liners whose ability to creep into the Top 6 has yet to be decided. We're talking about players like Andreas Engqvist, Aaron Palushaj, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Louis Leblanc, Danny Kristo, Alexander Avtsin, and Joonas Nattinen. A nice group that will produce some solid players, but no guaranteed 25+ goal scorers in the lot either. The blueline prospects are led by last year's first rounder Jarred Tinordi, but include a number of "project" types with plenty of potential: Mac Bennett, Greg Pateryn, Brendan Nash, and Morgan Ellis. The group as a whole is slanted more towards offensive puck-movers than shutdown guys (with Tinordi a notable exception), so again team toughness can be raised as an issue.

When we put all this together, what do we see? The Canadiens big a few big offensive players. They have lots of "safe" future NHL-ers, but lack in top end quality. So I wanted to see them take risks on a guy who *might* someday pop 30. Draft a player in the mold of Milan Lucic or Erik Cole. And even just a guy who could drop his gloves when needed but also take a regular shift. It seemed these were areas where our future was weak. There was no need for offensive blueliners when more time and effort could be spent on developing the potential within the system in guys like Bennett and Ellis.

Then, the first round happened. At 17, there were two targets I had in mind: Mark Scheifele and Mark McNeill. Big, offensively gifted, right-handed centermen don't coming along very often and are difficult to acquire. Certainly the Canadiens haven't had one in quite some time. When Scheifele went 7th overall to the Winnipeg Jets, I crossed my fingers that McNeill would slip to our pick. And he did. I waited for Trevor Timmins to pronounce the words "From the Prince Albert Raiders...", but instead, this happened:

The Montreal Canadiens select defenseman Nathan Beaulieu 17th overall

I was shaken at first, as Beaulieu doesn't appear to fill any short- or long-term needs. Admittedly, it was surprising that he had fallen to us, as many had Beaulieu in the top 10 or 12 picks of the draft. Certainly, it can't be a bad thing that he's a smooth skating 6'2" defenseman drawing comparisons to P.K. Subban. Even if there is no immediate need for that, it is a top notch asset for the organization. However, we must consider that he played for the top junior team in Canada in Saint John, so it remains to be seen how much that impacted his numbers and performance. "He's not even French!" I yelled at my television, against anyone who would suggest it was important to take him to meet a francophone quota in the organization. And with identical stats in each of the last 2 years, he hasn't shown much progress or growth. My heart sank a little deeper when the Chicago Blackhawks snatched up McNeill with the very next pick at 18. But if you want to get a little excited about Beaulieu, check out some articles:

Well, MAYBE this pick won't turn out so badly after all. MAYBE.... :)
Who We Would Have Chosen: Mark McNeill

Unfortunately, the Canadiens were unable to pick up a 2nd rounder despite it seeming like Pierre Gauthier was constantly in active discussions with other general managers. It was extra unfortunate given that names like Tomas Jurco and Boone Jenner were still available, players whose profiles met my wants.

But that's ok. The scouting staff would make up for it with our third rounder, right? They had the potential to with some boom-or-bust high skill types still on the board. But then the third rounder was gone. Swapped to Winnipeg for two fourths. Now I have no problem with trading up in the first or 2nd rounder by sacrificing other picks, but it seems a little counterproductive to trade out of a third rounder, considering that top 2 round skilled players are the best bets to make the big leagues, and your last chance to grab such a player with reasonable certainty is generally round 3. But clearly the Habs didn't like anyone on the board and felt their picks would still be there in round 4.

Montreal selects defenseman Josiah Didier with the 97th overall pick

And they were right. Because Didier was way off the board and MIGHT have even still been there in a later round. MIGHT. And he's another defenseman. "Who?" was my first reaction, but a quick Google search reminded me that Didier was seen as a possible sleeper by some and might be a nice project.
But another project blueliner? Doesn't seem like what we want to add to our system. Especially when there was a guy still on the board who looks - at worse - to be a Shawn Thornton type, with the potential to end up like a Lucic, and is who I would have grabbed.
Who We Would Have Chosen: Kale Kessy

Oh... this guy can hit and fight you say? Wellll maybe he'll fit in with the Habs some day...

So how about our next pick? A big forward please?

With the 108th selection, the Montreal Canadiens take LW Olivier Archambault

Yes! Finally! Our new power forward to terrorize opposing defensemen coming in off the wing! Wait... what's that you say? 5'11", 176 lbs? Right... never mind. Producing below a point-per-game in the notoriously offensive QMJHL, Archambault will need some work if he's ever to be a top 6 player. That's not to say he won't develop... he was, after all, a former 1st overall selection in the QMJHL draft. And hey, if his offense isn't there, maybe he can be a good third liner. Until he listed his defensive game as the top area he feels he needs to improve.
So... you're saying maybe the kid DOES have hands after all? Well, let's leave it as next season is a big one for the kid that will be very telling for his future. He needs to put up impressive numbers, as that will be his bread and butter towards earning a contract from the Canadiens.
Who We Would Have Chosen: Seth Ambroz

But wait! Ambroz is still on the board by the time our next selection comes around! There's still a chance to draft the 6'2" winger!

The Montreal Canadiens select defenseman Magnus Nygren with the 113th pick

You're kidding me, right? Another blueliner. My first reaction was to look him up. Birthdate: June 1990. That must be a mistake. No? It's not? A 21-year old Swedish defenseman? Well he's 6'1", so that's reasonable size, and... hey... wait a minute. Check out theses stats! For a 21-year old blueliner already playing in the Swedish Elite League, 15 points in 22 regular season games and another 10 in 14 post-season contests is quite an impressive feat. Still, not thrilled at taking yet another offensive defenseman, but at least this one looks like an underrated asset that may be NHL-ready sooner rather than later. It will be interesting if the Habs brass tries to bring him over to Hamilton immediately or lets him stay in the SEL. Based on Gauthier's comments after the draft, it sounds likely to be one more year in Sweden and then over to North America.

Well... that WAS a pretty sick pass.
Who We Would Have Chosen: Max Friberg

But Friberg slips some more and is still on the board when we make our 5th round selection. He may only be 5'11", but he shows significant potential upside. Soooo here we go!

With the 138th pick, the Montreal Canadiens select defenseman Darren Dietz

Yep. D-E-F-E-N-S-E-M-A-N. Can't lie, though, despite the number of d-men we chose, I quite like this pick. Dietz is a Canadian kid playing in the WHL and coming off a great season where he established himself as a top 4 guy on the Saskatoon back end. At 6'1", he is big enough to compete, and his 27 regular season plus 5 playoff points show a hint at some offensive potential. In the 5th round, to get a guy who shows this many positive signs means a potential steal, so I'll gladly take another project of an asset, knowing he's on the right path.
Who We Would Have Chosen: Philippe Hudon

Oh... and he can hit... and fight. Sign me up.

At pick 168, the Montreal Canadiens select center Daniel Pribyl

And the clouds part, and the sun shines down. A 6'3", right-handed Czech centerman who tore up the Czech junior league last year with 54 points in 39 games. There he is, your big boom-or-bust forward selection. Apparently being courted by both KHL clubs and the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL, perhaps countryman Tomas Plekanec can help to influence him over to North America sooner rather than later so that the Habs can keep a watchful eye on this possible diamond in the rough.

And one last pick to go. Another like Pribyl please!

With their 7th round selection, the Montreal Canadiens take defenseman Colin Sullivan

Admittedly, 7th rounders rarely have great futures ahead of them (would have been nice to nab Patric Hornqvist a few years back, though). So it almost felt like rubbing salt in the wounds when the Habs reached for yet another d-man, and one who even describes himself as an "offensive defenseman." Post-draft interviews showed a confident (bordering on cocky) young man who believes he has all the tools to take it to the next level. At 6'0", he is a mobile skater, who will play one last year in the USHL before moving on to Yale for college hockey, so evidently the term Project applies once again. Oh well, what can you do. Hopefully young Sullivan's mindset will allow him to visualize himself to success.
Who We Would Have Chosen: Benjamin Conz

So there you have it. Your class of 2011. To all those who overreacted and called for Timmins and Gauthier to be axed immediately, take a step back and look at the players that were added. Gauthier has shown he isn't afraid to make a trade, so if we end up with a surplus in one area - particularly d-men where there is always a high demand - he can move from a position of power. The truth is, a lot of these guys have the skills to be NHL players and so long as they develop as projected, this could end up being a very strong draft class for the organization.

No, we still haven't found our 30 goal powerforward. That may be a while. But no matter what, the organization is better off today than it was at the start of the weekend, and the future looks just a little brighter.

Now, Mr. Gauthier, off to an important week for the nearer future of the club with free agency to begin next Friday at noon!

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