Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Restocking the Cupboard #1: Holding Steady - Fantastic Four

Welcome to the first installment of Restocking the Cupboard, a five week mini-series going live every Wednesday leading up to the NHL Entry Draft taking place June 22-23.  With the graduations of the likes of Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, and P.K. Subban over the past couple of years, combined with the trading of multiple 2nd round selections, Montreal's prospect system has thinned out considerably.  Yes, there are some interesting names turning pro in the Fall, but the organization needs some padding, particularly at forward and between the pipes.

Fortunately, Montreal is in a good position to do a lot of restocking at this very draft, with the third overall pick and a bonus second rounder obtained from Nashville in the Hal Gill trade.  For the first 3 installments, we'll look specifically at that third overall first round selection and Montreal's options with it.  Today we'll go in-depth about the only four players the team should or could be realistically considering in that spot, while next week we'll discuss the possibility of trading down, and in 2 weeks we'll look at what it might take to move up and whether or not it would be worth it.

With that said, today we will take an in-depth look at the four players who could become Canadiens on the draft's Friday evening if the team holds steady at #3.  Here's my take on each of the players and the pros and cons of selecting them.

Mikhail Grigorenko - Center - Quebec Remparts, QMJHL
6'2", 200 lbs - Shoots L
Central Scouting - 3rd (North America); Future Considerations - 4th; The Hockey News - 3rd;

A lot has been said about Grigorenko this season.  Entering the season, there was excitement that Grigorenko had chosen to spend the year in North America, debuting as a rookie for Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL.  Some had him as a possible contender for the top pick, looking to dislodge Nail Yakupov.  It's hard to call a season of 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games, and another 10 points in 11 playoff games, all the while earning awards as the league's Top Rookie and Top Professional Prospect, disappointing.  But rather than see his stock rise, the questions about him have multiplied.

Let's start with the good.  Grigorenko came to the Q as a winger, but under Roy's tutelage, made a successful transition to center early on this season, even improving his face-off skills over the course of the year.  His big frame will provide size down the middle to whoever drafts him, and that is something the Canadiens could certainly use.  But despite his body, he doesn't play a power game.  Nor is he a speedster (not that his skating is a problem).  His game is high-end skill, with quick hands and good hockey sense, both as a playmaker and sniper.  Think the way Joe Thornton is a productive NHL'er, but more of a balanced offensive toolkit rather than an elite passer.  Though Roy himself indicated another year in the Q might be beneficial for the young Russian, if he can impress whoever drafts him in training camp, he already has the physical maturity to make the jump to the big league, which is something that can't necessarily be said about the other three below.

So what scares those who watch Grigorenko play about his NHL future?  First, he struggles with consistency, looking disengaged or unmotivated at times.  He has been accused of scoring the majority of his points against weaker opposition, and coasting/floating with important games on the line.  Some feel the lack of necessary intangibles (e.g. desire, work ethic...) will keep him from reaching his star upside, though scouts are divided on that; there are some who want nothing to do with him on draft day, and others who blame his disinterest on his being a man among boys in the QMJHL.  It was announced at the end of his team's season that Grigorenko had been battling mononucleosis, and some were quick to attribute this to a weaker-than-expected playoff performance on his part, so perhaps there are enough viable reasons to dismiss some of the fears about his future.

That would be all fine if those were the only concerns.  However, though Grigorenko played this season in Quebec, there have been murmurs coming out of Russia throughout the season that his former club CSKA still feels they have a legitimate claim to have him under contract.  Whether or not that is the case, further stories indicate that they will push hard to have him return home to play in the KHL as soon as next season.  The "Russian fear," if you will, has caused many clubs to pass on high potential prospects early in drafts before, and combined with the other concerns, this makes Grigorenko a risky selection.

In summary, Grigorenko is undoubtedly a potential future star.  But there are a lot of question marks to be resolved before he gets to that point.  Can the Canadiens risk gambling their highest pick in quite some time on such a player?  Or are they better off with a safer option?  Feel free to weigh in down below.

Alex Galchenyuk - Center - Sarnia Sting, OHL
6'1", 198 lbs - Shoots L
Rankings: Central Scouting - 4th (North America); Future Considerations - 2nd; The Hockey News - 7th;

There were both doubts and intrigue surrounding Galchenyuk at the start of the year, another player in the discussion as a top 2 or 3 selection.  While he is of Russian ethnicity, Galchenyuk was born in Milwaukee and holds dual citizenship, having opted to represent the United States in international play.  After a season with the Chicago Young Americans, Galchenyuk joined the OHL's Sarnia Sting in 2010-11, where he played (at least some of the time) with consensus 2012 top pick Nail Yakupov.  This had some wondering if Galchenyuk's impressive rookie season of 31 goals and 83 points in 68 games wasn't partially attributable to the work of his skilled teammate, and all were looking forward to seeing his development this season.

Enter the problem in his case: in a September 16th, 2011 preseason game, Galchenyuk injured his knee and required surgery on his ACL.  The recovery kept him out until the final 2 games of the 2011-12 season, and clearly it is hard for an athlete at any level to jump in and have an impact so late in the year.  He was held off the scoresheet in those 2 games, but did manage 2 goals and 4 points in the 6 playoff games Sarnia had before being eliminated, showing that he had fully recovered.

Will the injury scare some clubs off?  Perhaps, as a lost season of development at such a young age could potentially damage a player's career.  ACL injuries are also tough to judge, with lingering effects sometimes a concern.  But Galchenyuk brings a number of assets to the table that have most scouts dreaming about him falling into their reaches.  He is seen as a full package; a good skater who plays an intense game in all three zones, just as reliable on the back check as he is dangerous in the offensive zone.  If work ethic is a concern in Grigorenko's case, it is one of Galchenyuk's strengths, as his an ability to make good use of his solid frame.  All of these attributes have some comparing his game to that of Marian Hossa, who Hab fans will remember their team selecting Jason Ward one pick earlier in 1997.

As a responsible two-way forward, Galchenyuk seems like a Trevor Timmins-type pick.  But that isn't to say he's "more of the same" for Montreal.  At third overall, you're getting a player with a lot more offensive talent than a Kyle Chipchura.  You're adding size down the middle, which addresses an organizational need, and you're adding a center to build around in the team's young core.  What you aren't getting is an immediate replacement for David Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec.  Barring an unbelievable training camp, after not playing this year, it is almost certain Galchenyuk will be returned to Sarnia for another season by whichever club takes him.

Filip Forsberg - Right Wing - Leksands IF, Swedish Elite League
6'2", 181 lbs - Shoots R
Rankings: Central Scouting - 1st (Europe); Future Considerations - 5th; The Hockey News - 2nd;

The advantage Forsberg has over the other three names on this list is that he has proven he can compete with older men.  After getting a 10-game look with the Swedish Elite League's Leksand last season, Forsberg played a full 43 games for them this year as a 17-year old (he only turns 18 in August) and managed 17 points.  Of course, this also presents a challenge to scouts, as comparing potential between guys playing in very different leagues is one of the great difficulties the scouting fraternity faces every year.  While impressive for a player of his age, 17 points in 43 games is far from a dominant offensive output, and Forsberg didn't help himself with just 1 assist in 6 games at this year's World Junior Championship.

Indeed, if you hadn't seen the guy play, you might wonder from his stat page why he's being talked about as a top 5 prospect for this draft class.  While the upside is there, there are legitimate questions as to whether or not Forsberg will be enough of a scorer at the pro level to be a true first liner.  Certainly he does have the potential to be; against peers his own age, he has been a point-per-game player, and capped his season with a highly impressive World U18 in which, as the Swedish team's captain, he scored 5 goals and 7 points in 6 games.

So what makes Forsberg (no relation to the legendary Peter) a top prospect?  Not unlike Galchenyuk, he combines a strong frame with great determination and two-way play.  If Bergevin is content with a small centre line provided he can surround the Plekanecs and Desharnais with more Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole types, then Forsberg becomes a real option, as he doesn't hesitate to dish out hits and play a power game.  Like Pacioretty and Cole, Forsberg's nose for the net means he's a shoot-first type, but there are concerns about his skill level as a high end prospect.  You won't confuse his ability to set up teammates with a Pavel Datsyuk, and that may limit his role at the NHL level to a good 2nd liner or ideal two-way third line winger that can still chip in 20+ goals.  Good at everything, master of little, which is often a red flag for scouts when looking at a prospect.

Still, if Grigorenko is a risk for factors mentioned, and Galchenyuk's knee causes concern, Forsberg is a very safe prospect, sure to be a contributor on an NHL club within a couple of seasons.  And, given that no one can be certain how he will respond to playing in North America, the team that acquires his services may end up pleasantly surprised, not unlike the Philadelphia Flyers with Sean Couturier.

Ryan Murray - Defenseman - Everett Silvertips, WHL
6'1", 201 lbs - Shoots L
Rankings: Central Scouting - 2nd (North America); Future Considerations - 3rd; The Hockey News - 4th;

Almost everyone has Murray as the top defenseman in this year's draft, and yet whenever I've watched him, I'm left wanting more.  Don't get me wrong, Murray is a stud prospect, sure to be an NHL defenseman in the very near future (particularly given his age, almost a full year older than Filip Forsberg).  But if we were to compare this year's draft with its plethora of talented d-men available to the phenomenal crop from 2008, Murray reminds me more of a Luke Schenn than a Drew Doughty or Alex Pietrangelo.

If there is a skill which sets Murray apart, it's his skating.  He has the look of a Scott Niedermayer on the ice, while slotting into a similar two-way role.  However, aside from his speed, he ranks as "good" in all other areas; shot-blocking, coverage, physicality, offensive awareness...  and all these "good"s combine to make him an extremely safe prospect to be an NHL player for many years.  But is a good and safe player what a team looks for at the top of a draft?  Generally not, as most want a home run in these slots, unless there is a real organizational need for something different (Hi, Edmonton).  Perhaps a team will think highly enough of him for his intangibles, as he does captain the Everett Silvertips

My problem with Murray isn't necessarily the player himself, but rather that I don't see him as leaps and bounds beyond the other blueliners available.  While Murray - to his benefit - is a picture of consistency, a player like Matt Dumba has shown a lot more flash during the course of the season.  Despite missing games with injury, Morgan Rielly's transition game and play in the offensive zone outclass Murray's.  Griffin Reinhart's 6'4", 207 lbs frame is something that Murray physically can't compete with.  Will Murray be better than these guys plus Jacob Trouba and Cody Ceci?  Perhaps, but I don't think he'll be that much better that it makes sense for a team who has taken d-men in the first round each of the last two seasons to select him at #3, with potentially comparable quality blueliners still to be on the board further down the top 10.

If Trevor Timmins and his staff disagree with my assessment and feel that Murray is too good to pass up on, it will at least shore up Montreal's left-handed shooting d-men for the foreseeable future, marking the third year in a row the team selected such a player with their first pick.  Certainly no one would complain about a young defense that includes Murray, Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin, and Josh Gorges in 3 years time.

And there you have it, the four names that logically make up Montreal's short list for the third overall selection.    If the tone in my evaluations wasn't clear enough, as of today, if I were making the selection, I'd go with Alex Galchenyuk.  Elite superstar potential, size at center, reliable two-way guy meaning he may be as little as one year away from an NHL debut, and without the risk factors of a Mikhail Grigorenko.

But whoever the Canadiens end up taking with this pick, do know two things:
1) The team will be adding a huge piece of the future contender puzzle
2) Do not expect the player to spend more than a 10-game trial (IF that) in Montreal next season


Tharsan said...

Dan, this was yet another great article.

I'm very much undecided about the three forwards. At different times over the last few months I've thought of each of Galchenyuk, Grigorenko and Forsberg as the right choice for the habs. I have a feeling the "slacker" sentiment about Grigorenko has been greatly exaggerated. Feels like for most of the season I heard only good things about him but then based on the playoffs alone the experts have suddenly "remembered" that they felt he's been an unmotivated slacker his for years. Hopefully he the Montreal scouts are making an independent judgement call on this and are not influenced too much by the general sentiment.

abraisnic said...

Why is Yakupov omitted from this article?

Dan K. said...

Yakupov is not included in this article, because I am making the assumption that he will go first to whichever team ends up with the top pick.

Installment #3 will be about the possibility of trading up to first overall for Yakupov.