Thursday, March 06, 2008

Streit Ahead: Of Scouting and Gambles

Mark Streit is definitely the surprise of the season for me on the Canadiens. I'm not the only person to have noticed. The league is noticing too.

Andrei Kostitsyn becoming a highlight reel stalwart and 20-goal man in February, I might have imagined. Carey Price as a starter, it may be soon, but we all knew right from training camp that it was coming. Patrice Brisebois hanging on - nothing about him and the Habs could surprise me anymore after the re-signing.

If you would have told me Mark Streit's 2006-2007 was not a flash in the pan, I would have laughed. If you would have told me that he would have the same number of goals and points as Koivu in March, I would have asked if we'd ever have thought Koivu would be on pace for 25 points.

12 goals, 37 assists. In sync with Markov and Kovalev on the PP. Plays any position but goalie. Wow!

We are lucky to have him and we were lucky to ever get him. Streit's career prior to 2005 said anything but NHL PP quarterback and second-line winger.

Take the fact that Mark comes from Switzerland. Oh sure, we're happy to call the Swiss a hockey nation now (after they beat Canada and the Czechs at the last Olympic tournament), but when Streit was coming through the ranks a Swiss hockey prospect was akin to a Canadian ski jumping prospect.

Consider also that he made the jump to North America on his own in 1999 to improve his chances at cracking the big leagues. He didn't fail miserably. But he hardly did enough to sway the cantankerous old boys of the NHL to open their minds to players from the shadows of the Alps. Perhaps in the end it was his last game in North America before packing up for the Swiss A league - a one-game stint in Utah that would turn fate in his favour as Habs scouts overseeing their own slow-cook prospect projects may have noticed his skating and skills that day.

A further 4 seasons in Switzerland would see Mark temporarily resign himself to making his winter home in Europe and if nothing else helped him to develop his game further offensively. In 2004, some lucky scout earned a bonus when he advised Bob Gainey that Swiss hockey had come far enough to merit a 9th round pick for the best Swiss player of a generation. The following season with some NHL competition (and indeed help), Mark Streit would go on to justify the draft pick as he outshone a vast number of established pros in his own backyard during the lockout follies in Europe.

Looking at all I've written, I ask whether I'd be surprised if Streit were a Swedish or Canadian prospect blooming late. In fact, I'm sure many of the GMs in the league share the same attitudes.

So, while we thank our lucky stars for Mark Streit falling right into the laps of the Canadiens for nothing more than a late afternoon afterthought on draft day 2; there are lessons to be learned from the case of Mark Streit:

1) Hockey players can come from anywhere (even Switzerland, Austria, Belarus and Slovenia now).

If the Habs want to maintain a competitive advantage, continuing to look to these relatively untapped resources for bargains. It looks like the trend will continue for a while as we watch Yannick Weber develop and accept that Janne Lahti was a worthwhile gamble, if not an NHL player. We could also stay a step ahead by asking where is next for hockey players to emerge unnoticed.

2) It's worth taking a chance on standouts from "weaker" leagues.

As other teams trawl the third lines of WHL teams, picking a star from Switzerland, Germany or Austria is worth the gamble. You can always sign those fourth liners later.

3) Make place for talent on your team

As Streit battled for a 7th defenseman place, it was judicious to allow him to play forward where he could develop his skills at a high level. A talented skater and puck-handler is always valuable to a team no matter what way his stick is curved or what letter appears beside his name on the gamesheet.

A potential gamble for 2008

Thinking about Streit and how eyes should be peeled for the next unheralded NHL breakthrough I decided to take a quick look at the Swiss A League standings and statistics.

Nothing but the best for the Habs, of course, I looked up Erik Westrum.

So, he's from Minnesota. Check.
He played for the Springfield Falcons and Utah Grizzlies like Streit. Check.
After trying to make it in North America, he turned to the Swiss League, where he picked up his offensive numbers. Check.

What's even more interesting is that Erik's Dad is Pat Westrum, the Montreal Canadiens hotshot scout. We look no further than Minnesota for first round picks anymore, since Pat knows his stuff.

Could he be submitting a positive report on a wayward overage Minnesota boy this summer? We'll have to wait and see.

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