Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Centres (Part 2)

It has been said for some time that a major strength of the Canadiens has been organizational depth. Up to last season, depth was nothing more than a nice thought, but youngsters graduating at impressive rates, the depth is now being put to the test.

Ahead of what should be an exciting season, I wanted to take a look at the team's overall depth at each position. I'm starting with centres. Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of centres in order of importance to the team:
  1. Saku Koivu
  2. Tomas Plekanec
  3. Robert Lang
  4. Maxim Lapierre
  5. Kyle Chipchura
  6. Steve Begin
  7. Brock Trotter
  8. Ben Maxwell
  9. David Desharnais
  10. Ryan White
  11. Mathieu Aubin
  12. Ryan Russell
  13. Olivier Fortier
  14. Olivier Latendresse
  15. Yanick Lehoux

First call-ups

Brock Trotter

Other than a name that would make any American Ryder Cup player proud, what do we know about this young player.

Well, for starters, we should know that with Grabovski and Locke traded, Higgins and Sergei now entrenched as wingers and everyone else largely devoid of top-tier professional hockey experience, he is the next in line. A couple of injuries to some centres and Brock Trotter could be wearing bleu, blanc, rouge. Gosh, that would be memories of Craig Darby on the second line.

A look at his career stats tells us that Brock Trotter, barring a drastic change in personality, will never be an top-line forward in the NHL. Despite an obvious level of talent (based on this week's showing), his results from Metropolitan Junior to Hamilton show that he can score but never to the point of being prolific.

So, if not an offensive star, or a giant (he's 5'9"), what drew the Canadiens to Brock in the midst of his NCAA season last year. Well, it's the steady improvement, for one thing – last season was his best. And, on top of that, he fits nicely into the mould of the new Canadiens prospect: an educated, mature player with patience and determination.

This is the insight we can get from Trevor Timmins:

"Brock was on our draft list and our scout visited his family before the draft. We knew the player and the person. When he indicated he was coming out of college and turning pro, we were Johnny-On-The-Spot."

Hockeywise, Timmins feels Brock's a smart playmaker whose strength is from the blueline in, and scouting reports put it this way:

"Trotter is extremely strong from the blueline in and displays a strong nose for the net."

All in all, a good prospect. Had he been drafted, there would be no questioning his stats or ability. But, Brock seems to have overcome all that and made his way up the depth chart. He benefits (in my rankings) from Maxwell probably being tested for durability, as in any year beyond this one (and probably sooner than that), Brock falls below Ben. For now, for me, he's the Johnny-on-the-spot.

Ben Maxwell

Hockey's Future designates Ben Maxwell the number 7 prospect in the Canadiens system, the number 3 who is not on the big team already – behind Ryan McDonagh and Max Pacioretty.

This is significant, if only because the website now sees Ben as more promising than Kyle Chipchura (the maligned) and David Fischer (falling out of favour there as he commits to more college time). While I question the leapfrogging of Chipchura (and this week will tell), it is good for the organization that a young centre is progressing. Because, as you've seen already, the depth at this position is tied together with string.

Ben, like Brock, has not set the world on fire with his scoring. A look at his stats show a consistent output, without any eye-catching achievements. I'll grant that today's WHL is not the one in which Pat Falloon and Ray Whitney ran rampant, but point-per-game in junior is not usually the makings of an NHL scoring champion.

If we're looking for positive signs with Maxwell, it appears to be his clutch play – never a bad thing. In 10 playoff games last spring, Ben contributed 6 goals for his team, with 3 assists – outscoring his teammates. 2 years previous, it was 8 points in 6 games in the playoffs. No Memorial Cup or anything, but at least the Ice won a playoff round last season...

He's also big. well for a Canadiens centre anyway. Over 6' tall and a frame big enough to hold 200 lbs (though it doesn't yet). His junior coach doesn't exactly rave about Ben, but he does seem to pinpoint what we might expect:

"He’s a key guy for us because when you play teams with three good lines, Ben will be matched up with somebody who has a real good physical presence. Ben is a guy who will make things difficult for opponents. He generally responds quite well in the physical department.”

If we're looking for negative signs, Ben is already showing himself to be as fragile as Havlat or Gaborik in junior. It was an elbow injury two years ago that limited Ben to less than 40 games, whereas last year a freak calcification event. It will remain to be seen if he is durable enough for the pros, or whether freak occurrences are not so freak with him. If he can't be healthy and play big, it seems he might not be worth the risk. That being said, a year with some top fitness and strength coaches in Hamilton may cure his ills and pave the way for an NHL career in the not-too-distant future.

David Desharnais

I'll go out on a limb and say that if David Desharnais was 3 years younger, he would have been drafted in the top 3 rounds of this year's draft. Now that the moratorium on small players has been lifted, he can be appreciated for his skill.

But small he is – Theo Fleury small. He's listed at 5'6" and we all know how they embellish those numbers. And though there is anew day for small players being drafted, it is still a hard road for tiny players to crack the big leagues and stick. What it ends up taking is top-line skill, because no one is playing a 5 footer on the checking lines. His talent analysis gives some idea of what kind of player he could be:

"He has a strong instinct around the net and is excellent with the puck. The young center likes to use his teammates in the best possible way but will never shy from shooting the puck."

So, does David have the skill to overcome? Anyone who looks at stats alone would have to say yes. But, I think there's good evidence from elsewhere too. Take his progression, for example. Junior scoring star, to consistent junior scoring star. Undrafted – this is sometimes enough to break anyone's spirit (see his teammate Maxime Boisclair). David toughs it out and dominates the ECHL. He then leads his team to the championship.

I think this camp is a real junction for Desharnais. Given the lack of forwards in Hamilton he will play there to start with. but, impress enough in the next two weeks and he's call-up material. Given that Corey Locke is gone, I think we have a new little super-scorer to root for.

Ryan White

Durable, reliable, and already 200 lbs, Ryan White rounds out the top-level talent among prospects at centre.

Hockey's Future wants to project White as an energy forward. Not having seen enough of him, I would ask whether this means: energy forward because he plays like a Tasmanian devil, or energy forward as code for not good enough to ever reach beyond that.

Over the years, there have been plenty of people to back up the reservation of the scouts. Highly rated early in his draft year, many GMs passed on Ryan. Team Canada passed on him too. Sooner or later, this opinion has to add up. Something can't be quite right.

Even so, the Canadiens in a pickle with centres have signed White to 3 years – meaning that he'll be a Bulldog and perhaps an occasional Canadien for now. I think Gainey has made the right move. Ryan White's a player who leads his team in scoring, who has played no less than 59 playoff games in 4 years, who from all accounts plays a rough-and-tumble style while not forgetting that the goal in hockey is to score goals not win fights. I even see evidence of maturity in Ryan with a mere 8 PIMs in 16 playoff games last spring vs. 36 the year before.

Last year, I think I had Ryan White playing a game or two in my predictions. This year, I see the same. In the long run, I think Ryan could be the Hab of this bunch, but for now he'll be a Bulldog waiting behind the other three guys.

Minor leaguers

Mathieu Aubin

Huge, but not physical. Hands, but no feet. His scouting report reads like a cell-phone contract. You think there are benefits there, but the conditions that come with them are quite big drawbacks.

I demoted Matthieu to the minor leaguer category because I see that Mathieu's best chance may have passed him by. Take this from his scouting report:

"The Canadiens are expecting big things from Aubin offensively in 2007-08. Last year he bounced between Hamilton and Cincinnati, never comfortably finding a home. This year, the club will be looking for him to fill some of the offensive void that may be created should the elder Kostitsyn, Chipchura, and/or Grabovski make the jump to the NHL. The thought is a more settled environment and regular shift could help accelerate Aubin's growth and take advantage of his offensive potential."

Guess what, none of the materialised. He got a chance in Hamilton, but was largely a flop as an offensive player. He was demoted to Cincinnati, where he did win a championship, but was leapfrogged by Desharnais.

A turn-around is possible, but not necessarily anticipated. A shame, because a big francophone centre who can score is something we have missed for decades.

Ryan Russell

Ben Maxwell's older and shorter Kootenay teammate. He outscores Ben at every turn, so why is he lower in the depth chart? Well, that's just the way it works, isn't it?

The main knock on Ryan is that he is small and he plays small. he is gifted offensively, but not to the point of a Desharnais, so he falls down the chart there. he has flopped in the pros thus far, making his climb up that much more daunting. When you are the small forward, it helps to be the best one around if you want to make it. Behind Koivu, Plekanec, Trotter and Desharnais makes Russell's task a very tough one indeed.

The good news for Ryan is that he is still young. Things could turn around with a decent stint (probably in Cincinnati). But in all honesty, barring a catastrophe or a miracle training camp from Russell, i don't see him as anything more than a piece in a trade for the Habs.

For the future

Olivier Fortier

I've seen the phrase diamond in the rough tossed around a lot recently. When it comes to prospects, it is a phrase I would reserve for the few. Olivier is one of those players.

There's no doubt he's in the rough – he doesn't lead his team in scoring, he doesn't win Memorial Cups (though he'll play in one as a host, this spring). To make him a diamond, I saw this piece of evidence from Timmins:

"At every level he plays, his coaches can’t say enough good things about him. They know each and every time he steps on the ice what they’re going to get. He’s a low-maintenance player. He’s a solid two-way player – Ihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif can’t say he has any real weaknesses. He’s got that twinkle in his eye – he’s going to be a player. The last guy that I saw with that look was Maxime Lapierre.”

Add to that, the Guy Carbonneau trophy he won last spring, and we have an intriguing player here.
Obviously, my reservations about drafting a defensive player (expressed regarding Chipchura) apply here, but from reports, his attitude and evidence, he looks like a player, to borrow the words of Mr. Timmins. If he even gets to the point of Chipchura, that'd be very encouraging indeed.

Not this year, though. he'll be playing junior and in the Memorial Cup (hopefully for Canada, too). Next year, we'll see where we're at with him.


Olivier Latendresse

Though a goal in a scrimmage can't hurt, Olivier has a long way to climb to even see time as a centre in Hamilton. He has shown great progress in the ECHL, but hasn't yet grasped hold of an AHL opportunity.

he is an intriguing addition to the organization. Guillaume's brother could conceivably help him in the way Andrei relished having Sergei around, though Gui will have to make do with same franchise proximity, I think. Olivier is another smallish offensive-minded centre, and to boot he is from the area, which is great. I would wish him all the luck, but a game in a Habs sweater seems a long way off.

Yanick Lehoux

The last man in the order. He's the career minor leaguer in this order. His career serves as a reminder to the other guys about what they should most likely expect, and how failing to grasp an opportunity and hold on for dear life can be costly.

Lehoux is not here to play in the NHL (I don't think). He has 10 games with Phoenix under his belt, but his 6 AHL seasons speak greater volumes. A nice addition to help Hamilton from repeating their miserable 2008, but not one for the Habs.

He's so low-profile that most of us didn't notice his signing in the summer. But I'll tell you, having so many Montrealers down on the farm dying for a chance to get up to the bigs might not be such a bad thing...

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