Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Canadiens Youth

How Do We Really Compare?

There has been an assumption among Habs fans now for some time that Bob Gainey and Trevor Timmins have assembled the finest crop of youngsters that could ever be found from across the world.

After all, if the amateur-fan-contributor-site Hockey's Future says so, then how could it not be?

I wrote recently about the successes of certain players in the second or third seasons, and the hope that remains for those who are as inexperienced. But aside from the excitement there, I have a lingering sense that the Canadiens (at this rate) will not be the cream of the East for years to come.

The case against Montreal

1) Montreal's 4th year players are stumblers
The 4th year into an NHL career can be a defining moment.

In his 4th year in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky exploded from 55 goal, 162 point getter to 92 goals and 212 points. In his 4th year, Mario Lemieux's high watermarks rose by 16 goals and 61 points to vault him into top two star territory. Guy Lafleur catapulted from 50 point man to 50 goal, 119 point man in his 4th year. The precedent is not surprising. 3 years seems to represent (with some reliability) the amount of time it takes for a youngster to learn the game at the higher level. The 4th year seems to be the first where they break free and become themselves again after apprenticing.

Taking a look at the Canadiens 4th year players, namely Higgins and Plekanec, I start to wonder. Both have started the year slowly, and that's fine. There is still time for them to come back and match their numbers from last year.

However, is there really any thought of them breaking out to greatly surpass their totals? Is there hope that they will establish themselves as more than they already are?

To be fair, one could argue that Plekanec broke a year early and that matching his play and totals would already make him into a star and a better player than anyone could have hoped for 4 years ago. I can stomach that.

But Higgins? He is just stuttering along. It seems that what may have looked like progress may just have been a fluctuation. He may already be producing at maximum capacity. Because, if he does not break this season, precedents suggest that the likelihood of him breaking at all will be minimal.

It's worth mentioning the bar in Montreal for stumbling has already been set by 4th year Michael Ryder, who as a 25-goal rookie seemed like a potential star, but even had he not slumped would have plateaued at 30 goals, I think.

2) Other team's young players progress

None of the stuff about Plekanec and Higgins matters in the context of the Habs alone. They are both good players, both assets to the team. However, the Canadiens can't afford to operate in a vacuum if they hope to rise to the pinnacle of the NHL, or even the Eastern conference.

Young players around our conference are already stars. In Pittsburgh, Malkin and Crosby make a formidable team by themselves. In Washington, it's Ovechkin, Semin and now even Backstrom along for the ride. In Boston, Kessel and Krejci. And in Philadelphia, Carter and Richards.

Just take a look at the top scorers form the East under the age of 26. The Habs don't have a response to these guys:

Malkin 12G, 37A in 30 games
Crosby 13G, 31A in 30 games
Ovechkin 17G, 23A in 29 games
Richards 12G, 22A in 29 games
Parise 16G, 17A in 27 games
Carter 21G, 11A in 29 games
Kessel 19G, 12A in 30 games
Backstrom 10G, 21A in 31 games
Semin 14G, 16A in 19 games
Vanek 24G, 5A in 30 games

Here are the Habs:
A Kostitsyn 6G, 7A in 27 games
Plekanec 6G, 7A in 29 games
Higgins 5G, 4A, in 21 games

3) Our drafting is out of synch
Defencemen take longer than forwards to develop. Of that there is little doubt. A third year defenceman coming in and playing a huge role is a rare thing (thanks Josh Gorges), but a 3rd year forward popping 20 goals or more, well that's commonplace.

Going back as far as 2001, you will find Mike Komisarek who worked out and even took the prodigal 4th year leap last season in becoming a defender we would like to have on the ice rather than not. But look from 2002 on to find the young core of the current team and you find this:

2002: Higgins first round; 4F, 2D overall (Korneev most notably)
2003: A Kostitsyn first round; 6F, 3D (O'Byrne most notably), 2 G overall
2004: Chipchura first round; 4F, 4D (Emelin and Streit notably), 1G overall
2005: Price first round; 5F, 1D, 1G overall
2006: Fischer first round; 2F, 4D overall
2007: McDonagh first round; 3F, 6D overall

If Higgins and Kostitsyn, along with Plekanec begin to flourish it will not be ahead of a young and exciting group of defenders – it will be in front of Markov, Komisarek and whoever else remains.

Again to be fair to Gainey, the Rivet for Gorges trade was a masterstroke in that regard, but only one when several are needed to build a Stanley Cup dynasty defence.

4) Coaching and system
Something seems to happen in Montreal that does not happen anywhere else. 4th year players are treated as full-fledged veterans, with full expectations, less mentoring – they are thrown to the wolves a bit. It can be seen as an organizational flaw that Ryder failed and Higgins and Plekanec may be poised to do the same.

The case for Montreal

1) Nobody has every position filled
I mentioned a few scorers above, and a number of very exciting and promising players. But it has to be said that none of the teams highlighted (Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia) have a wealth of great young defenders or goaltenders to go with their offensive young guns at the moment. Montreal, should some of the defenders like Emelin, Carle, Weber or McDonagh actually come through should stand in good stead.

2) Carey Price
The Habs got really fortunate bagging that 5th pick in 2005. They got even luckier that Pierre Maguire wasn't their GM, otherwise Gilbert Brule (or Brule'd out) would have been our pick. Carey Price is no Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin, but he stacks up well as a young star next to the rest of that list.

3) Jaroslav Halak
Hit the jackpot with Price. Not to be dismissed is Halak. Halak would be a good starter on Philly, Washington or many other teams with young stars. Sure, he's barricaded into the second fiddle here, but having a good young goalie could be trade gold in the right GM's hands. A Gorges-like return to plug a hole left by never-drafted D or stumbling forwards could be had here at some point.

4) Coaching and system
This is not an endorsement of Carbonneau and his line juggling. But it must be said that the way Carbonneau uses his players (i.e., Kostitsyn, Plekanec) does not lend to them putting up the best numbers they can. Guy, in his defence is trying to win games (as he should be), but Andrei would have more goals with more ice time and Tomas would look better statistically if he wasn't carrying Tom Kostopoulos on a "scoring" line.

How will we know?
Ultimately, we'll only know if we had the best young guys now in 10 or 20 years time. As success will be measured in Cups, there's little to scoring titles and 40 goals seasons from Washington to Boston.

One thing is certain: the Habs are not the best young team in the East beyond dispute. There are plenty of disputes. If Plekanec and Higgins plateau, while Richards and Carter make real progress. If Sergei Kostitsyn and Latendresse never grab hold of an NHL place while Krejci and Lucic flourish. And if Price and Halak can't outshine Malkin and Crosby. The prospect of Cups in the next 5 years will be hard to imagine.

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