Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Price Of Development

Rough Patches And Young Teams Go Hand In Hand

In all the hand wringing and fretting about Kovalev during our seemingly interminable losing streak, there was hardly a comment on the youth of the team. It is a major omission in any argument if you consider the makeup of the team.

The Canadiens, unlike teams in more forgiving markets, never actually underwent a full strip down and rebuild process. Nonetheless, through attrition and infiltration, the team has over the last few seasons become much younger – and more importantly the product of Gainey the manager.

I wanted to look at the Price of Development here, remembering that the Habs are still young, still developing and even admitting that last year, not this year is the anomaly in the record books.

Price and Halak – young for cornerstone duties
Last year around this time, Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak were given the keys to the Canadiens goals. The (unnecessary) trade of Huet foisted the two of them, and especially Carey Price, into very fresh territory – that of determining whether a game can be won or lost. Their play from that point on was no longer an amusing glance into the future, it was a frank admission of the present.

Both goalies have responded with periods of brilliance and periods of, well, utter disappointment. since Huet’s trade:

Carey Price

2007-08 Regular season: 2.31 GAA, 0.929 S%
2007-08 Playoffs: 2.78 GAA, 0.901 S%
2008-09 Regular season (pre-injury): 2.30 GAA, 0.923 S%
2008-09 Regular season (post-injury): 3.33 GAA, 0.865 S%

Jaroslav Halak

2007-08 Regular season: 2.20 GAA, 0.932 S%
2007-08 Playoffs: 2.33 GAA, 0.889 S%
2008-09 Regular season (pre-injury): 2.44 GAA, 0.916 S%
2008-09 Regular season (post-injury): 3.53 GAA, 0.885 S%

The bad numbers come from a series of bad games, about 4 or so in both players’ cases (Carey in the playoffs and post-injury; and Jaro when Carey was injured).

4 games isn’t so much when you think about a season, but it is in Montreal hockey terms, especially if both goalies choose to fall out of form coincidentally as they just did.

In this world of media frenzy (guilty), perhaps Carey and Jaro get treated a little bit unfairly. A lot is expected of the 73 and 43 game NHL vets, both of whom suited up for Hamilton full-time a mere two years ago and part-time, this time last year. It is rarer for veteran goalies of quality to have spells of futility like this. But for rookies (which for all intents and purposes they almost are), are more prone to this sort of thing. In fact, any sensible GM opting to pin his hopes on a 20-year old would tell you he was planning for this sort of thing:

Call it the price of developing a star goalie.

In thrusting them to the forefront, Gainey opted to shape his young goaltenders in the blast furnace of Montreal, rather than the modest campfire of the AHL. Presumably he was hoping that they could become tempered as the strongest steel in time. Presumably, he, unlike many in the media, had some solid idea that it would take time.

Differing philosophies

Boston, for example, could choose to foster Rask in the very same way. But instead they push on with Tim Thomas. They are reaping the regular season rewards, and may or may not in the playoffs.

But when you’re building for a dynastic run at the top, you need to be a bit more clairvoyant – or so Gainey would have us believe. Whereas, Carey Price is affordable, young and suitable to build around; Cristobal Huet was not. Just so, Tim Thomas.

Gainey gambles with last year’s exit (he foresaw??) that Price learns and becomes better for it. Ultimately, the GM form Gainey’s school gains an ultra-reliable cornerstone on which to build a whole team for a decade. Those in Chiarelli’s school make their runs for the Cup, but then must find replacements down the line. Gainey knows that all players age at the same rate and that if you want a great goaltender for the time Andrei Kostitsyn is popping in 40-50 goals and Gorges has become a playoff workhorse, you must plan. When Kessel’s ready, Thomas may be gone and Rask will still be learning how to tie his pads.

The young core – young being the operative word

If you look beyond the goaltenders to the remaining core players of the team, you also get a feel for how young the critical players are.

The best goalscorer and focal point for our future as an offensive team, Andrei Kostitsyn, is only 24. Experience-wise he’s even younger as this is essentially his second full season in the league. He played his 159th game yesterday.

Two load bearing centres, Plekanec and Lapierre are young too. Lapierre of course is younger and less experienced, but 4 seasons into an NHL career, Plekanec is young to be an out and out veteran with all the pressure it brings.

Add to those, key scoring cogs Sergei Kostitsyn and Latendresse, both 21 and the rookie forwards who have featured on the top lines since their promotions and you can see why the team sometimes misses assignments for being too enthusiastic up front.

More astounding than that is that the Canadiens defence has been built around a very young core at the same time as the rest of this rebuilding has been going on.

Hamrlik, Markov and Bouillon are out and out veterans. But Josh Gorges, at 24 and 215 games is a very green defender by NHL standards. Ryan O’Byrne, for whom the defensive plan was built this season, is a real rookie, a mere 58 games into NHL life.

As with the goalies, a sensible GM would understand that throwing all these youngsters out on the ice together could lead to some highs and lows. That is just what has happened.

When learning happens – the benefits of development

The struggles of the development approach can be painful as we’ve freshly experienced, but the rewards can come quick and fast.

Just this week, we’ve seen the return of Ryan O’Byrne the shell of a man who is now ready to give Komisarek a clinic on positioning and economy of movement. Maxim Lapierre learned oodles from his demotion and subsequent struggles – now he’s a player anyone would want on their team. Andrei Kostitsyn and Gorges had their comings out last season, but the rewards continue with him.

As we wait for Sergei to learn how defenders take him on; for Latendresse to hit for purpose; and or Carey Price to stop passing to the other team; it is worth remembering how the rewards of a little patience with these guys can be great.

The good news is the conceivable fact that many of the younger guns could learn all these things in the next couple of months.

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