Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jacques Martin Again

Look Forward To Better Player Development

When I was putting together a piece on Jacques Martin, player development is what I had in mind. I have to admit to getting sidetracked by a tangential thought that grew into an article.

I say player development, because if winning against Toronto in the playoffs is what Jacques Martin is worst at, developing players into future stars is perhaps what he is best at. It's good thing too, because there's a fairly broad consensus on those who give report cards to the Canadiens organization that the mark for Gainey and co. should be "Needs improvement" or even "Unsatisfactory".

In fact, if one were to try and pinpoint the key element that has led to Gainey pressing reset on his five-year plan (i.e., the reason his original 5 years were eventually deemed a bust) it could well be player development. After all, 25 goalscorers completely losing confidence is right up there with sudden and inexplicable inability to win in the playoffs as the theme of the half decade. It's not nice to harp on about Carbonneau, but let's just say his name and "player development", though often finding their way into the same sentence were more often than not also accompanied by phrases like "has no aptitude for", "doesn't like" or "would rather go tie shopping".

Can't keep burning through prospects

The Canadiens have done an admirable job of piling up half decent prospects at most positions in the draft without really having to lose the league. But be realistic, they've been a bit lucky – they've avoided the busts that sometimes happen to even the best scouting departments. What this means for the future is probably that they are due a bust or two, and that they can't expect to keep pulling in top talent from later rounds.

When you're drowned in what seems like a wealth of new faces (like autumn 2007-08), ruining one or two careers or alienating a talent doesn't seem like such a big deal.

But it doesn't take long for the tide to turn does it?

A minute ago we had too many offensive minded centres to fit Grabovski into the plans. A few slumps and a few trades later and we're looking at Ben Maxwell to step in as the number two centre if there's an injury. I looked at centre, I could have looked at the wings, where there are even less enticing propositions.

From plenty to pittance in just a season – it's no wonder Gainey decided to say no more. In taking on Jacques Martin (who's more than a French Canadian, as we're discovering by the day), Bob has opted to put a stake in the development of the assets he has left. He has invested in a policy that might turn the career of Sergei Kostitsyn around, that might prevent Matt D'Agostini from descending from 8-goal wonder to on-ice nightmare again and who might even help more established stars push their limits.

It's a good gamble. And based on the past, it may just pay off.

Jacques Martin, the nurturer of offensive egos

The other day, I wrote about how Jacques was able to take the Pitiful 1996 Senators, stabilise their defence and then move to creating an offensive powerhouse. Not only that, he actually nurtured some of the leagues very best offensive talents so that they could fulfill their potential and score goals like they were expected to.

His record on developing goalscorers is very very impressive actually. For symmetry, I looked at two 4-year periods – that since the lockout to see the current goalscoring talent and those 4 years immediately before the lockout, which coincide with Martin's powerhouse Senators teams. What I found is that Jacques' players, those drafted and brought through the Ottawa system rose above the crops from other organizations.

Goalscorers since the lockout

Since the lockout, there have been 89 players to register 30 goal seasons.

5 players have done it 4 times
13 players have done it 3 times
20 players have done it 2 times

Among the 89, there were 4 players who started their careers on Jacques Martin team. But 2 of those (Alfredsson and Hossa) are among the elite 18 who've claimed 3 30-goal marks. One other (Spezza) has done it twice.

When you look at 40 goalscorers (the real elite), Alfredsson and Hossa stand out even more since they account 4 of 54 40-goal seasons across the whole league between them.

Goalscorers before the lockout

In the 4 years before the lockout, there were only 68 players to register 30 goal seasons.

6 players did it 4 times
10 players did it 3 times
18 players did it 2 times

Once again, Jacques' proteges were up there. Hossa, again was truly elite with 4 30-goal campaigns and one 45-goal season. Throw in three more (Yashin, Alfredsson and Demitra) with a couple of 30-goal seasons apiece and Havlat with one in his fourth season in the league and it looks good again for Jacques's fostering.

How did he do it?

I'm not going to suggest that he taught these guys how to score – that would be outlandish. It looks to me like he got a lot of help from the draft. After all, Yashin, Hossa, Spezza and Havlat are all first rounders. But as we should know by now in Montreal, draft talent does not always translate. We look at teams like Ottawa from that era and Detroit now and say "good drafting". But it goes beyond that, we have that. It's actually "good drafting, great development".

What one can say without question is that he didn't hinder their goalscoring instincts, even in a defensive system. And that is a strategy that Guy Carbonneau could never quite work out.

Jacaques Martin, the purveyor of defensive reliability

As he kept an eye on his talented forwards, Martin also kept another guiding hand for the upbringing of defensive prospects.

While I'll gladly concede that a goalscorer has all the skills he needs to score goals at the age of 20, a defenceman needs a tutor, he needs a really good one, too.

Just as we can rattle off 90-point and 40-goal seasons from the Ottawa graduates (that'd be nice to do again here one day – where are you Stephane Richer?), I can also recall a list of defencemen I would have listed as elite from Jacques time down the 417. Chara, Redden, Phillips, Volchenkov, Salo have all at times been decent to excellent defenders.

We're all to familiar with the recent exploits of Zdeno Chara, but does anyone remember what a terribly awkward 23-year old he was with the 2000-01 Islanders? Sure a change of team helped a lot, but from -27 one year to +30 the next has to say something about his own improvement too. I can honestly tell you from seeing the then pylon in orange and blue at the Bell Centre that Chara and Norris trophy were not in the same realm.

Equally, Wade Redden had an exemplary ten-year stint among the sub-Norris elite of the NHL defenders. A single season in the negative (and -1 at that) speaks to how he served a system for the benefit of the team and ultimately his bank account.

The other cast members, whoever they were (and notably Phillips) always made Ottawa a difficult team to play against and a difficult team to keep the puck away from. The coach must get a lot of credit here. You can see what impact he had, because for a while after he left Ottawa still assumed they could fill any hole on defence with the next guy in the depth chart, just as Martin always always did.

I know his years in Florida weren't anything to write home about. But I tell you what, When he went in Jay Bouwmeester was not as mature and dominating as he is now. is that despite Martin? Maybe. But I'd be surprised.

Player development in Montreal

All of this is good news for Montreal, I think. Bringing in a coach at this point who can foster personalities and flair and at the same time shape defencemen into contributors to the cause is something we've longed for.

I mentioned the forwards he could salvage like Sergei Kostitsyn and D'Agostini, but I can't see his influence being a bad thing on Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Latendresse, Cammalleri and some of the other relatively young guys either. What's more, he may just be able to make a Mike Fisher or two out of all those "defensive forwards" we have waiting in the wings.

What excites me more, though. And what I expect might have been going through Bob Gainey's mind is Jacques' potential to shape all those prospects coming through. It's about Josh Gorges' consistency, Ryan O'Byrne using his size, and Yannick Weber and PK Subban taking the right first steps. If even one of those 4 make significant strides, this signing will have improved our prospects over the defensive-forward trifecta.

Carey Price. What about Carey Price? Well, as for his personal development, I'm not sure. Jacques' record in turning out clutch goaltenders is nearly league worst. But, you never know, a better defence with some offensive conversion – maybe that alone will help Carey Price take the weight of the world off his shoulders enough that he can lift his left arm. We'll see.

A chance at making the playoffs without the customary ruining of 2 young careers. How's that for more reason to be positive about the season?

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