Monday, September 28, 2009

Canadiens Season Preview

Prospects At The Back

After days of putting out day after day of previews, wouldn't you know that the first time people start congratulating us is the same day we slip and miss a day. Perhaps not slip, but in not wanting to lose my hockey pool, I spent the time compiling my lists for that instead. Mind you, I still ended up with the most questionable goalies as I do every year.

Anyway, as the title of the post suggests, this is my look at the below NHL prospects on defence. As with the forwards, I had neither as much data or as much drive to do a full-blown analysis of each of these guys. So instead, it's just some thoughts possibly mixed with scouts' thoughts and random stats. In any case, the preview wouldn't be complete without something on Alex Henry, so here we go.

Potential call-ups

1) PK Subban

With Yannick Weber on the "NHLer" list, there's absolutely no doubt who the top prospect at the back is. PK Subban, junior star, Team Canada star, high draft pick, media darling has skills and personality to make it.

What's most exciting about PK is not his accomplishment with the indomitable Team Canada, nor his more than point-per-game from defence last year, but his personal skill set. Unlike some players who win, but you can't really put a finger on why. With PK it's easy – it's his skating. As a pretty pitiful hockey player myself, I know that being unable to keep up on skates puts me at an immediate disadvantage in nearly every situation on the ice. I can only imagine the other guys must be thinking the same, only in terms of advantage. Well, PK has that advantage in spades. He had it over most junior pretenders, and from what little I've seen, I'd say he'll have it in the NHL one day too. It seems that because he's practiced his skating through drills rather than simple reliance on game day that he can do things to make it look as though he was born with blades on his feet. You'd better watch:

With skill like that, PK can already offer a talent that puts him among the elite in the NHL. Oh, that hockey were only about skating and going forward. The reason PK is not up with the team today, and the reason that Yannick Weber has surpassed him at several different steps now is because of defence – you know, the position he purportedly plays? It remains the question at this time, perhaps the only question. But luckily defence is something that can be learned with some dedicated study. And though all his highlights display amazing rushes, you might have noticed the hole where brilliant, or even simple effective pass would normally fit for a Dman.

There's a definite place for Subban and his crazy feet in the NHL. The question for the Canadiens is whether there is a place for him on a team with Andrei Markov. And possibly Yannick Weber. If he shows he can be a defensive asset in Hamilton, the answer will be an unquestionable yes. If he can't, the onus will be on Gainey to find the team who needs the offense from the back and can afford to forgo him playing his position as others might.

2) Mathieu Carle

If PK has problems finding a place on the offensively laden blueline in Montreal, imagine 3rd in line Mathieu Carle.

Long-term it would take some moves to see a real place for Carle up on the Habs. Short term, however, he has a few aces to play in order to expedite his call up.

The first is his age. 22 now, he may be more mature and better able to see where team game outweighs individual game than some proteges. The second is his direct experience in Hamilton. As mentioned, it's not been an overwhelming success, but at the same time he has shown he can do a job for a successful team against pros.

Third, and I'm loathe to say it, but it's the fact he is Quebecois. I'm not saying that he'll be brought up just to make up numbers, but the company line has always been at equal value, we'll choose the local lad. Well, for the brief period before PK really gets any AHL experience of his own, Carle is holding at least that equal card, if not a slightly better one. What's more, we've seen this decision exercised already at camp with the first cuts, and there's no reason to think it won't hold until mid-winter.

3) Shawn Belle

I probably made more fuss than was necessary for Shawn Belle attending early skates, but I did think it showed a good attitude form him at least.

If you want to read about the best of Shawn Belle, I've done that bit already
(near the bottom of the piece). What has transpired since the writing of that article, however, has led to some extra conclusions. The first is that Shawn Belle is no panacea – he would be a replacement with plenty of faults, a player who would make mistakes. The second is that he has been properly assigned to Hamilton – the players ahead of him in this depth analysis are indeed better at the moment. Finally, that for all his attitude coming early, he perhaps hasn't quite grasped how his NHL dream is slipping by. His average showing at camp has been wildly surpassed by the man we put on notice (Ryan O'Byrne).

Shawn could be a call up, but really he has to do more to impress if he wants to make it stick. Hamilton is a valuable training ground for a defender like Belle, and another season like his last, on a winning team, could mean knocks on Gainey's door about a depth defenceman in a trade, if not in Montreal.

4) Andre Benoit

Andre's back with the Bulldogs after tow very successful seasons in Europe. But what stands in Andre's way is the same solid group of defenders that stand in every other offensive Dman's path.

What seems to be clear from his statistics and reports is that Benoit could step in and do the job. However, depth, salaries and midsets being what they are, it would take a lot of bodies going down, specifically from the PP rearguard for this to ever happen for Benoit. Still, he's 4th in line here because of his stellar junior record, his experience in the AHL and his clear determination to give this NHL thing another go. Don't look for him in many games, but you never know, one or two could be in the cards.

5) Alex Henry

Alex Henry, my goodness. I did have some stats on him, but not many. I can tell you that during his 2 game stint last season with the Habs he managed to do so poorly with his 10 minutes that he comes at the bottom of nearly every category we looked at in the league. So badly that one stats site I was looking at found that Mathieu Schneider's stats were being dragged through the dirt by virtue of him having worn the same number as Henry (a bit of computer confusion).

So why even mention him? Well for one thing, he's playing in Hamilton's top 6, making him call-up material. For another, he does quite well down there. While it's not time to write Henry off altogether (he is massive), it seems that his skating and awareness might be more AHL level at this point in time.

6) Michael Busto

Finally, Michael Busto – that other guy from the Higgins trade. How does 6 years in the WHL strike you? I'm not sure I've ever seen that. Sure by the time he left, he was posting good stats, but he was the 210 lb 21-year-old playing against teenagers.

His next seasons were in the ECHL, so take that for what it is. In the end, it seems that Busto was either a guy Sather wanted off the books (unlikely he micromanages that much) or that he was simply brought in to replace TJ Kemp in Hamilton and nothing more. Don't go out and buy your Busto sweater anytime soon.

Not at camp

1) Alexei Emelin

Another NHL-ready, contractually tied player in the organization. It is reported that Emelin spurned the Canadiens, though like Valentenko, you have to wonder what the team was offering this able pro.

Skill-wise, Emelin is the best immediate fit for the Canadiens. He plays sound hockey, he plays rough, he plays in that gray area of the rules. Emelin is exactly the type of player that a young goalie tandem need – someone to make opposing forwards think before entering the zone. Someone who serves notice that shots from good positions are something that shooters will have to pay for with bruises.

Anyway, this year is fait accompli, he's at Kazan. If the allegations of an out clause are true, he could replace Mara next season. If not, it'll be at least two more.

2) David Fischer

Hockey's Future says:
The club remains high on their former first rounder and the former Minnesota Mr. Hockey has slowly but surely progressed in his development.

I have to seriously question that assertion. If the club were high on Fischer, I wonder whether they'd really be leaving him in a program that clearly isn't vaulting him to a future of NHL stardom – certainly now they have their mentor/coach Guy Boucher in place on the farm.

That said, Fischer is still one for the plans. While McDonagh was the better absolute prospect, in the Canadiens scheme where Markov, Gorges, Weber and Subban figure in the future, Fischer as the 6'3" now more defensive defenceman (out of necessity) is a better organizational fit.

When he was drafted in 2006, Fischer was a tall 2006 Mr. Hockey with talent to progress offensively and defensively. As time has passed, things haven't gone quite as well as the optimists thought. Though he is still 2006 Mr. Hockey, he also now holds the inauspicious title of 2007, 2008, 2009 Mr. 4th defenceman (I now get overtaken by younger players at our school) Wisconsin. His offensive game looks ever dwindling, and he's no Ken Daneyko. It's a tale of talent analysis gone off, but not so far that he's out of the picture. A 6th defenceman out of a first round pick (with Varlamov, Berglund and Giroux right behind) isn't great, but it's better than nothing.

3) Konstantin Korneev

This guy is a forgotten prospect. I mean truly off the radar. In deciding whether I should even continue mentioning his name, I did a search and found the Habs still maintain a player page for him.

He's worth mentioning though, because though 25 is old to import a player, he's already a star in the Russian pro ranks and for the senior national team at times. It would probably take massive roster overhaul again, a transfer agreement and a few other minor miracles to ever see him in bleu, blanc, rouge, but as non-NHLers go, he ranks for us.

4) Mac Bennett

The scouting reports say good skater, good instincts and most irrelevant of all (hi Keith Gretzky and Brian Sakic) bloodlines. If that's all you read and saw you'd be pretty stoked. Mac has added some context to the reports by attending a couple of camps with the Habs now. Impressive at the development camp and again at rookie camp, initial signs are good.

The fact that Mac Bennett has suddenly appeared at #14 on the list of Canadiens prospects at Hockey's Future probably speaks more to the prospects below him than it might about him. While Mac certainly provides intrigue, the fact remains no one in the Habs organization, nor likely any of the fans writing up about him, have seen him playing real games against anyone that isn't at a US high school. For every one Sean Hill, there are ten or twenty Steve McCools, Matt Shasbys and Kishels.

What's more, this is the very easiest time to be raving about a player like Bennett. We know he had a good season because he was drafted. The question always remains with any of these prospects – will it translate into another? Will it be duplicated at a higher level? We'll see. This season he is still in a high school league, so our answer may have to wait until Michigan 2011.

5) Niklas Torp

Torp to me sounds like the Swedish Emelin. Not giant, not great offensively, but an abrasive defender who makes people work for their space. Last year was not a year of distinction for Niklas. However, as a 19-year-old defensive defenceman in a men's league, what would one really expect.

This year has started out nicely for the youngster, and he's definitely grabbed a regular spot on the Jonkoping team. Let's not get too carried away, but he does already have more points than last season after 3 games. I think it's more of an indication of increased role than any sudden offensive awakening – still a good sign there.

6) Greg Pateryn

I'll forgive you for overlooking the guy we got for Grabovski, he's pretty low down the chart. There's not much to say yet about Pateryn. He has had one season at Michigan as a part-timer and is now vying to stake a place as a 19-year-old there. As for Montreal, one can't really see him taking less time than Fischer has been, so his pro career, if it ever gets going at all, will likely be another 3 years away.

7) Joe Stejskal

Here's another in the long list of American high school defeders in the Habs system. Outstanding high school (well, of course, he was drafted after all), but lacklustre in college thus far. It says that he's had time on the top pairing, which certainly shows any offensive prowess we thought he might have had might not be as natural to him as some. Furthermore, he's playing at Dartmouth, not Boston, not Michigan. While great for his academic career, the men in green don't immediately spring to mind when thinking of future NHLers.

He's still young enough that 2 more seasons of college could turn his career around, but you won't find any of my money on that. His saving grace is that he isn't 5'10".

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