Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Habs Choose Prospects To Proceed With

It's very easy to look at an NHL training camp as a negative process. Many more players are invited to camp than ever could fit on a team bus, let alone a team sheet. Cuts are inevitable and so are phrases like "not making the cut", "shipped back to junior", etc.

In reality, training camp produces just as many positive stories as negative ones. And while it's easy to look at which step the players stumbled at, it's also useful to see how many they progressed through and how many more that was than original expectation.

Last night was the time the Canadiens chose to trim their roster to a more regular-sized group, with 31 players remaining in camp. Yes, 19 players were cut from the 27 that were in camp, but the optimist would say that 8 of the 27 actually excelled to pass this stage. Within the 17 there are also success stories, simply because they must have made the coaches and management consider retention – even when that possibility a year, a month or even 10 days ago was a far-off thought.

The eight

When you take away the 23 regular roster players: that is 2 goalies, 7 defencemen and 14 forwards by my estimation, you are left with 8 players hanging around with less than a fortnight to go until opening night. At this stage, you'd have to think that some of them actually have a chance at making the big team.

By my count the eight are:

1) Curtis Sanford
2) Mathieu Carle
3) Alex Hanry
4) Yannick Weber
5) Kyle Chipchura
6) Olivier Fortier
7) Ben Maxwell
8) Tom Pyatt

The first thing that stands out from this list is that players who've auditioned in the NHL before are making their cases for another chance. Curtis Sanford has made it clear he is the #3 (at worst) in this organization and will be the first call up for sickness or injury. Yannick Weber has parlayed his NHL regular season and playoff experience (and a decent camp) into a longer look – somewhat overcoming the hype machine of PK Subban. And, both Chipchura and Maxwell have done enough to hold their positions in the pecking order it seems.

In addition to those names, there are Alex Henry and Olivier Fortier, both of whom are injured. Essentially cut, I suppose, it may be the Canadiens have just kept these two players around so they can be treated by the expensive physios that grace the bowels of the Bell Centre. Who knows, there may be more to it.

That leaves 2 names among the eight who present somewhat as surprises.

Mathieu Carle

It's a bit of serendipity for Mathieu Carle to have an extended look at this year's camp. Last season, as a possible candidate for injury-time call up, or even for a short trial stint, he took an injury in camp. The result was that he was a de facto cut, even though he remained officially with the Habs until late October when Higgins' place had to be made.

This training camp, Mathieu has once again availed himself relatively well. By that, I mean he's been a top 9 body at the back. On the plus side, Mathieu has played in two wins and one loss. What's more he avoided playing in the nightmarish game against the Sens in Ottawa. He's definitely has some hiccoughs, as his plus/minus shows – and he created the giveaway that led to the Bruins winning goal; however, in large part he outperformed his rivals to be retained (Subban, Benoit and Belle).

The chances of him staying on much longer than this will depend on the next game and the one after that. I suspect the Canadiens would be willing to hold onto a right-hand shot if they feel the chance of playing a game is real. In the real world, though, his next two games are an audition to be first in line for a call up from Hamilton.

Tom Pyatt

While McDonagh is working on his homework in Wisconsin, Valentenko is enjoying his life in Russia and Doug Janik is already out of New York and in Detroit, Montreal in the meantime is carrying 2 centres in their final 31 from the June 29th trade.

If you would have told me in June, or even yesterday morning, that Tom Pyatt would be kicking around in camp as one of the final 17 healthy forwards, I'd have been mildly shocked. He doesn't have the NHL experience of a player like Darche or Glumac, nor the Hamilton familiarity of Trotter, Desharnais or White. He doesn't even have the glamour of being a first or second rounder that Gainey is trying to post-rationalize like Latendresse, Chipchura and Maxwell. No, Tom's come in well and truly under the radar and bumped himself way up the depth chart it seems.

Pyatt's that interesting player in the Gomez trade that perhaps got lost in Montreal translation. While we were all looking at Gomez, and the price we paid in cash and players, we forgot to really appreciate the other pieces returned. I would liken it to the time we got a back-up goalie from the Kings when we traded Garon for Bonk, or the defenceman we swooped when Rivet was traded for picks. Certainly a potential NHLer, not entirely silly to call him a replacement for Higgins (one day).

I previewed him briefly yesterday, so I won't do it again. While I trawled a bit for info on Tom, I found this great piece from a Rangers reporter last season. Have a read if you're interested in the mystery man. Here's a taster:
“We love his skating,” Renney said. “He needs to push the envelope from a physical perspective, which we believe he is very capable of.”

Renney doesn’t seem to think that Pyatt’s size will hold him back from excelling in the NHL. In fact, he even compared Pyatt’s physique to that of Rangers' rookie, Nigel Dawes, who had a remarkable first season on Broadway.

This camp, Pyatt has done a lot to back up the expectations shared by Renney and others. In his first game (Game #2), he played a very minor role indeed. He did nothing to really standout, but played a 4th line role in a win with some pretty awful wingers – so that's a plus. He was back in the lineup for the return to form game against the Bruins (and even knocked over Chara – see pushing the envelope more). Then, in his reward game and final try-out game, Pyatt fully impressed – even getting PK duty and play on all kinds of good lines.

Of course, he'll have to keep that up to further upset the status quo (Gainey doesn't like to change his long laid plans). But if he does, what's to say that Pyatt couldn't be breathing down the necks of Metropolit, Stewart, Laraque, Chipchura and others.

Pacioretty, D'Agostini, O'Byrne

Others that have had a positive camp include these three, who have ensured that NHL experience and training camp moments form this year have combined to fend off any pretneders for their positions. Pacioretty and O'Byrne in particular seem to be homing in on more permanent positions.

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