Friday, September 04, 2009

Philippe Lefebvre's Big Habs Break

The Montreal Canadiens announced the invitees for their rookie camp yesterday.

The list is a who's who of draft picks from the last few seasons, with the critical exclusion of US college players like Louis Leblanc, Kristo, Quailer and Fischer. But there were some interesting names in the mix as well.

Gabriel Dumont remains on the list. Although he is injured and will not play in games, one can only assume that he will be invited to the initiation events, meetings and such. It's good to see he seems to have made it stick.

Petteri Simila appears to be coming, which is interesting considering he'll be the only European-based player to make the trip. I suppose that shows just how dire the Canadiens depth at the position of goaltender is – presumably, this represents a bit of a fast-tracking for the gargantuan Finn.

Joe Stejskal is coming, which means he isn't a college player any longer. The lack of an asterisk tells me he isn't signed by the Canadiens or Bulldogs yet, so this represents a good chance for him to carve out a place. A late pick, with little fanfare, he seems to have a combination of skills that if pieced together right could produce an NHL defenceman in the future. Nothing to get too excited about, but if you remember the Alex Henry call-up, then you'll know why I'm even mentioning this depth guy.

Finally, of interest are a couple of local guys essentially getting a tryout to show what they can do. Frederick St. Denis is a defensive prospect getting on in years and parked behind a bumper crop at his position. His inclusion is as a Hamilton hopeful rather than a Habs player. Philippe Lefebvre is on a formal tryout at the tender age of 18. Undrafted, he still represents a real development opportunity for the organization.

Philippe Lefebvre

The scouting report on Lefebvre...
With a knack for digging out loose pucks and sliding them home, Lefebvre's game would be more effective if he was able to fight for positioning among the bigger and stronger players in the league. At 5'11 and 186 pounds, he needs to get stronger and be more willing to go into traffic in order to improve his overall game.

... is not the most flattering I have ever read, nor does it scream sign him up. But in Phil's case, I don't really feel it matters too much. You see Lefebvre has stumbled onto this critical opportunity at exactly the right time in his career and in the cycle of the Canadiens development. The way I see it, he has three very important things going in his favour this September:

1) He was born in Quebec. He played in Quebec. Born in Trois Rivieres, to be precise, he played his early hockey there. In 2007, he put up timely numbers to place him in the sights of QMJHL drafters. Ranked 6th going into the draft (Leblanc was ranked 2nd), he ended up as the 2nd overall choice only behind NHL first-rounder Simon Despres.

His pedigree as a Quebec-born player is all there. He has come up as a star from midget, got noticed at the age of 16 for the Q draft and has since made good progress in the QMJHL. His only hiccough is falling behind his more talented peers to go undrafted at the NHL levels – which was a surprise to some.

2) He played for Guy Boucher.
Perhaps not all of you know the success story that was the Drummondville Voltigeurs this past season. But the team, together with coach Guy Boucher managed a monumental turnaround to go from last to setting the pace and winning the championship in style.

Guy Boucher has since moved on in his career, bu only as far as Hamilton. He looks like a coaching prospect for the future Canadiens teams.

So, playing for Guy Boucher then proves to be a major tick on your hockey CV if you hope to make the Canadiens. Guy must surely have the rosiest memories of his year in Drummondville and will likely have some affinity for the players who helped vault him to the next tier. Indeed, the Canadiens already have a Voltigeurs presence – signing Dany Masse and then pursuing both Gabriel Dumont and Phil Lefebvre after Guy came on board. It's to be presumed that Lefebvre is held in some esteem by Boucher as he is the only repeat try-out (sans contract) from the development camp to this one.

3) He plays on the wing. More than anything, Lefebvre's position stands out as a massive asset. The Canadiens rookie camp list alone shows an embarrassing lack of talent on the wings. To go with 9 centres, there are a mere 7 wingers in all. One is the injured Dumont, one is probable washout JT Wyman and two others show little promise of offering more than muscle in the future (Conboy and Neilson). To do the count that leaves us with Max Pacioretty, Brock Trotter and now the try-out Philippe Lefebvre. His opportunity based on that alone is immense.

But take for a minute the overall Canadiens depth chart into account as well. Wingers beyond the top three in the organization represent a red flag for the Habs (second only to insurance goaltending). The depth is so sketchy that Georges Laraque actually fits on the NHL reserve roster without dispute. The remaining number would barely be enough to scratch out a team in Hamilton, much less Cincinnati as well.

Of course, centres will play the wings – they'll have to. But even there, Lefebvre's opportunity looks open. It will be a matter of eclipsing Ryan White and Tom Pyatt to earn his AHL shot.

I can't remember a time where a try-out had such an open door as this. All that remains for Lefebvre to do is display what he is capable of – a bit of digging, a bit of opportunism and a few goals here and there. I wish him luck.

The other side of the coin

While I feel genuine excitement for the players that may grasp a contract from a try-out, as a serious Canadiens fan I have to question the wisdom in leaving holes like this right up to September.

While Gainey did a masterful thing in signing Mathieu Darche, it seems. For me it seems there may be room for one or two more AHL-willing, yet NHL-capable wingers to be added to the mix. Names that I browsed led me to few real standouts, but I could see an try-out offers for the main camp to Michel Ouellet (UFA, Van) or Ryan Bayda (UFA, Car) as sensible steps at this point.

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