Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lost Boys

I didn't know Corey Haim well on screen, I only knew him from hearsay and friends magazines from school days. It's always sad when a young life passes. I reflect on it and wish his family and friends well as they mourn his loss.

Corey was once in a movie called the Lost Boys (one of his most well known), and it seems to me he lived his life, as many child actors do, as a bit of a lost boy in Hollywood. There are hockey players who can relate, I think. Players that came up as talented youngsters, players that performed when they thought they needed to perform, and for one reason or another never made the draft or perhaps never made the cut.

The Canadiens recent success has been buoyed by a group of these lost boys. A group of players, who, however proficient they seem now, have been overlooked, dismissed and discarded each over the years. Between them, they have experienced every form of slap in the face from GMs ¬– release from roster, placement on waivers, traded for nothing – and have all come back with more to prove.

Glen Metropolit – Waiver King

Metro’s back story has been well documented. His hockey career has been one hurdle after another, a total contrast to the free rides ordained on first rounders. If his story is not unique, it’s because undrafted players like Glen get typical treatment after they audition in the league. Often entering via free agency (Glen did with Washington in 1999), their try-out is expected to be short if it is not sweet.

Metro’s first stint with an NHL outfit was his most prolonged stay to date. From 1999-00 he plied his trade with the Capitals organization (NHL and AHL). But cracks began to show in Washington’s commitment when they exposed Glen to waivers and lost him 2001. Tampa used him in a limited way for a couple of games before he was back on waivers and in Washington until the lockout.

Following the lockout, Glen was in Europe and with all the young “hopefuls” around, grossly overlooked. Atlanta retrieved him first, and he stayed there until being packaged for a Tkachuk rental. Boston was next, then Philadelphia and then for the 4th time in his career Metropolit was claimed on waivers – this time by the Habs.

Glen’s status as a lost boy has been cemented by those organizations that seem to choose release over retention when push comes to shove. Hindsight, as we know, is 20/20. For those GMs that gave up on Metro, a dose of foresight might have helped. Of his 2002-03 class in Washington, Glen is one of a couple of surviving NHL players. Atlanta, still in the hunt for decent depth might regret jettisoning Glen for an 0-4 run with Tkachuk.

Who knows where Glen will be in a year’s time. History tells us that the Canadiens won’t likely commit anymore to a 36-year-old with something to prove anymore than anyone else has. Instead, they’ll pour resources into younger (but not necessarily better) players out of sheer hope they’ll call upside. Glen will move on for another season or two and then again, and may just end up with more career points from now till when it ends than Maxwell, Trotter and others combined.

Dominic Moore – Deadline Superstar

Dominic Moore is another wandering soul. Unlike Metro, he was drafted. But being drafted as an over-ager from a school that isn’t called Michigan is often a prescription for the same short tether afforded to try-out signings anyway. At least in Moore’s case, his parent club was talking about him as a prospect.

His NHL debut came way back at the age of 23 in 2003. Habs fans may remember the day, as Moore launched a career in style by racing around Habs defenders and setting up 3 Rangers goals. The next season, however, was the lockout. And although Moore was still a shiny prospect and a good performer with the Wolfpack in Hartford, the year without NHL contact would be costly for the player. Whereas before the lockout Dom was a depth chart climber in a shallowish prospect pool, the Rangers re-jig in summer 2005 changed his fortunes somewhat. Holik, Nedved and Lindros were replaced by centres Nylander, Straka and Rucchin, and the Wolfpack was starting to look a better outfit too. His season was full, and an extremely solid rookie effort. But an NHL GM is an NHL GM and when faced with flashy free agents and younger players, Moore’s 26-year-old offering was judged as lost players have always been judged – a single full season (thank lockout) and 9 goals (thanks 4th line minutes) wasn’t enough to stir Sather to drop Dawes for Moore.

This was the start of more of the same as Dominic was now a veteran (1 season, remember) because of his age. Having left his parent organization, he now faced the biases of new scouts who never watched him Hartford or Harvard and preferred their own prospects instead. Traded twice at the 2006 draft, he landed in Pittsburgh, and it was there he became the perennial late season acquisition. First Minnesota (2007), then Toronto (waivers, 2008), Buffalo (2009) and Montreal (2010). Lost boy, indeed.

Toronto looked like a real home for Dominic, but with one thing or another it was never meant to be. Montreal, with its sometimes dire need for a sensible and calming influence may yet be a home for more than a month or two.

Mathieu Darche – Branded from the start

There’s a reason Mathieu Darche is the only Redman in the NHL today – the CIAU hockey stream is not valued by GMs. Preferring instead to take 3rd liners from junior, Europeans who have no interest in leaving their home and high school players from the US, the NHL GMs overlook Canadian Universities. It’s a shame really, as Canada could benefit from keeping its own academically-minded players on home turf, were it not for the silly prejudice.

Darche made the NHL by sheer force, as he was not an average CIAU player, but a superstar. Yet, it is better to be 6’2” from the Omaha Lancers than an above average sized captain of McGill. Columbus was the team to take a chance, perhaps only because they needed to stock from nothing following expansion. If this was a fortuitous turn for Mat, the ineptitude of that organization was a cruel turn.

Darche, you see, progressed handsomely through his next tests. Despite the shameful dearth of talent in Columbus, though, he was never afforded a true chance. How anyone could entrust Doug MacLean – who now parades his simplistic adherence to commandments like “never give up on a young player” for TV audiences – is a question Ohioans have been asking for a few years now. The way he botched his choice of players to commit to (including Darche) is comical. When Darche led the Syracuse Crunch in scoring in 2002-03, the NHL team was setting standards for futility again. He played one game. His rivals for minutes: Whitney, Sanderson, Nash, Shelley, Kallio. That summer he was unsigned as Columbus chose to enter the season with Nash, Sanderson, Shelley and Nedorost at LW. You tell me, Doug…

When you’re coming into the league with CIAU tag already, CBJ giving up on you is not a great boost for the brand. The branding stuck too. Nashville tried, but not really (2 GP), so did San Jose (2 GP). Tampa gave him a go, but the next season was back to career AHLer with Buffalo (0 GP). Even his signing in Montreal was viewed in this way. A few times, I floated his promotion, just as an idea on the blog, and it was laughed at with the familiar smirk of a knowing GM.

22 games into a Canadiens recall, Darche is showing the meaning of branding – not much. He has already supported the first line, the second line and reignited the dismal bottom lines. Like Metro, history tells us he’ll be judged by his diploma more than his gameplay in January in the cold light of June, but this is another lost boy whose shining light on the silly prejudices that said Garth Murray would have better days in the NHL in 2009-10 than he.

Marc-Andre Bergeron – A Difficult Fit

The Habs final lost boy is Marc-Andre Bergeron.

Unlike the others, he wasn’t overlooked from the start. Although, he wasn’t drafted, that was probably due to an unfortunate truncated season in draft year. His next two junior campaigns were eye-catching and he put up massive points. In 2001, he was sought and snagged by Edmonton who treated him as a hot prospect from there. He played good minutes in the AHL, got a fair audition and then had a place made for him in the NHL. All this was answered with what was promised – offense from the backline.

MAB’s career veered to the point of summer 2009 as GM’s realized that the defenceman was really a forward wrongly named, and one that struggled with the responsibility of his chosen position. Edmonton traded him to the Islanders, where he briefly thrived. The Ducks, having traded for the services of a rental cannon from the point. They set the wheels for what was to come by letting MAB go in the summer of 2008. Minnesota tried out the specialist for a season, but also found it difficult to compete. His place in the league then in question, as GMs opted instead for defencemen who play defence and forwards who aren’t 150 lbs. Lost not because of some outdated bias about the draft, but rather due to minds with such lack of creativity that they couldn’t see how to squeeze out a 5:00 minute enforcer in favour of a 5:00 minute PP-only option.

In picking Bergeron this time, Gainey seems at least to have understood what he was acquiring. What’s more, the Canadiens, having already built a home for Mark Streit, know how to manage a line up with someone offering so much in a single dimension.

Even I am beginning to see the cracks with this policy, though. It’s one thing to deploy MAB in a lineup without Markov, but now the maestro is back, the dressing a PP booster seems luxurious. Still, he’s definitely a man for the active roster, especially in the playoffs, as the threat of dressing a near unstoppable PP is enough to make any opposing coach pull his remaining hair out.

Onward the Lost Boys

I was wrong about Metropolit, you’ve been wrong about Moore, I dismissed Bergeron, many overlooked Darche. The team that we have on the ice is better than we thought it could be.

10 games to go, and the post-Olympic period has given us new appreciation for contribution across the board. We can already thank the Lost Boys for points in the standings, a PP to be reckoned with and the fact we have any hope this March.

As we face Ottawa tonight and jockey for position in the final sprint to the line, keep an eye on the Lost Boys whose joy at winning each game, at even playing their next NHL shift is a major impetus for this Habs resurgence.

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