Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Study In Contrasts

Montreal's Draft In Context

Friday and Saturday was the first oasis in the desert of hockey fan summer. With rumours and trades and picks and news to comment on, the draft added some optimism for those of us desperately wanting next season to end so we don’t have to call the Bruins Stanly Cup Champions any longer.

The draft was interesting for Habs fans. For those most optimistic of cheerleaders, each pick was a reason to celebrate, as usual. For those with feet a little closer to the ground, the Canadiens did OK – nothing more. Everything’s hunky-dory on this particular caravan route.

But like hockey games, what your own team does on a given night (day) is really only one part of the equation. Taking 35 shots is great but not if you let up 48 in doing it. So too the draft. In isolation the players we picked all sound great (like all prospects tend to), yet when we start to look at which prospects were left aside (all also getting good reviews) and what our chief rivals did on the very same day, the picture gets a little murkier.

My study in contrasts on this day pits our Montreal Canadiens against their closest neighbours, the Ottawa Senators.

Outwardly, the teams are in different situations at the end of this season. Ottawa in full rebuild. Montreal in a holding pattern waiting to contend. Ottawa still searching for a goalie. Montreal watching as Price garners many a Vezina (and Hart) vote.

But outward appearances can be deceiving and both teams also have other similarities.

Both, for instance, have high quality farm operations feeding them players. The Hamilton Bulldogs play to win and are perennial producers of players who now reflect that attitude. The Binghampton Senators, with their mix of AHL vets and Sens hopefuls just won the Calder Cup.

Both teams most intriguing prospect has emerged in the last two seasons at the back end. PK Subban in Montreal was a pleasant surprise from the second round of a recent draft. Erik Karlsson was the Sens most consistent player of the season.

Both teams, in the light of day, have a lot of trouble scoring goals. Montreal managed to post up respectable totals through the regular campaign, but even in late winter sometimes struggled to really score when it mattered and certainly weren’t burying teams. Ottawa scored the least goals in the whole NHL this last year. Neither team can really boast a sure-fire scoring phenom in the system to correct this problem short- or long-term.

So in terms of free agent needs, the teams stand apart. Ottawa needs much to hope to contend. Montreal seeks a piece or two. But in terms of needs five years from now, apart from Carey Price, the team needs don’t look all that different (though Carey Price is not some trivial piece). Interesting then that two general managers took such contrasting approaches to dealing with what could have at the outset been the same shopping list.

First round

Montreal: Nathan Beaulieu (D)
In every preview I read, Nathan Beaulieu went before pick #17. So, if scouts are to be trusted, and I suppose they must, Montreal picked the best player available. What’s more, Nathan played in the QMJHL and has a name that will have placated at least those Nationalist fans who don’t own a computer.

My personal view is that this was a safe pick. Perhaps too safe. As you know I’m not fond of picking defencemen in the first round, not because I don’t like defencemen (I do), rather because I think it’s harder to pry a scoring forward from a rival down the road.

Beaulieu may well turn out to be very good, but because Montreal will have PK Subban and Andrei Markov, he may be a luxury item. Trade him you say. Well, how much do you get for a defenceman who can score and play the back end? A second rounder if he’s as good as Wisniewski?

Ottawa: Mika Zibanejad (F), Stefan Noesen (F), Matt Puempel (F)
In every preview I read, Zibanejad and Noesen went lower than they were picked. And I explained why I didn’t favour Puempel before. If it were one pick from these vs. Beaulieu, 6 out of 10 scouts would have to say Montreal got better value (if they were true to their assessments). But on the whole, Ottawa’s first round was made better for continuity of strategy. Although I’m sure they’d like another partner for Erik Karlsson (and David Rundblad), they identified value in getting offensive players with skill and an actual knack for scoring (not a potential knack) and picked accordingly.

Between the three players, I think the Sens will have found two NHLers. I still think Noesen was the savviest pick of the draft.

Winner: Ottawa
It would have taken a lot for Montreal to outdraft Ottawa in Round 1 of this draft. Volume wasn’t in their favour. Ottawa didn’t slip, and Montreal played too safe in my opinion for this to be anything but an Ottawa victory.

Second and third rounds

Montreal: 2 fourth round picks
Montreal traded their third rounder for two later picks. This is a great, great move. By round three teams are far apart on their assessments of the players and their own needs. Most times, one would be unlucky to just miss a player earmarked for a pick in the third round or later. Two for one is a bargain. Heads up from Gauthier.

Ottawa: Shane Prince (F), Nikita Filatov (F)
Offense, offense and more offense. Sticking to the script, Bryan Murray and his team delivered more on their mandate. Prince was 13th in OHL scoring with a jump of 58 points. A hometown 67 to boot, he was worth taking a chance on.

Filatov is different. He has issues and I can see why he would be available for a third rounder. But the Senators in their current form have nothing to lose on this trade. Their lineup last spring was an AHL team and Filatov won’t be anything but an improvement, regardless of how often he shows up for shifts. The upside of the trade being as huge as it is, it’s a win from the Senators standpoint.

Winner: Ottawa
Despite not yet drafting a single defender, Ottawa is running away from Montreal in this draft. Volume again is the main factor, but there are moves here that Montreal would have made if they could have been in the position. Gauthier did well, but like the 35 shot generating team, did he do enough in the lead up to this draft to make the most of the picks he had round 3 and up? Will we be fretting over how cheaply Filatov was when free agency lands us our eventual Pouliot replacement?

Fourth and fifth rounds

Montreal: Josiah Didier (D), Olivier Archambault (F), Magnus Nygren (D), Darren Dietz (D)
Finally a forward! Olivier Archambault is full of potential (apparently), but flags go up for veterans of two junior seasons whose profile still relies heavily on their AAA information. Other than Archambault, the picking was on message for the day for Gauthier too: “We could never have too many offensive defencemen”.

The thrill about Didier seems to be that he was ranked so low 6 months ago, that his 108 final ranking (where he was picked) was deemed a temporary stop on his way up. To me, it seems like another safe pick, one in the mold of Timmins’ safest. Didier isn’t even in college but will be, so his contract won’t be on the books and his name could easily go the way of Stejskal or Pateryn without an eyelash being batted. It seems to me like this is the way scouts like it.

I can be more positive about Nygren and Dietz. Nygren is already a playing pro. He shoots right and has clearly established himself at age 21 on a good team. He’s a safe pick in a way too, because at 21 one already knows more about him. But this kind of safe sits better with me vs. the ability to “sweep a pick under the rug” kind of safe.

Clearly the Canadiens were watching Duncan Siemens. The Dietz pick proves that. And, their homework on Siemens produced a pick. If I were a betting man, I’d put more money on Dietz to don the Habs sweater then any pick in this draft other than Beaulieu.

Ottawa: Jean-Gabriel Pageau (F), Fredrik Claesson (D)
Ottawa took a Swedish defender and a QMJHL forward too. Pageau was 16th in QMJHL scoring, but 3rd in the playoffs. The small Quebecois is also local to Ottawa (Gatineau) and represents another well-taken gamble for the Sens. Claesson is a defensive Dman (already), though a youngster and a 5-game pro. Not too worried about missing this Swede.

Winner: Draw
Ottawa scooped Montreal on Pageau and forced the much bigger Archambault gamble. For this Gauthier can be chastised, as he was a mere pick away from #96. But Montreal did better in getting Nygren, who has real credentials behind him already and did amazingly to get Dietz who I think is as good as 5th rounders get.

Sixth and seventh rounds

Montreal: Daniel Pribyl (F), Colin Sullivan (D)
Two picks and two totally different approaches.

In Pribyl, the Habs take a flyer on a raw prospect from a league and a country that is way out of favour with scouts and GMs. To me, Pribyl is a bit like Avtsin. One really can’t tell what the stats mean, but the package on paper looks great. With a sixth rounder, a team should be doing these things, so kudos to Gauthier and Timmins for surprising us all.

In Sullivan, the Habs gave their nod to scouting consensus. Sullivan was a highly-ranked, yet overlooked American. Another smoothe-skating offensive-minded D (these seem so common in the minors, where are they in the NHL?), Sullivan is another safe pick in my eyes.

I will say that Ondrej Palat was taken by the Lightning with the 208th pick. We’re talking 4th leading scorer in the QMJHL – 39 goals. I’d chalk Colin Sullivan as a massive waste for this reason alone.

Ottawa: Darren Kramer (F), Max McCormick (F), Jordan Fransco (D), Ryan Dzingel (F)
A big guy, a couple of scoring USHLers and a decent WHL defender. These are late round picks, but in Dzingel, it feels like the Senators gambled again and may come away with something. Consider that Dzingel in his second year in the USHL scored 23 goals and 67 points (one may remember a certain Habs first rounder scoring 21 goals and 63 points in the same league to rave reviews).

Winner: Montreal
Despite missing a big opportunity with the 7th round pick (Palat), the Habs still kept their tradition of making interesting and daring picks in the late rounds. By that, of course, I mean Pribyl. Of all 6 players selected by Montreal and Ottawa, he’s the only one we’d really expect to see in a prominent role. Ottawa meanwhile filled in the blanks, opting for slightly less flashy options to balance their first few rounds.

Overall draft: Montreal vs. Ottawa

Ottawa came out of Draft 2011 with a better crop than Montreal did. Part of this was due to volume and earlier picks. However, this isn’t the whole story. By sticking to a single strategy (and a sound one in my opinion) of picking for the rarest commodity – scorers – Ottawa came away from draft day with a stable of names from which a reasonable person could see two or three legitimate scorers emerging. Montreal on the other hand may have picked the third member of the new Big Three, but with what we know of contracts and current depth charts at best would only have picked up a 5th and 6th Dman as well as some trade chips.

Archambault and Pribyl were the Habs gamble to try and fill in gaps left by Maxwell, Trunev, Sergei, Grabovski and others in the offensive depth chart, but they really do pale when stacked beside Zibanejad, Noesen, Puempel, Prince, Pageau, etc.

So that’s it Habs fans. I think our team had an average draft. There was no Fischer pick or Tanguay trade to mar the face of it, but nor did the Habs make great strides to get ahead of their rivals for 2015.

There’s nothing wrong with average. And average can sure up the foundation, as it surely will. But to constantly look at everything in isolation when teams like the Senators (and others) are making real noise on draft day belies the nature of this league.

The next oasis in this desert is free agency, I hope we get a better spot to take a drink…

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