Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A critique of the Canadiens' 2013 draft

So after a few days to recuperate and ponder, I want to revisit the Canadiens' draft and re-state my position that, in my uninformed 'fan who read lots of blogs and mock drafts' opinion, an opportunity was lost to even out the prospect mix and team makeup, and precious resources were squandered.

I base this opinion on the fact that the NHL is ever more turning into a SmashUp Derby game, a contest of attrition, where a player's ability to 'finish his checks' and endure crosschecks and facewashes in front of the net after the whistle has blown trumps his puck skills.  While I bemoaned this for years, I've surrendered, and acknowledge that if the Canadiens want to be competitive, they need to add some size and toughness to their lineup.

The Canadiens tried to fight the good fight, and promote a fan-friendly style that hearkened back to the Flying Frenchmen days.  Bob Gainey memorably in 2009 tried to overhaul the roster and acquired small but speedy forwards Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, in an attempt to overwhelm the League with quickness.  While there were some successes, other teams took advantage of our smaller players with attempts to intimidate and outright assaults, like, for example, when big friggin' hero Greg Campbell picked his spot and attacked Tom Pyatt, unprovoked, and beat his face to a pulp with the aid of an elbow pad.  Greg's daddy, the abysmal Colin Campbell, ruled it a hockey play.

Ultimately, Gainey's 'Virage Vitesse' was unsuccessful for a few reasons.  It became apparent that, especially during the playoffs, the referees are loathe to call interference penalties, and any quickness advantage the Canadiens had was nullified by the slashing and crosschecking they endured at the hands of their bigger, stronger opponents.  While the Canadiens had heart and could be successful, they had to have stellar goaltending and a lethal powerplay to win, and it's hard to rely on these factors.

While Marc Bergevin attempted last summer to add size, character and toughness by signing unrestricted free agents Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon, players who would play a grittier style but still be able to play the Canadiens way, it was shown to not be enough in the playoffs, when the massive Senators defencemen took untold liberties on the smaller Canadiens forwards.  Chris Neil made a practice during scrums in front of the net after the whistle, of grabbing Brendan Gallagher's head and trying to tuck it under his arm like it was a rugby ball.  It took five or so incidents for the refs to finally call it as the penalty it was, to Mr. Neil's scowly astonishment (granted, it doesn't take much to confuse him).

So we're reduced to joining the arms race, and transforming our roster with a healthy injection of truculence, belligerence, ill-temper, bellicosity, hostility, pugnacity, testosterone, and whatever else Brian Burke wants to call it.  This isn't entirely a new practice for the Canadiens.  In the past, while the team was populated with talented players, there was a brace of big, physical players who could cool the ardour of opposition tough guys, such as Pierre Bouchard, Gilles Lupien, Rick Chartraw, Kent Carlson, Chris Nilan, John Kordic.  There were physical defencemen who cleared the crease and played as tough as anyone, like Larry Robinson, Rod Langway, Craig Ludwig, Donald Dufresne, Lyle Odelein.  There were talented d-men who could hit and fight when needed, who didn't shrink when the going got tough, players like Serge Savard, Bill Nyrop, Guy Lapointe, Chris Chelios, Sylvain Lefebvre, Éric Desjardins.  There were physical forwards in the same mold, guys who could play hockey and score goals, but also accommodate the opposition if they wanted to drag the game in the gutter, guys like Yvon Lambert, Mario Tremblay, Doug Risebrough, Bob Gainey, Claude Lemieux, Mike Keane, Brian Skrudland, Dave Maley, Mike McPhee.  The Canadiens could play it any way the opposition wanted, and couldn't be intimidated, much as the Flyers and the Bruins tried.

So that's the tack that I hoped the Canadiens would adopt, to have a few bigger guys in the lineup to surround the slighter, more skilled guys, like the Bruins do with Sean Thornton, Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara, among others, or the Blackhawks do with Brent Seabrook, Brian Bickell among other towers and tough guys to protect Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

Looking at our roster in Hamilton, we see a forward lineup of average or undersized players, with skill and speed and character, but who won't help the Canadiens measure up to the Kings and Blues or Bruins.  There's no immediate help on the farm in that department.  While we have lots of two-way skaters, and some scorers in the pipeline, we're seriously deficient in any players with impressive size beyond Jarred Tinordi and Steve Quailer.  Our defencemen prospects like Nathan Beaulieu, Darren Dietz and Dalton Thrower, while they play a physical style, are going to be comparatively undersized, as the NHL's Mendoza Line for defencemen is trending towards 6'2", as described in this post in which I explored the need for the Canadiens to get bigger.

Of course, our timing couldn't have been better with this year's draft, as it had a lot of local players with impressive size and skill, and lots of bigger forwards who could be developed in the first two rounds.  All we needed to do was focus on players with that size and physical style, pick up six or seven such players, and then develop the hell out of them, and hope that two or (fingers crossed) three of them pan out.

Instead, I was crestfallen to see the Canadiens go again with a 'best player available' philosophy that is no longer applicable to today's NHL.  While we're still looking for the most skilled player, the guy with the best skating and puck skills, the modern definition of 'best player available' should include the likeliness that the player can survive the goonery and slashitude of the AHL and NHL.  I fear we're using an antiquated drafting philosophy, while the rest of the league, from the Board of Governors to the Hockey Operations Department to the Competition Committee to the referees have moved on to the modern survival-of-the-fittest hockey-is-war definition.

So with that context, and that proviso that I went in with expectations that were going to be dashed, here is my critique of the Canadiens 2013 draft, using some of the comments (in italics) I posted during the draft, as I tried to do my version of a 'Liveblog'.

-  Pick #25:  The Canadiens pick Michael McCarron, a 6'5" winger out of the U.S. National Team Development Program.  He was ranked as an early second-rounder.  Big size, aggressiveness, skill is a bit in question.

Sure, he'll bring size and toughness, but we kind of scoffed at Tom Wilson and Tyler Biggs the last two drafts, so I'm not sure why this guy is any better.

In Trevor Timmins I trust.  Ommmmmmm...

-  The fact that the Canadiens had a jersey with Michael McCarron's name on it is an indication that they chose a guy who they wanted, and not just as a reaction to all their guys being snapped up.  So there's that.

I'd advocated the previous week that the Canadiens should trade down if any of the three next level LHJMQ picks after Nathan McKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, namely Anthony Mantha, Frédérik Gauthier and Samuel Morin, were unavailable once we got to #25.  This would allow us to pick up another 2nd rounder plus another asset and dive into the pool of big forwards, most from the USNTDP, who were to be found there.  I also had designs on Jonathan Ismaël Diaby, a towering project of a defenceman, already an imposing physical specimen at 18 years old.  I felt an extra second rounder plus a later pick would allow the Canadiens to 'reach' for Mr. Diaby.

Instead, the Canadiens decided to play it safe, keep the pick and grab the guy they wanted, if the lettered jersey is any indication.  I felt this was a safe pick, in that they probably feared he would be gone if they waited until #34.  So they decided to not get cute and keep the bird in hand.  Some fans and analysts harp on the fact that he has questionable talent, but let's be realistic, if he had the puck skills of an Eric Lindros, or even a Keith Primeau, at his size, he would have been gone by pick #5, so we should be content with him at #25.  All that remains is for Martin Lapointe to figure out the best way for him to develop, either at Western Michigan in the NCAA or with the London Knights in the OHL.

-  Pick #34:  We get Jacob De la Rose, a guy who got lots of hype, good size.  Swedes I find tend to be undervalued compared to CHL players, so I'm happy with this pick.

Another pick I was happy with, in that the writeups on Jacob De la Rose were impressive, and seemed to indicate a player with good skating, good size, some scoring talent, an inclination to deliver bodychecks and great hockey sense.  He seems to be a safe bet to be a second or third-liner, and if he can be an Yvon Lambert-type of player, a guy who plays hard in both ends of the ice, brings toughness and pots timely goals, we're ecstatic.

-  Pick #36:  The Canadiens draft Zachary Fucale.  Not necessarily happy with this pick, but I have to trust their judgment on this one.  I would have preferred another sizeable forward or defenceman.  Taking the best goalie in this class this low is a steal I guess.

With these comments I tipped my hand and showed how much I wanted a bigger, talented forward picked here, again to inject some size in the prospect mix, and right the current imbalance.  I was hoping that Trevor Timmins would snag a scoring winger like Valentin Zykov or William Carrier.  With time, I've grown to like this pick very much, the reports on Mr. Fucale are very encouraging, in terms of the talent he has, his attitude and character, and the fact that he has been the starting goaltender on a championship team for two seasons now.  This is quite a lot of experience and work for a seventeen-year-old.

The Canadiens have needed a frontline goaltending prospect for a couple of years now, and Zach Fucale fills that bill, at an unexpected low price.  It's a pleasant surprise to get the highest-ranked goalie this far down the draft, and he could turn out to be a major piece of the team in the future, and the best pick in this draft.

And it now takes us to the first of many disappointments:

-  Pick #55:  A puzzling pick, the Canadians grab Arturri Lehkonen.  Not happy.  He plays the role already filled by Sebastian Collberg and Charles Hudon.

My comments at the time say it all.  I felt he was the proverbial ice machine to the Inuit, more of what we already had.  Since then, I've had the opportunity to acquaint myself with this prospect more, and while some aspects are enticing, such as his play against grown men in the Finnish league, and his obvious skill with the puck, others are worrisome, like his frail build, and his concussions sustained last season.


-  And William Carrier, a bigger homeboy, is snapped up the very next pick by St. Louis.  As a very uninformed fan, I'm disappointed we didn't take him instead of the Finnish pipsqueak we got.

-  Actually, Marc-Olivier Roy went to Edmonton before the Blues picked Mr. Carrier.  My point remains.

...and, I kept raving...

-  Talent is being proven to be unimportant, a marginal consideration by the current state of the NHL with its laissez-faire refereeing.  Talent is wiped out by size.  Mr. Lehkonen will have to work hard to prove me wrong, but in this day and age, I think it's a wasted pick.

So I'm going to stand by my original objection.  Mr. Lehkonen could well turn out to be an inspired pick, and be a star, but so could any one of the bigger forwards available at this point, the two local boys previously listed, or buzzsaw Nicholas Baptiste of the OHL, or 6'3" LW Zachary Sanford, to name a few.  I admit I never saw any of these players in question actually play, but if we had to pick out of a cluster of prospects who grade relatively equally, we should have taken the players whose skillset we lacked, as opposed to the ones who are clones of those we already have.

Some will reflexively bark "Best player available!" as a justification for this pick, but I will counter that the Canadiens weren't taking the BPA, they drafted nothing but forwards except for one goalie.  So obviously they wanted to right the prospect imbalance in Hamilton, which is going to be knee-deep in D-men this fall, and applied themselves to that.  I contend they should have applied themselves to improving the size makeup on the farm as well.

And despite the stated plethora of defencemen in the system, so much so that we can allow Yannick Weber to walk away as a UFA instead of locking him up with a qualifying offer, we should have targeted Jonathan Ismaël Diaby.  You don't let a 6'5" 250 lbs homeboy defenceman with a mean streak slip through your fingers, when your system is woefully thin on such players.  You don't blink or overthink or wait and see if he'll fall down the draft into your lap, you grab that guy, instead of the small longshot from overseas.  Mr. Diaby could have been the tough crease-clearing #5 or 6 d-man of the future, who brought some snarl to the back end and imposed some respect for Carey Price, who is too often treated as a beanbag chair the way opponents collapse on him.

Not drafting Jonathan Ismaël Diaby was a tremendous waste of an opportunity, who would have ticked off many needs off our list.  With the proper development, he could at worst have played the role Gilles Lupien used to fill, the #6 defenceman-enforcer who can take care of his own end and play a regular shift.  His ceiling is probably higher than that minimum expectation though.  Judging from the scouting reports and his progression this season, it's likely that he's done growing and is now getting his coordination back after the growth spurt, and that his skills will catch up with his size, and he'll keep improving beyond just being a big tough player.

-  Pick #71:  To help us forget about Erik Cole, with the third-rounder we got from them, we pick up Connor Crisp, an overage Junior with massive size but little talent to speak of.

We've got this weird pendulum swinging back and forth, with size but no skill at one end, and skill in a very small package at the other.  McCarron, to Lehkonen, to Crisp.

It's hard to argue with this pick, while I'm trying to argue that we should have targeted size at this draft.  The kid is big and will play physical.  He's a long shot to make the Canadiens, but let's plug him in the system and coach him up and see what happens.

But then...

-  Pick #86:  Sven Andrighetto, an overaged 5'9" forward at #86.  I'm going to barf.

This was supposed to be an opportunity to correct the size imbalance in our system, with an injection of bigger players to surround those smaller, less physical prospects already on the farm.  We're failing miserably at that.

Mason Geertsen is still on the board, and we let him go for this guy.

This isn't fun any more.

Again, a puzzling pick, a small player who will be disadvantaged in the NHL as it is currently being run.  Further, it's overkill to take another risk on this type of player, when we did so in the last round.

Now, I'm familiar with Sven Andrighetto, a Québec-based blogger swears by him and sang his praises all season, but it's still a huge gamble.  The kid may be 'big for his size' and have all the skill in the world, but he's been passed over two years in a row in the draft.  For all the stockiness he has, so does Brendan Gallagher, and he was mauled by the Senators during the playoffs.

There were arguments that he was chosen precisely because of his age and status as an overager, so that he will be able to go to Hamilton this very fall, and chip in some offence, but again, he's another young, smaller kid joining a team full of them.  Not a good mix.

Philosophically, this was a bad pick, a bad bet on the wrong horse.  We've already put down a bet on a longshot at #54.  There were better options. such as Hudson Fasching or Anton Slepyshev, big talented forwards who can score and who fell in the draft, and again would have been a better complement to our prospects.

My personal favourite, big, tough, nasty Mason Geertsen of the Vancouver Giants, a player who is not loaded with talent but has lots of heart and plays really hard, was still available, and again would have improved our size profile on the blue line.  If one of him or Mr. Diaby panned out, we'd have a good complementary piece.  If both did, we'd be laughing.

A safer pick might also have been Jackson Houck, also of the Giants, and he could have been the Doug Risebrough-type of player, with decent size at 6', 190 lbs and a lot of snarl to his game, and leadership skills.  While Louis Leblanc reportedly balks at being groomed as a third-line checker, this kid would embrace the role and give it all he has.


Mason Geertsen goes top of the fourth, 93rd overall to the Avalanche.  His Vancouver Giants teammate Jackson Houck goes next to the Oilers.  Right around where I thought Mr. Geertsen would go, we should have grabbed him with our second third-round pick.  Mr. Houck I'm not so high on, think he's the second coming of Mike Hough, but some analysts thought he might go in the second round, which was insane.  Fourth round is appropriate for him also.

I was starting to lose it:

-  It's much too early to pronounce on this draft, but I'm waffling between a debacle or a fiasco.

Sure, some hyperbole, a little levity to lighten up the proceedings, except...

-  Pick #116:   And I pronounced it as such before I found out we'd drafted Martin Reway, a 5'9" forward who scored 22 goals in the LHJMQ this year.

Debacle?  Fiasco?  So hard to make the call.

En français, on dirait 'une débandade.'

-  Let me restate that the only reason these mini-players are available is because every other team understands that, as skilled as they are, the refs and Jeremy Jacobs won't let them be successful.

What more is there to say here?  Trevor Timmins, when asked about this pick, explained that it was a "homerun swing", and I understand what he means.  Huge talent, low chance of making it, but if he does he could pay off big.  But wasn't the Lehkonen or Andrighetto pick the homerun swing?  How many of these does one take?  How about moving the runners, just making contact?

Again, Hudson Fasching was still available at this point, and so was Mitchell Wheaton, a 6'4" prospect from the defenceman factory that is the Kelowna Rockets.  There were other options than another undersized offensive forward.  By now the decision-making is baffling.

Pick 176:  The Canadiens take Jérémy Grégoire in the sixth round.  Again, I've seen some good writeups on this kid but haven't seen him play.  Funny that lists him as either 5'11" or 6', depending which page of their website you look at.

Happy to take a local boy here, might as well.

No arguments with this pick.  It's actually a relief.  Local boy?  Check.  Good size?  Check.  Plays gritty, will complement the skilled forwards we have on the books?  Check.

Even so, I felt deflated.

The fact that the Canadiens gave up their seventh-rounder in exchange for Florida's 2014's 7th is merciful.  I'm not sure I could have taken any more.

The fact that the Canadiens made this trade was mildly puzzling, as customarily the price for a pick today is a pick one round higher the next year.  In this case though, Trevor Timmins indicated that they had no one on their list, or anyone left that any scout was advocating for, so the pick didn't have much value.  The disparity might stem from the fact that it was probably the Canadiens flogging it, instead of a team running around looking for a pick.

The Canadiens staff must have thought that next year, they might be in a different situation.  While a seventh may not sound like much, at last year's draft we didn't have one, and giant Victoriaville goalie Brandon Whitney was still on the board deep into the seventh.  Had we kept our seventh we could have snapped him up before he fell any further, and bolstered our organizational depth that way.  The odds are, in any case, that the Florida pick will be closer to the top of the round, as opposed to the bottom as this year's pick was, so that may in itself be a benefit.

So what did we learn at this year's draft?  Probably that we shouldn't go in with any expectations, and that we should let the pros handle the delicate work.  But it's no fun that way.

I'll be sure to harrumph my disapproval many times in the near future, with liberal use of 'I told you so's when appropriate, but glossing over instances where I was misguided, instead pointing to the many preambles and caveats sprinkled in here to cover my flanks.

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