Wednesday, 27 May 2015

2015 Off-Season: Should the Canadiens offer Josiah Didier a contract?

With the dust having settled somewhat after Marc Bergevin's mildly controversial end-of-season press conference, we can start to assess what moves the Canadiens will make in the off-season, starting with what to do with unsigned drafted players.

In 2013, we advocated offering a contract to Daniel Prybil, but not Olivier Archambault and Dustin Walsh, these three being the players whose rights were about to expire.  It came to pass that none of them were offered a deal.

In 2014, we thought Dalton Thrower should be signed, but not Mike Cichy and Erik Nystrom, and that came to pass, but we were puzzled by the decision to not offer Brady Vail a contract.

Ultimately, none of these players who were let go have come back to haunt the Canadiens.  It may happen that down the road one of these guys blossoms, but it will be a surprise, and we won't be able to fault the Canadiens for that decision, since they have to evaluate the players as they are now in their progression, and the likelihood that they will pan out.  

With the 50-contract limit, you can't hoard all your prospects, and hope that one of the very longshots turns it around and pays off like a lottery ticket.  You have to make educated decisions, weigh the opportunity cost of holding on to a fringe prospect versus having the flexibility to sign unrestricted free agents who are closer to the finish line.  

And so far, the pedestrian results offered by Brady Vail, Olivier Archambault and Daniel Prybil among the others cut loose vindicate the decision-making of the team, which allowed the brain trust to pursue and sign players like Jiri Sekac and Daniel Carr.  

The longest journey begins with the first step.  Slow and steady personnel moves like this eventually win the race.

This off-season, we don't have a handful of players we need to make decisions on.  The 2013 draft yielded a bounty of prospects, and the leading lights, Michael McCarron, Jacob de la Rose and Zachary Fucale are already signed.  Sven Andrighetto was picked as an overager, was immediately signed and folded into the talent-starved Bulldogs.  Arturri Lehkonen is still playing in Europe, delaying the decision in his case for another couple of years.

Longshot Connor Crisp is signed and already has a season in the AHL under his belt, although it was difficult for the rugged winger.  Hopefully he adapts more fully next season.

And Jérémy Grégoire, a lowly sixth-round pick, had an injury-marred season with the Drakkar in the LHJMQ, but came back with a vengeance when healthy, scoring at a greater than a point/game pace, and two points/game during the post-season.  His style of play should mesh well with the Canadiens' system and the AHL in general.

Which leaves unsigned from the 2013 draft only Martin Reway, who played one season in the LHJMQ with the Gatineau Olympiques, was drafted, played another season and then returned to Europe to play pro in the Czech League and earn more money than he could in the CHL.  While it's not ideal perhaps in terms of prospect development, the silver lining for the Canadiens is that through a technicality in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it gives the team until 2017 rather than this June to make a decision on whether to sign the diminutive Slovakian forward or not.  This is in contrast of some alarmist, misinformed reports to the contrary on a Canadiens blog and le Journal de Montréal, which again, as is its custom, gets it wrong.

While he is undoubtedly a skilled player, Martin Reway is also very small, beyond undersized.  While the NHL game may slowly be shifting away from the lumbering WHL grinders towards skill with the present success of the Tampa Bay Lightning's cadre of small fliers, his stature will probably still be a challenge for him, whether it's just in terms of an NHL GM bias, or a practical barrier to entry based on his actual play on the ice.  Certainly, his performance at the World Junior tournament turned heads, again.

His maturity is also in question, having clashed with Olympiques coach Benoit Groulx on a few occasions.  Marc Bergevin famously, avowedly prizes character, players who buy into the program and the team concept.  The Canadiens GM will have to weigh the team's need for talent and offence and goal-scoring versus the potential headaches this player could cause.

So far, the 2013 draft is a dramatic success, in that not a single player has been an outright whiff.  Everyone of them has progressed to the next level, and either has been signed or will be so in all likelihood, even the low-round picks.  Encomiums should rain down on Trevor Timmins and his staff for a clean sweep, as far as these things go.  And despite some overwrought bloggers who are tempted sometimes to justifiably, measuredly second-guess him.  And may still be proven right in the fullness of time...

In effect, the only drafted player the brain trust has to make a decision on this summer is Josiah Didier, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Pierre Gauthier administration.  The GM had made a trade on draft day, dealing away a third-rounder, 78th overall, for two fourth-rounders, 97th and 108th overall, which Trevor Timmins used to pick Messrs. Didier and Archambault, respectively.

Josiah Didier has spent four seasons at the University of Denver.  His pluses are his tremendous size and his dogged defensive work that is loved by coaches.  The big negative, that would give the Canadiens pause, is his non-existent offence.  

A couple of seasons ago, it was thought that teams could and should have a big tough nasty #6 defenceman who didn't do much except hit, clear the crease, make the opposition a little bit more likely to tiptoe around the slot, and occasionally enter into a fight.  This was especially so in the Canadiens fans' minds, tired as we were of getting pushed around by the Leafs and Bruins, among other usual suspects.

It's debatable now that this need is still the case.  The heavyweight designated puncher has been extirpated from the game.  The game has shifted more and more in favour of players, of defencemen who can skate, create offensively, or at least make a decent first pass to start the breakout of the zone.  The unidimensional defensive defenceman may also be going the way of the dodo.

So it's a little less likely that Josiah can have a pro career, given his struggles in the offensive area.  If CHL defencemen need to score approximately 0.6 pts/game in their draft year to have a good chance at an NHL career, where does that leave Josiah with his 0.25 pts/game in his senior season in the NCAA?  

Further hurdles exist to his being signed by the Canadiens, to having a likely chance to succeed at the NHL level, like the fact that his likely role, that of the ornery defensive defenceman, is being applied for by a few others in the Canadiens' farm system.  It's like Josiah is getting to the party too late.  

A few seasons ago, we had Jaro Spacek, Raphaël Diaz, Yannick Weber, and Tomas Kaberle as our light-hitting defencemen.  P.K. Subban was a little young to really contribute any toughness.  Hal Gill was a little too tame, despite his great size, although he'd jump in when things exploded and neutralize his man, usually the biggest one around.  Josh Gorges was willing, a gamer, but rarely inspired any fear in anyone.

If Josiah had been around then, fully matured as a prospect, he might have won a job by default.  Now, he has other youngster vying for a similar role, among them Greg Pateryn, Jarred Tinordi, and Brett Lernout.  He'd have to beat out many challengers.

Another challenge he'll have is that if he joins the farm team, he'll be another rightie on a blueline replete with them.  It's arguable that we have too many of them.  

I've been harping on this for a couple of seasons, but it seems the Canadiens made a conscious decision a few seasons ago to balance out their blue-chip, can't-miss leftie prospects Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu with a plethora of right-shooting longshot prospects.

We have on the rolls right now, slated to join the AHL team next season, righties Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower, Morgan Ellis,  and Brett Lernout.  Magnus Nygren is still in the picture nominally.  Greg Pateryn has probably made the NHL for good, but will 'block' any likely advancement by these youngsters, adding to the complex picture.

So it's worthwhile to ask whether Josiah is a fit for the organization, whether a longshot like him would be better served being given a shot with another club that needs his services to a greater degree than do the Canadiens.  A few commenters on social media have been predicting a trade by the Canadiens, to unclog the system of so many defencemen prospects who can't all be developed at once.  Things may be coming to a head in this regard.

The Canadiens have until August 2015 to sign Josiah, so they have some time to make a decision in his case, or make a trade.  It’s noteworthy that Josiah played eight games with the Bulldogs to end the season, but it was on a tryout contract, so the Canadiens were still hedging their bets.

My hunch, based on the kid's diligence, character and leadership on the Denver U. team, is that he'll get a contract offer.  The Canadiens aren't hurting for spots on their 50-contract limit, there's room to retain this asset, even if it's then swapped out later on to another team for another one we have a greater need for.

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