Monday, 22 June 2015

Off-Season of major changes for Canadiens' farm system.

After a few seasons of relative stability, the Canadiens farm system is in a state of upheaval this summer, with the AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs being sold to the Canadiens and moved to St. Johns.  The Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer kept the name and trademark, and the lease on Copps Coliseum, and will now operate an OHL team from that location.

The Canadiens will move the AHL team to the Newfoundland capital and operate it under the re-logoed IceCaps banner.  While it will mean better crowds and maybe a better, Nygren-appropriate hockey environment for our prospects, it will complicate logistics in terms of travel and time zones, for example.  One problem which unmade the Abbottsford Heat was the fact that while they traveled great distances, it reduced the time available for practice, which we would agree is critical for young players trying to crack into the NHL.

Further, the Canadiens will no longer have a shared situation with the Penguins for their ECHL affiliate Wheeling Nailers.  Now, the Canadiens will work with the Brampton Beast in nearby Ontario.  And it will not be an arm's length relationship, with overflow AHL'ers sent down to the East Coast League, the Canadiens will actually be completely responsible for the hockey operations, for finding the players to fill the roster.

This is welcome news, in that the Canadiens are flexing their financial muscle, investing in the farm system to an even greater degree than before.  Literally no stone will be left unturned, there will figuratively always be room for one more prospect, for another intriguing longshot.  This shotgun approach may yield the next Josh Gorges, the next David Desharnais, the under-regarded undrafted guy who works his way up to the NHL.

One way in which this will transpire, a tangible difference, will be in the Prospect Development Camp held in early July.  In the past few seasons, these were skill development sessions for the blue-chippers, with the coaches paying close attention to them and preparing a list of chores, a program for them to follow during the rest of the off-season, and the next winter.

Other than the Canadiens draftees, there were a great number of invited players to this camp, who were guys who'd passed through the draft and were given a second look.  One of these guys would have had to absolutely scorch the camp to really draw attention, to get signed.  At best, they were vying for a Rookie Camp invite, and maybe an AHL contract.  Realistically though, they were cannon fodder, guys brought in to fill out jerseys, so that the blue-chippers could be seen in scrimmage conditions.

Now, these guys won't just have an AHL job to shoot for, but also a lesser but still valuable opportunity with the Brampton Beast.  It's a foothold in the organization.  They're on the inside, have access to all the facilities, the resources, the coaching, access they wouldn't have as a free agent, when they're paying out of pocket to rent icetime, etc.

And the coaches and the scouts and the brain trust won't be thinking "Hmmm, good little (big) player, but we already have Player X and Player Y filling that role, he'd just steal icetime away from them..."  Now, with three teams that need to be staffed, three rosters to build, you're truly evaluating everyone, to see if they can play.

Which brings us to the final big change for the farm system, which is that the Rookie Camp, which precedes the main Training Camp, and which in the last few years was almost a reprise of the Prospect Development Camp, with many of the same invited players taking part, is going to be radically transformed.

Instead of it being a skills and drills session that leads into scrimmages, and weeds out a few names before splitting up the field into the main camp and the Bulldogs camp, the Canadiens will now send their rookies to the Rookie Tournament in London, facing off against the Leafs, Senators and Penguins prospects.

So the invites will get a chance to prove themselves in live, competitive action, instead of controlled scrimmages, which can be hard to shine in if you don't know your linemates, or if you're a player who favours a physical style, like Bokondji Imama and Evan Wardley last year, who had to hold back against putative teammates, the apples of their putative bosses' eye.

And those heady gutty scrappy players, guys who don't necessarily wow you standing next to a tape measure, or skating through cones, they get to show what they can do in game conditions, against other guys who are also playing just as hard and also trying to win a job.

So lots of changes to the feeder system for the Habs, all of it positive developments, which promises to make for a busy, exciting 'off-season' for Habs fans, and we still have to get the Draft out of the way before we get to the Prospect Development Camp.

Can't wait.

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