Saturday, 29 October 2016

St. John's IceCaps season preview

For the last few seasons I've tried to do an overview of the Canadiens' AHL team during the late summer, trying to project what the roster will be and what the team will be like.  I didn't go through the exercise this season, but I suspected that the Canadiens would try to minimize asset losses by avoiding exposing any players to waivers that they possibly could.

So my educated guesses were that Sven Andrighetto and Stefan Matteau and Mark Barberio, players straddling the NHL and the AHL, would stick with the Canadiens, and player who didn't have to go through waivers like Mike McCarron, Jacob de la Rose and Charles Hudon would go back for more apprenticeship.  Depth AHL'ers like Chris Terry, Bobby Farnham and Philip Samuelsson would be sent down and clear easily.  Artturi Lehkonen, squeezed out by the numbers game, would go back to Sweden for another year.

It obviously didn't go that way.  Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin truly gave out jobs based on merit, on training camp performance.  So in the fullness of time, Arturri Lehkonen and Mikhail Sergachev stuck with the parent club, and Sven Andrighetto, Stefan Matteau and Mark Barberio all found themselves in St. John's, having cleared waivers.  The only waivee who got away was Mike Condon, and he almost squeaked through, with only the Penguins, dealing with the loss of Matt Murray to injury, putting in a claim.

All the fringe guys, and all the youngsters who didn't need waivers also landed in St. John's.  That should have meant a pretty strong team, but I wasn’t crazy about the mix of that team to start with, for various reasons.  The lineup for the first game was underwhelming, to say the least:
Farnharm-de la Rose-Friberg



So a first line with three legitimate NHL prospects, who have had varying success in the AHL, and then a second line with a big project at centre, and then a morass of forwards who strike fear in no one, whether in the NHL or AHL.

A competent first pair on defence, but a at best journeyman freshly acquired in Jonathan Racine on the second pairing, with no blue chips, no kids who will get your pulse racing.

I had other qualms too, on top of my concerns about a thin roster.  I didn't think there was a lot of experience, with the loss of many veterans (Morgan Ellis, Darren Dietz, Gabriel Dumont, Michaël Bournival, Bud Holloway) from last year.  The leaders on this team, on the ice at least, are relatively young men.  Mike McCarron and Charles Hudon should support players like Gabriel Dumont and Bud Holloway, not shoulder most of the load themselves.

As far as the veterans like Mark Barberio, Sven Andrighetto, Chris Terry, Phillip Samuelsson currently on the roster, I feared they might be dispirited to find themselves there. You might argue that’s true for every AHL team at the start of every year, but I think there’s a vibe some years where there’s a good group all on a positive career arc, and maybe that’s not true for these guys. Chris Terry was in the NHL last year. Phillip Samuelsson must be wondering if this is it for his career, that he's a minor leaguer. Charles Hudon, Mike McCarron, they must be less enthused about another year of buses, wonder what they need to do. Mark Barberio thought he was finally an NHL’er.

Maybe merely as a fan, but maybe also as a player, it's a little dispiriting that there's no great influx of eager beavers. Adding to the lineup Mike McCarron and Nikita Scherbak last fall along with Zach Fucale was exciting, as a teammate you think these kids will help. This year, seeing tiny Daniel Audette joining a group that’s already undersized, that must have been underwhelming.  Although I may be underselling Charlie Lindgren in this area I will admit.

Finally, this is unfortunately a lame-duck year in St. John’s.  Last year was a breath of fresh air, leaving Hamilton was a relief, it was "tout nouveau tout beau". Sure, our AHL contract with St. John's was only a two-year deal with an option for a third, but we’d worry about that later, right? Well now, the move to Laval is confirmed, and the local populace is already looking beyond this season, to whether they’ll even have an AHL team next season.  It might start to boo early this season at Mile One arena.

A couple of weeks going by have largely alleviated my pessimism.  The IceCaps started off with a few losses, but have come around and are now playing .500 hockey, after winning their home opener against the Rochester Americans.  We'd kind of steeled ourselves mentally against a difficult start to the season, what with the two-week road trip, but in the throes of it, with a very weak effort some nights, it was hard to keep that in perspective.

Also, that very thin roster I fretted about wasn't the 'real' IceCaps roster.  Sven Andrighetto passing through waivers will help.  Stefan Matteau, who wasn't on that initial lineup due to having to serve an AHL suspension, will also strengthen that roster.  Daniel Carr, who was just sent down to St. John's yesterday, will also pitch in, maybe for only a week, maybe more.  We now can reasonably expect a decent Top 6, some punch on offence and the powerplay with this group.

I fretted that the blue line would be a weakness early on, and while I still don't think it will be a strength, Mark Barberio being back in the AHL goes a long way to solidifying that unit.  His veteranship and mobility will steady the ship.

And I may be behind the times, but I appreciate the fact that there is some heft to the roster.  We have two enforcers in David Broll and Connor Crisp, who can handle the rough stuff and neutralize other teams' tough guys if needed.  It also liberates Mike McCarron and Brett Lernout from the need to take on all comers, to stand up to any goon looking to make a name for himself.  Mike and Brett can concentrate on hockey, and there's a domino effect, guys like Jérémy Grégoire and Jacob de la Rose also aren't at the top of the batting order when fisticuffs happen, they're lower on the callout list.

So is this a playoff roster?  It's always tough to figure out in the AHL, mostly because you don't know what the opposition is like.  In any case, injuries and callups can destroy a good lineup.  Still, when you miss out on the playoffs one year, you kind of expect that there will be organic growth, that the kids will get better and take a step forward the next.

When you miss the playoffs four years in a row, you start to wonder if the coaching is up to snuff.  I don't dislike Sylvain Lefebvre, was more than willing to give him a chance to see what he can do in his first head-coaching stint, but four years out of the playoffs is hard to swallow.

I do suspect that Sylvain Lefebvre is not the most talented, inspiring head coach. He might be a better detail-oriented assistant coach who focuses on defencemen than a communicative head coach who gets the most out of each player and a roster.

I think there were/are LHJMQ coaches who are ready to move up, young energetic coaches with innovative ideas who should be groomed for the NHL.

I understand though that Marc Bergevin, from the day he was hired, talked about stability in the organization, how the revolving door had to stop. I think he wants a culture in Montréal where you don’t sit back and wait for the coach to get fired, where the guys hang together and play tough and go through the wall for their team, whoever the coach is.

So these two concepts are in opposition. I do hope that if Sylvain Lefebvre doesn’t have more success this season, despite what I view as a spotty roster, that the transition to Laval allows for a transfer of power to someone else.

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