Trusting rookies and organizational philosophy

There’s a lot to like about Marc Bergevin’s new administration. There are a number of refreshing changes in the team’s philosophy that he’s rightly getting credit for. Foremost among them, no doubt, is the team’s new openness towards the media. While this may be a best a minor factor towards winning hockey game, its importance should not be underestimated. The Montreal Canadiens, ultimately, are a business, and their business is entertainment. Positive relationships with the media leads to more favorable coverage, less nasty speculation, and overall more goodwill towards the organization. That goodwill is important to the business side of the Habs, and so this philosphical change should be applauded. All the more so because, despite the new openness, the new Habs have shown no more propensity for leaking critical competitive information than the old ones. They do a better job of creating a favorable buzz around the team without giving up any more critical information on trades or other such planned moves.

However, another of the most frequently-suggested differentiations between the Bergevin regime and the years preceding it has been about a purported philosophical difference in handling rookie players. Generally this goes in the form of praising the contributions of rookies Galchenyuk and Gallagher, noting the important roles they play for the team, the trust they get, and then dropping that “such a thing would never have happened under the old regime”. This is puzzling to me, not because keeping Galchenyuk and Gallagher at the NHL is not the right decision (I strongly believe that it is), but because I don’t see much a philosophical difference there.  Neither the Gainey nor the Gauthier administrations were unwilling to trust rookies: the Habs have been blessed with exceptional scouting, and since the lockout the Habs have never been shy to use rookies, sometimes in very important roles. It even got to the point where they were sometimes accused of hampering players’ development by rushing them, notably in the case of Pacioretty (though he does appear to have survived).

I wonder if, because the Gauthier regime was so disliked and so close, there isn’t a tendancy to project imagined flaws into it, and by extension the Gainey regime it is seen as an extension of.

I’ve looked back over the previous years since the lockout and identified the rookies that have played the club on each year. The definition of a “rookie” is as per nhl.com, and the ages listed are calculated at the start of each season.

2005-2006

Rookies playing significant time: Tomas Plekanec (Age 22, 67 gp, 13:15 TOI, 9G, 20A, 29P), Chris Higgins (Age 22, 80 gp, 14:24 TOI, 23G 15A 38P), Alexander Perezhogin (Age 22, 67 gp, 10:07 TOI, 9G 10A 19P)

Other notables: Andrei Kostitsyn (Age 20, 12 gp, 7:32 TOI, 2G 1A 3P), Maxim Lapierre (Age 20, 1 gp, 3:04, 0G 0A 0P)

After the 2004-2005 lockout, the Habs welcomed a trio of promising, 22-year-old rookies to their ranks, all three of which would come to take on important roles throughout the season. Higgins was the most notable as he ended up serving as a first-line wing alongside Saku Koivu. Plekanec was starting to show his two-way brillance and Perezhogin took on an important role on a tough-minutes “checking line”. In the middle of that season, 20-year-old Andrei Kostitsyn got his first cup of coffee with the NHL, and used that time to score on his first NHL shot.

Just as notable as the rookies that did make the team, however, was someone who didn’t. 18-year-old Guillaume Latendresse, the team’s second-round draft pick, was one of the very latest cuts in training camp, narrowly missing being the first 18-year-old since Petr Svoboda to play as a Hab.

2006-2007

Rookies playing significant time: Guillaume Latendresse (Age 19, 12:35 TOI, 16G 13A 29P), Maxim Lapierre (Age 21, 46 gp, 11:25 TOI, 6G 6A 12P), Andrei Kostitsyn (Age 21, 22 GP, 13:17 TOI, 1G 10 A 11P)

Other notables: Mikhail Grabovski (Age 22, 3 GP, 13:18 TOI, 0 G 0A 0P), Jaroslav Halak (Age 21, 16 GP, 16 GS, .906 Sv%)

After just missing the cut last time, 19-year-old Guillaume Latendresse finally makes the team, beating out Andrei Kostitsyn for the last spot. This is significant because Latendresse is still junior-aged: he is ineligible for the AHL, and jumps from the QJMHL right to the NHL. He acquits himself very well with a 16-goal season, being one of the team’s leading 5-on-5 goal-getters; his season includes a stint replacing Higgins on the first line, but for the most part he becomes the anchor of a strong third line, alongside a fellow rookie, the 21-year-old Maxim Lapierre. Another rookie who takes on an important role is Jaroslav Halak, who starts 16 games for the club.

Near the end of the season, 21-year-old Andrei Kostitsyn joins the team and makes an immediate impact; the Higgins-Plekanec-Kostitsyn youngster line provide quite a few highlights for the team.

2007-2008

Rookies playing significant time: Carey Price (Age 20, 41 GP, 40 GS, .920 Sv%), Sergei Kostitsyn (Age 20, 52 gp, 14:21 TOI, 9 G 18 A 27 P), Kyle Chipchura (Age 21, 36 GP, 11:22 TOI, 4G 7A 11P), Ryan O’Byrne (Age 23, 33 GP, 1G 6A 7P), Mikhail Grabovski (Age 23, 24 GP, 11:13 TOI, 3G 6A 9P)

 Other notables: Jaroslav Halak (Age 22, 6 GP, 4 GS, .934 Sv%)

There were a lot of rookies that played that year, but perhaps none better illustrate the Gainey administration’s willingness to trust rookies than Carey Price. The 20-year-old netminder made the team as Cristobal Huet’s backup, but Gainey went so far as to trade the popular Frenchman away and give his conference-leading team’s crease to the rookie Price. 20-year-old Sergei Kostitsyn also played an important role for that team as a secondary scorer. Chipchura and O’Byrne were used in secondary roles. Grabovski, called up after dominating the AHL until the trade deadline, was also a significant contributor, until the off-ice issues that led to his unfortunate trade to Toronto. Jaroslav Halak also becomes the Habs’ backup goaltender after the Huet trade.

2008-2009

Rookies playing significant time: Max Pacioretty (Age 19, 34 GP, 12:37 TOI, 3G 8A 11P), Matt d’Agostini (Age 22, 53 GP, 13:24 TOI, 12 G 9 A 21 P), Gregory Stewart (Age 22, 20 GP, 8:36 TOI, 0 G 1 A 1P)

Other notables: Yanick Weber (Age 19, 3 GP, 15:05 TOI, 0 G 1 A 1 P)

This season sees the debut of Max Pacioretty with the Habs at the age of 19. He plays well, on a defensive tough-minutes line, but his lack of production (much of it due to a low shooting percentage) leads to him eventually being demoted — as a NCAA player, Pacioretty is eligible for the AHL, unlike a typical 19-year-old CHL player. D’Agostini, on the other hand, benefits from favorable percentages on his call-up, leading to an initial goal-scoring spree; his production quiets down after that initial bump, but he remains with the team for the rest of the season, frequently offering his right-hand shot on the PP.

2009-2010

Rookies playing significant time: Tom Pyatt (Age 22, 40 GP, 11:04 TOI, 2G 3A 5P), Ryan White (Age 21, 16 GP, 11:09 TOI, 0G 2A 2P), Ben Maxwell (Age 21, 13 GP, 8:46 TOI, 0G 0A 0P)

Other notables: Pernell-Karl Subban (Age 20, 2 GP, 20:06 TOI, 0G 2A 2P), David Desharnais (Age 23, 6 GP, 8:26 TOI, 0G 1A 1P)

This is certainly a down year for Habs rookies, with only Tom Pyatt, obtained in the Gomez trade, seeing really signficant time. However, this season did see the debut of two players who would become very significant additions in later years: Pernell-Karl Subban and David Desharnais.

In fact, the most important rookie contribution that season comes in the playoffs: Subban is called up to replace the injured Andrei Markov. The 20-year-old plays 20:44 minutes a game for 14 games, scores 8 points on one goal and seven assists, and generally demonstrates that he is going to be a hugely important player for the Habs for years to come.

2010-2011

Rookies playing significant time: Pernell-Karl Subban (Age 21, 77 GP, 22:16 TOI, 14 G 24 A 38 P), Lars Eller (Age 20, 77 GP, 11:08 TOI, 7 G 10 A 17 P), David Desharnais (Age 24, 43 GP, 12:52 TOI, 8 G 14 A 22P), Yannick Weber (41 GP, 16:33 TOI, 1G 10 A 11P), Ryan White (Age 22, 27 GP, 8:55 TOI, 2G 3A 5P)

In terms of rookies playing significant roles, this is PK Subban’s year. The 21-year-old rearguard goes from dominating third-pairing opposition to becoming the team’s #1 D-man over the course of this season, carrying Hal Gill in first-pairing minutes by the time the season is over. This again illustrates the willingness to trust a rookie (and an exuberant one at that) into as important a role as there is on the team.

20-year-old Lars Eller, acquired in trade for Jaroslav Halak, plays the whole season in Montreal, slowly establishing himself as a budding two-way center. Desharnais, who is not so young, establishes himself as an offensive threat this season. Yannick Weber also does well in a third-pairing, PP specialist role.

2011-2012

Rookies playing significant time: Alexei Emelin (Age 25, 67 Gp, 17:17 TOI, 3G 4A 7P), Raphael Diaz (Age 25, 59 GP, 18:00 TOI, 3G 13A 16P), Louis Leblanc (Age 20, 42 GP, 11:11 TOI, 5G 5A 10P), Blake Geoffrion (Age 23, 35 GP, 11:02 TOI, 2G 3A 5P), Aaron Palushaj (Age 22, 38 GP, 7:33 TOI, 1G 4A 5P)

Two rookies are put in a significant role this sesason right from the start, but they’re hardly young — Emelin and Diaz are both 25-year-old veterans of other professional leagues. Still, the rash of injuries forces the Habs to give more minutes than they would like to a number of rookies, notably Leblanc, Geoffrion, and Palushaj — and Frederic St-Denis and Andreas Engqvist play 17 and 12 games respectively on top of that. The Habs trust rookies this year, but not by choice; they’re forced to press unready players into service to fill in the many holes in their lineup caused by injured Habs. Still, Leblanc proves to be a NHL-quality player, despite the setback that would come into the following year.

2012-2013

Rookies playing significant time: Brendan Gallagher (Age 20, 29 GP, 13:34 TOI, 10G 9A 19P), Alex Galchenyuk (Age 18, 33 GP, 12:40 TOI, 3G 12 A 15P)

This brings us to Bergevin’s first year as Habs GM and the two very impressive rookies playing for the Habs. Gallagher is now the regular right-wing on the Habs’ exploitation line, replacing Erik Cole; Galchenyuk serves as a winger on the Habs’ offensive-minded third line, centered by the able Lars Eller. Both play significant minutes and receive well-deserved accolades, but their usage is ultimately not exceptional compared to the slew of excellent rookies the Habs have welcomed since the 2005-2006 season.

Conclusion

The first conclusion from this exercise has to be this: Trevor Timmins is really, really good at his job. This is an impressive slate of rookies the Habs have brought in over the years, and even though several have been dealt to other teams, it still has left the Habs with an impressive core of young players, from Plekanec all the way through Price, Subban and Pacioretty to Gallagher and Galchenyuk. Timmins has had very few very high picks to use, but has managed to draft a huge number of quality NHLers regardless.

Thanks to Timmins’ excellence, between the 2004-2005 lockout and Bergevin’s hiring, the Habs have used several rookies in important roles. Most notable of those were Price and Subban, who were thrust into leading roles during the course of their very first complete seasons. But they also used a pair of 19-year-olds in Latendresse and Pacioretty, giving them significant roles despite both the players being junior-aged.

No, the Gainey-Gauthier administration never put a player as young as Alex Galchenyuk on their rosters. That’s because they didn’t have a third-overall-pick 18-year-old forward to put. This illustrates ultimately why the pre-Bergevin Habs did not give a rookie significant icetime every year: in order to give an important role to a rookie, the team first needs a rookie who has the talent to fill it so early. No sensible organization will put a rookie in an important role unless they believe he has the ability to fill that role, and such rookies simply do not come along every year. When such a rookie  was available (as was the case of Subban and Price), or one they thought would be (Pacioretty, Latendresse) they didn’t hesitate to put him in. And it’s no coincidence that the three players often regarded as the Habs’ “young core” were named in the previous sentence. All three are special players, and so all three warranted the special treatment of receiving vital roles as young rookies.

Bergevin’s first year was fortunate enough to have two such players in Gallagher and Galchenyuk, and this is why Bergevin and Therrien do not hesitate to use them as regular players. Both also benefit from the team’s healthy depth, preventing them from being pressed into service for roles they are not ready to fulfill. But this doesn’t represent a fundamental philosphical change from the previous administration. Rather, it is a continuation of the organization’s willingness to avail itself of the fruits of Timmins’ work.

 

Topics: Bob Gainey, Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, Pierre Gauthier, Rookies

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