Jacob de la Rose made a quality impact for the Habs in the second half of last season. Does that mean he should make the team out of training camp or should he start in the minors again in 2015-16? There’s a strong case for both sides.
Last year, the 20 year old debuted in the AHL as one of the youngest players in that league. He spent most of his time with Hamilton in a checking role and acquitted himself fairly well in that end but certainly didn’t stand out. Unfortunately, playing that assignment didn’t afford him much of an opportunity to work on his offensive game.
Upon being summoned to Sweden’s World Junior team, de la Rose finally got to play more of a two-way role. He was still counted on to defend against top opponents but had more skilled linemates while he also got to play with the man advantage. Not surprisingly, he had much more of a positive impact with them.
When he returned to Hamilton, the Bulldogs bumped him into a top six spot. He responded by putting up more points in a ten game stretch than he did the rest of the season combined. Finally, it looked as if he was going to start to put everything together. Then he was summoned by the big club.
As everyone knows, de la Rose was used solely as a defensive player, spending time on the third and fourth lines as well as the penalty kill in both the regular season and playoffs. As he did at the start with the Bulldogs, he fared pretty well which is rather impressive for a rookie who didn’t display much in the way of offensive skill. Generally the rookies that can produce right away garner the attention and chances so the fact that he could succeed in a polar opposite situation is noteworthy.
Unfortunately, playing just as a checker afforded him very few opportunities to work on his offensive game. While he had some positive developments in the fact he was able to be a quality player at the NHL level, it can also be argued that he had some negative developments in that he rarely got to play in any sort of offensive role. Playing through a wrist injury at the end didn’t help in that regard either.
Between three leagues last year (the AHL, NHL, and the WJC’s), de la Rose played in 89 games including playoffs. He had just 21 points in those contests. Context aside, that still has to be a bit of a concern for the Canadiens who envision him as a two-way threat down the road.
As a result, the Habs have a tough decision to make at training camp assuming de la Rose is fully recovered from his wrist surgery (and by all accounts, he should be good to go).
If they keep him in the NHL – and his play in the second half last year was certainly good enough to warrant doing so – it will be likely more of the same in terms of his role. He’ll undoubtedly provide the team with a strong defensive and physical game which are both needed elements. On the other hand, it will probably be another year of stunted development offensively.
While many would like to see him take Tomas Plekanec’s role in the future, that will be hard to do as a big part of Plekanec’s effectiveness is his two-way skills. Another season of strictly bottom six ice time in the NHL may pigeonhole de la Rose into a defence-only role. Again, that’s certainly a useful player to be but he’s not filling Plekanec’s shoes if that were to be the case.
If the Habs were to send de la Rose down to the IceCaps, he should be able to play in a top six role and really work on improving his offensive skills. They also might be able to use him at centre which would be beneficial for his development especially if they want him to play down the middle one day in Montreal. Demoting him would also allow for another rookie (or perhaps a tryout) to earn a spot with the big club.
However, sending him down may very well weaken the big club as it’s unlikely whoever takes de la Rose’s spot is going to have the same type of impact he would, especially on the defensive side. Also, there’s no guarantee that he will take significant strides forward at the offensive end as he never really lit the lamp even going back to his days in Sweden.
What’s the best route to take here? It’s hard to say as there’s a reasonable case for each side. Personally, I don’t really have a big preference here between the two options.
I don’t think he has all that much of an offensive ceiling so if they kept de la Rose primarily as a shutdown forward with Montreal, I’d be fine with that. On the other hand, it’s really hard to write off a players’ offensive upside at age 20, especially one that is going to be a quality NHL’er. He’s not going to forget how to play defensively with St. John’s so there shouldn’t be any real risk in sending him down even if the offensive improvements aren’t there.
If it were up to me, training camp would make or break the decision. If he comes to camp with better offensive awareness and puck skills, I’d keep de la Rose with Montreal in the hopes that he can develop against better competition. If his abilities at camp with the puck are similar to where they were last year though, I’d send him down to start. If makes some improvements, great. If not, bring him back and use in the bottom six checking role he played well in down the stretch last season. Nothing ventured, nothing gained in that instance.
Michel Therrien and his staff aren’t likely to have to make too many tough calls in training camp since the roster is largely set. Deciding what to do with de la Rose though will be one of their bigger ones between now and early October.