The IceCaps recently kicked off their second and final year as the AHL affiliate of the Canadiens this past week. Here are some of the key questions surrounding the team to start the season.
Whose departure will be felt the most?
While his NHL prospects are basically non-existent, that doesn’t mean the IceCaps won’t badly miss former captain Gabriel Dumont. He did it all on the ice for the team dating back to their days in Hamilton, providing steadily improving offence, strong defence, and an edge that most players couldn’t match. On top of that, he was one of their most flexible players in terms of being shifted between offensive and defensive roles as well as moving between centre and the wing. From the sounds of things, management made little to no effort to bring him back this year and that decision could come back to bite them.
Of the many newcomers to the team, who are the ones to watch?
I know Chris Terry’s signing largely went under the radar but he has the chance to be a key player (if not the key player) for the IceCaps. His NHL numbers are largely underwhelming but he has put up at least 59 points in each of his last four AHL seasons. That would have ranked second on the team last season and with the expectations that players like Michael McCarron and Charles Hudon will spend more time with Montreal than they did last year, having that reliable, consistent offensive threat will be crucial throughout the season.
Everyone’s eyes will rightfully be on Charlie Lindgren between the pipes. His lone game with the Habs late last year was a good one while his college performance was also quite strong. There’s about to be a three-headed goalie monster down there with the addition of Yann Danis but Lindgren is who they likely are expected to take on more of the workload as the season progresses.
Which returning player will be on the hot seat this season?
A few players will fall into this category but none more than Jacob de la Rose. In two AHL seasons, he has yet to progress much at the offensive end of the ice. If he wants to be more than a fourth line checker in the NHL (he isn’t good enough offensively to be a third liner as things stand), the Swedish center will need to take several steps forward in that area. (It would also be helpful if the Habs were to keep him down there when he starts to improve instead of quickly recalling him and plugging him in a checking role as they’ve done each of the last two years.)
What about Sylvain Lefebvre? Shouldn’t he be on the hot seat too?
Quite frankly, he should be on the hot seat; it should be boiling hot by now. But at this point, I doubt he’s let go during the year, even if the team is a disaster.
It appears Marc Bergevin is judging Lefebvre’s success simply by the play of the prospects as they’re recalled. After being terrible in this area two years ago, the recalls actually did pretty well last year so strictly by that measure, Lefebvre did a decent job last season.
However, judging the bench boss solely by that metric allows Bergevin to willfully ignore some other key elements. In-game decision making has long been a weakness while line combinations have been baffling at the best of times. It also ignores the value of having prospects play in a winning environment, something that Bergevin doesn’t seem to care about which admittedly is surprising. Generally speaking, wouldn’t it be more ideal to have your prospects learning how to win at the professional level before they get to Montreal?
As long as the focus is on prospect performance upon being recalled to the Canadiens and not other factors such as team success, Lefebvre’s job should continue to be safe. The group of recalls the Habs have to choose from should be pretty good this year and if they do well, the more likely scenario at this point would seem to be an extension for the struggling coach, not a pink slip as frustrating as that sounds.
Is this a playoff team?
After Montreal’s farm teams have missed the playoffs five straight years, I would love to proclaim this team as a postseason-calibre squad. The problem is, I don’t think they are.
I have questions about their ability to score once recalls/injuries inevitably strike. Their lineup when everyone is healthy is pretty good but how often does a minor league team have their ‘A’ lineup? Not very often. There is a lack of scoring depth and that’s not going to change no matter how many fighters they sign to minor league contracts.
On the back end, Mark Barberio gives them a legitimate number one defenceman which is great. However, they really only have one other blueliner who is a proven top four option at this stage in Philip Samuelsson…who inexplicably has been a healthy scratch twice already. The depth here isn’t bad, particularly after acquiring Jonathan Racine (who also has surprisingly sat twice), but they’re deep in depth options, not impact players. They’re counting on the prospects to make major improvements this year and that’s usually not the best way to make the playoffs.
I can see this team doing well early on while they have close to a full roster, the poor performance over the opening weekend notwithstanding. But as the inevitable attrition hits, the lack of quality depth will come back to bite them just like it has in each of the last few years and keep them on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.