At the outset of Marc Bergevin’s tenure as Canadiens’ General Manager, he rightly highlighted the importance of drafting and developing young players. Bergevin’s former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, was built on young talent and their success has been sustained by developing young talent that adds to and complements their core group of players. For certain, it helps when a team bottoms out and drafts elite players such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. However, the Blackhawks’ dynasty is far more than two early first-round draft picks.
So how well has the Canadiens’ organization drafted and developed young players under Marc Bergevin’s leadership? By any measure, Trevor Timmins, Marc Bergevin, Sylvain Lefebvre, the Laval Rocket, and the rest of the Habs’ development staff have consistently failed to select and groom players to succeed with the Canadiens. At the time Bergevin took over as GM, the Canadiens had a relatively young core group of players that included Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher were also on the cusp of earning a spot on the roster and they were acquired by the prior management team (that also included Timmins).
Fast forward to today and one is hard-pressed to identify many young players that were drafted and developed by the Canadiens organization in the last five years. This management team has simply relied on the core players they inherited and have supplemented the core with an acquisition here or there via the draft, trade, the waiver wire, or free agency. Meanwhile, the core players have aged and no one has been developed by the organization to fulfill another core role or even replace an aging member of the core, such as Andrei Markov for example. Of course, there are some success stories in the past five years such as Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr who spent a material amount of time under Sylvain Lefebvre in the AHL. However, the balance of the roster either has been acquired via trade, the waiver wire, free agency, or was developed in Europe (such as Artturi Lekhonen and Jakub Jerabek). And not one of the Canadiens young players can reasonably be characterized as part of the Canadiens’ core group at this time.
The drafting and development of players must be evaluated over a reasonable time frame. Very few players play in the NHL the season after they are drafted. Most players take time to round out their game and the development of any given player depends both on the player and the team’s program. In this writer’s view, over five years is more than enough time to reasonably evaluate the recent performance of an organization. But to be fair, one should compare how the Canadiens’ brain trust has fared against franchises that are succeeding in this area.
Unfortunately and not surprisingly, if you look at the league’s most successful franchises, the Canadiens’ development of young talent over the past five-plus years is inferior, perhaps even dismal. Tampa Bay’s development of young players provides an interesting comparison. Their current roster includes the following players that spent a material amount of time in the AHL: Tyler Johnson (12G, 17A, 29P), Brayden Point (16G, 20A, 36P), Nikita Kucherov (26G, 31A, 57P), Ondrej Palat (7G, 18A, 24P), Alex Killorn (5G, 17A, 22P), Vladislav Namestnikov (15G, 18A, 33P), plus J.T. Brown, Jamie McBain, Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin, Cedric Paquette, and Yanni Gourde. I’ve omitted Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman who did not play in the minors but were drafted by the Lightning early in the first round and made the jump to the NHL immediately after they were drafted.
To be certain, few teams have recently developed young players as successfully as Tampa Bay but their example is instructive and provides a blueprint on how successful organizations are built. One might counter that the Lightning missed the playoffs last year and the Canadiens won the Atlantic Division. Of course, Tampa Bay missed the playoffs last season with a number of injuries and some underperformance throughout the lineup (sound familiar?). However, with the Lightning’s sustained and consistent development of players, their ownership group had the confidence to stay the course and are now being rewarded.
Can the Canadiens’ organization reasonably attribute their current situation to a down year? Not likely. This management group has consistently failed to develop young players and as their core players age, there seems to be no one ready to take their place. While a full review of the Laval Rocket’s lineup is beyond the scope of this article, the prospects in Laval and Sylvain Lefebvre’s track record does not inspire confidence.
This pundit’s view is that the Canadiens must trade some of their assets for younger talent and rebuild the team. Can Geoff Molson confidently rely on this management group to rebuild the Habs by drafting and developing young players? With respect, the answer is clear.