With the draft less than two weeks away, the other day I started thinking about the Habs' record at the draft table. It's no secret that they've been doing very well since the arrival of Trevor Timmins in 2002. The seven first-rounders for which he's been responsible are a who's who of the Habs' shining future. Christopher Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn, Kyle Chipchura, Carey Price, David Fischer, Ryan McDonagh and Max Pacioretty all have important roles on the big team already, or are slated to have them in the coming seasons. It seems as though the days of the first-round bust are over for Montreal. And it's not just the first rounders that are impressing. Picks like Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O'Byrne, Mikhail Grabovsky, Guillaume Latendresse and late-round steals Sergei Kostitsyn and Jaroslav Halak are also contributing in the NHL, and are all to Timmins' credit.
Even before Timmins' arrival though, Andre Savard was already beginning to make important draft choices for the team. He was responsible for the selections of Mike Komisarek, Tomas Plekanec, Alexander Perezhogin and solid NHLers, though no longer Habs, Ron Hainsey and Marcel Hossa.
That's the bright side of the Canadiens recent draft story. The darkness preceeding it is not only painful to contemplate, but somewhat baffling as well. It was likely no coincidence that the 1999 draft, the last one before Savard's hiring as GM in 2000, was a giant bust for the Habs...one of many in the recent past. What's amazing about that time period...between the Canadiens' great 1984 draft, in which Serge Savard landed Svoboda, Corson, Richer and Roy with consecutive picks, and the 2000 arrival of Andre Savard...is that in those sixteen years, the Habs had one bona fide star emerge from their first-round selections: Saku Koivu in 1993. The names that fill the roster of first rounders alongside his are the mediocre, the laughable and the forgettable. Lindsay Vallis. Brent Bilodeau. Terry Ryan. Eric Chouinard. The list goes on.
Considering the epic scale of the Habs' draft futility over the years, I had to ask myself why it happened. How could a professional organization with the skilled people it employed to hunt up talent fail to even fluke into a decent pick once in a while? How could almost every single first rounder be such a dud?
Recently I had a chance to speak with the 1994 addition to the list of Canadiens' non-stellar draft selections, defenceman Brad Brown. Brown is still playing. He finished this season with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, and hopes to find work with some team in September. From the distance of years, Brown was able to cast an interesting light on why the Habs' picks failed so badly to make an impact in the NHL.
After his draft fourteen years ago, Brown ended up spending two seasons in Fredericton, where the Habs' AHL affiliate was based at the time. He played thirteen games for Montreal, then was traded to Chicago. He says that was pretty typical of the way things happened in Montreal at the time. There was still a feeling amongst the team management, when the club was still within recent memory of winning Cups, that the Canadiens only needed a tweak here or there each year to get back on top. So, there wasn't a whole lot of priority placed on the draft. The team was more interested in trading or signing free agents to fill its needs. It wasn't investing precious resources into building from the ground up, and the scouting system left something to be desired.
Then, once a player was chosen, he fell into a system of benign neglect when it came to his development. Brown said he and his friend Terry Ryan, who became the Habs' number one pick in 1995, compared notes after Ryan's draft. They were both thrilled and proud to be first-rounders. But they were both a little worried and chagrined that they'd been chosen by Montreal, which had a reputation of letting its draftees rot in the minors without ever getting a real shot in the big league. Young players would wait years sometimes for a few games' trial, and if they screwed up, they were gone. Back to the minors or off to another team in a trade, just like that. It created an environment of panic among the team's prospects.
Times and attitudes were different then too, says Brown. He says today's young players see hockey as a job, more than as a game, and they train year-round with nutritionists, physical therapists and coaches who keep them in the best shape possible. Fourteen years ago, diets and training regimes were hit-or-miss, to put it kindly. The team itself treated prospects differently too. Now, scouting staff interviews players extensively before calling their names at the podium. The players are tested physically and mentally, and once selected, given access to every kind of training advantage the team can offer. In short, the team knows, as well as possible, what it's getting. A young player is considered an investment, whereas a decade ago, he was selected, handed a basic training outline and told "see you at camp" while the team hoped for the best.
And, Brown says, the Canadiens were one of the worst of the lot in a generally less prospect-focussed era when it came to their laxity in player development. His post-Habs' career seems to bear that out, since after his trade to Chicago, he managed to play parts of seven seasons in the NHL. He thinks if the Habs had taken an active role in developing its draft picks, he and some of the others who've found their way into the annals of ignominy in Montreal might have had better outcomes. To quote him, Rejean Houle was "a nice man, but not much of a planner." It turns out the Canadiens didn't just draft a bunch of talent-challenged players, but they failed to make the most out of the talent those players did possess.
I found Brad Brown's take on the Habs' draft history enlightening, because he's not bitter. He's happy just to be involved in hockey and spends little time thinking of "what ifs." His attitude might be a lesson to those of us who cheer for the Canadiens, who still find ourselves dwelling on the "might have beens" of the draft's Dark Years in Montreal.