As a Montreal Canadiens' fan, I'm delighted to see so many prospects almost ready for prime time that the team has to bring fifty-two guys to training camp. And I'm thrilled that so many of the regular roster spots on the big team are filled by players who are young enough to hold those spots for many years to come. The abundance of talent is balm to the afflicted soul of a fan who's lived through the last sixteen years of post-season futility. Those who clearly remember the great seventies teams say today's squad is the closest thing the Habs have had to that slick, savvy, fast style that was their trademark thirty years ago in...well...thirty years.
But if Isaac Newton is to be believed, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, if the action is filling the big team with young talent, the reaction is the creation of a backlog that leaves good young players stagnating in the minors. And there we have another similarity to the last Habs' dynasty. Just as it was true that the seventies teams were ripe with youth and talent, and were great at drafting and holding onto their prospects, it was also true that those teams were the Waterloo of many a young player's career. Back then, if players had the skill and didn't want to sweat it out for years in the minors, they could go to the WHA. Now, it's Europe or the KHL, or a move to some bottom-feeding NHL team with few prospects competing for big-league roster spots.
We've seen some of that effect in the Habs' current system already. Corey Locke and Mikhail Grabovsky were high on the Canadiens' prospect lists for years, and do, in fact, have skills. Whether those skills will translate to NHL careers of any note is still to be determined. But there's Grabovsky, not strong enough to crack the Habs' roster last year, now pencilled in as the Leafs' number-one centre. All of which brings me around to Kyle Chipchura.
Chipchura was drafted in the first round for the express purpose of developing into a big, strong, smart, shutdown centre. He's got a lot of the natural tools, as well as being known as a good leader on every team on which he's played. He was good enough to make the Canadiens last year out of camp because he busted his butt to do so. But then, a mid-season drop in energy and the need to work on his faceoffs resulted in his demotion to Hamilton and replacement on the big club by Maxim Lapierre. The demotion, coupled with the acquisition of Robert Lang as a third-line centre, not to mention the plethora of players fighting for fourth-line spots in Montreal, seems to have sucked the hope out of Chipchura.
No one is saying he's injured, so when every report out of camp from reporters and from fans, reveals a disheartened, apparently disinterested player, it's more than a little surprising. For someone like me, who was there in Montreal to see Chipchura score his first NHL goal, it's a big disappointment. Just when the guy needs to work even harder to prove he's progressed and deserves a spot over a guy like Dandenault, he seems to be dogging it a bit. Meanwhile, Dandenault is skating his feet down to the ankle bones in an effort to hold onto his spot.
Now, I don't know if Chipchura isn't making a great impression so far because he's just better in games than in drills...maybe that's the case. But by all reports, he's not even hustling in the drills. I mean, you can make mistakes at this point in practice, but you have to at least look like you're trying hard while you're making them. He'll get a shot to show some enthusiasm in game situations in the next few days, and hopefully he'll step it up and fight for his place.
If he doesn't; if he allows the packed roster in Montreal and the younger Trotter and Maxwell breathing down his neck in Hamilton to get him down, he'll go the way of Grabovsky and Locke. And that would be too bad, because I think Chipchura will eventually fulfill the promise the Habs saw when they drafted him in the first round. I just hope he has the mental fortitude to chip away at the stone into which the Canadiens' lineup is set, and wedge himself in there. And, if he can't; if it's Hamilton for another year for him, I hope the demotion doesn't break his spirit.
While it's true he'd probably already be in the NHL if he was a Leaf or a Thrashers' prospect, being a Hab will be worth the wait. He just can't quit in the meantime. Because, make no mistake, Kyle Chipchura is a test case for what we're going to see in the next few seasons. With Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges, Ryan O'Byrne and (presumably) Mike Komisarek holding down blueline spots for the next few years, young D-men like Pavel Valentenko, Mathieu Carle, Yannick Weber and Alexei Yemelin, who are all almost ready for the show, are going to be spinning their wheels while they wait for a chance in Montreal. There's going to be a need for patience on the part of the players, and the big team's management is going to have to handle them with care, making sure there's enough hope to go around.