Sunday, June 8, 2008

Changing times

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 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 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.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic insight from Brown on what the system was like at the time. I feel sympathy for him and the other picks. I, too, remember prospects languishing for years in the minors.

Perhaps Koivu's advantage, other than his outstanding talent, was that there were expectations from outside the organization that he should have instant success in the NHL. I remember him being described as the most talented player not in the NHL (when he was in his obligatory military service for Finland).

I remember watching the Terry Ryan draft year. The Canadiens nerds were predicting that Montreal would select either Ryan or Shane Doan. When Doan was selected with the pick before Montreal, everything fell into place. If memory serves me correctly, Ryan's career was hampered by a series of concussions.

rob said...

Why do you credit Andre Savard with the players drafted from 2000 to 2003 while he was GM, then transfer responsibility to Trevor Timmins the Head Scout thereafter?Show some consistency, either the credit/blame lies with the General Manager at the time or it lies with the Head Scout.

Personally, I thought Andre Savard was the worst G.M. by quite a wide margin in all the years I've followed the team. Rejean Houle at least had the excuse of working with a tight budget and reluctant ownership at the time (Molsons), while Savard had a blank ticket and enthusiastic ownership (Gillett). Not to mention that Houle worked in the darkest days of Anglophobia in Quebec, with the Canadian dollar worth about two thirds of a U.S. dollar. Nor to overlook the fact that three of the four years he was in charge the team set all time records for games lost due to injury.

You really oversimplify Timmin's "success" as well. His first pick Kostitsyn was nowhere near the best player on the board at the time, nor will he ever be. If you redo the 2003 draft Kostitsyn would be lucky to land in the first round. Second round pick Cory Urquhart was much, much worse. There were probably a dozen present or future NHL All Stars drafted after a guy who is in the Central Hockey League at the moment. Brilliant start for "Tiny Timmins".

Kyle Chipchura is pretty mediocre compared to some of the players taken after him in 2004. I know because I was advocating Mike Green or Wojtek Wolski at the time. That little gym rat with the I.Q. of a barbell picked a guy who can't skate or score. Great!

In 2005, luck more than good management brought them Carey Price. Guillaume Latendresse was a good pick, and most of the draft was pretty solid. David Fischer was NOT A GOOD PICK in 2006. The should have stayed where they were and taken Ty Wishart. Ryan McDonagh from 2007 is not much better than Fischer. Timmins REALLY OVERRATED THE MINNESOTA HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS. Look at Blake Wheeler. You can't call Fisher and McDonagh good picks at the spots they were taken at this point in time. Quite the opposite, I would say.

There were 3 or 4 players drafted after Fischer on the U.S. WJC defendse and the same with McDonagh. Every defenseman was drafted later than the Canadien' picks.

pierre said...

Interesting quotes from Brown about the previous era's drafting and player's developpement.

Andre Savard instigated a revolution in those grey areas, not only did he selected Komisarek, Plekanec, Perezhogin and HIGGINS but he was also responsible for the hiring of Trevor Timmins as chief of scouting in July of 2002 which lead them both to the selection of A.Kostitsyn, Lapierre, O'Byrne and Halak in june of 2003.

In July Gainey was officially put in command replacing Savard as the new GM.

Gainey inheritated a team that was poised to take advantages of one of the deepest bank of assets and prospects that I had ever seen in our Club history ... a near ideal building situation of which he was criticised a few years later to have under-managed by our captain Koivu at the end of our 2006' 07 season.

I loved Gainey's implication on his first year with our club but I feel we have been shortchanged in no small ways by his work in the following years.

Here are the quality assets and prospects that were handled to him upon arrival by his predecessors.

Francois Beauchemin
Michael Ryder
Mathieux Garon
Jason Ward
Ron Hainsey
Marcel Hossa
Joseph Balej
Mike Komisarek
Christopher Higgins
Maxime Lapierre
Brian O'Byrne
Jeroslav Halak

Hell was the name of the black hole in which Andre Savard was pushed in at the earlier stage of our 2000-01 season,... he did incredibly well to get us moving out of it and left us with a man who will continu to make a difference for us in the futur in Trevor Timmins.

I wish that '' the changing times " brought about by Savard's upgrading of our scouting-drafting-developpement system would have fallen into different hands than Gainey's as a GM and as a builder.

Regardless of my critisms ( and Koivu's own ) I am pleased with our hockey philosophy as it was expressed by Gainey at the press conference following our playoffs season ... lets face it a franchise needs to have vision and a team needs to have a repeatable identity if for nothing else than to make our drafing and building process as coherent as possible and last but not least to render our invitations more attractives to UFA who want to know exactly in what they are being asked to get themselves into at this point of their carreers ... specially when considering long term offers.

Now they know.... and so do we.

'' we want to be a fast skating team, offensive an opportunistic, an exciting team ... an intelligent team ''

Bob Gainey

I love that statement, I love our direction and hopefully our futur will remain bound to it and successfull at it.