Thursday, August 6, 2009

Last Chances

It takes about thirty seconds for the value of a draft pick to drop by half. When a GM steps up to the mic and puts a name on that pick, it's no longer a rich commodity with a wealth of possibility. It's a real player with flaws and weaknesses and a personality. At that point, the hopes of the team and its fans shift from the possibilities of a draft pick to the potential of the new prospect. And of course, actual potential isn't worth as much as unlimited possibility, so when the asset changes from pick to prospect, his value drops.

It's up to him to rebuild that value, and most players have about six years, tops, to do so. By the time he's 24, a player will have a label. He might be a two-way third liner in the NHL or a legitimate All Star. He might be a career AHLer, or a guy whose only shot at pro hockey is in the European leagues. Either way, it's not that common for a player to change the label he's earned by the sixth season after his draft. If he's not fulfilling the promise his draft team thought he had, he'll probably be looking for a new chance with another organization that doesn't see him as being a disappointment.

Looking at the current Habs, it's clear that some of them are facing their last chances with the Canadiens. For them, the upcoming training camp will be the biggest one of their careers to date. This is the year they make it, or leave the organization.

First on the list is Kyle Chipchura. Chipchura has gone from being a first-round draft pick with potential to be an elite shut-down third line centre in the NHL, to being a guy who excells at the AHL level but can't seem to step up his game enough to stick in the big league. Chipchura was chosen for his defensive play, his size and his leadership qualities. He's demonstrating all of those abilities in Hamilton, but when he's been called up to Montreal he's had trouble with consistency. In his favour at camp this year is the fact that Bob Gainey just signed him to a new one-year deal, which equates to one more chance to win a permanent spot on the team. Running against him is the reality that he'll be fighting for a fourth-line centre position with Glen Metropolit, who did a good job there last year, and possibly even 2006 draftees Ben Maxwell and Ryan White. If one of those guys has a better camp than Chipchura, he's bound for Hamilton again and I don't think he'll be back if that happens.

I was there at the Bell Centre when Kyle Chipchura scored his first NHL goal, and I've had a soft spot for him ever since. I hope he makes the team this year, if only because I hate to see a first rounder go bust. But if he's going to make the most of this last chance he'll have to have to have the camp of his life, and then play some very convincing hockey in the first twenty-five games of the season. I think Jacques Martin will help Chipchura's chances, because his defence-first system plays to the latter's strengths. But Chipper will have to prove he's worked hard to improve his faceoffs, and that his positional play can make up for shortcomings in skating important issue on a team that looks to be built for flight. We'll see next month whether his best is good enough to keep him around as a Hab.

Also on the list of last chancers is Ryan O'Byrne. He just turned 25 and has had two chances to learn at the NHL level. He's ended up splitting both of the last two seasons between Montreal and Hamilton and is best known around the league for his horrid own-goal against the Islanders last year (the video of which still makes me ill, not least because of his own sickened expression when it happened), and stealing a purse in Florida. Unfortunately for the Canadiens defence, the last two years of placing O'Byrne with mentor Roman Hamrlik have resulted in O'Byrne's demotion and Patrice Brisebois being forced to play top-six minutes instead.

In O'Byrne's favour at this year's camp is his great size, which, as they say, you can't teach. And Bob Gainey liked him well enough to sign him to a three-year contract last summer, which at least gives him a little job security for the moment. Also helping him will be his experience at the NHL level. He might not have been great so far, but he must have learned a few valuable lessons about what not to do. He's withstood humiliation and mockery, demotions and benchings which, since they didn't kill him, must have made him stronger. And O'Byrne has a little more leeway than some others because he plays defence, which is generally recognized as being a tougher position to learn, and he spent three full years in college which may have set his development back a little. I thought he had a good playoff last year against Boston, one of the few Habs who did, and outplayed Komisarek in those four games. The man can skate well for his size, he's not a bad passer when he's not panicking and he can hit when he's not running out of position to do it. It's just a matter of him putting it all together with a little maturity. The problem is, time is running out for him to do it. Going against him at camp is the fact that Gainey has hired Paul Mara, Hal Gill and Jaro Spacek to complement Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Hamrlik. That means O'Byrne has to either beat out a proven NHL defenceman for a top-six spot, or he'll be fighting for the seventh position with Yannick Weber and possibly, if he has a monster camp, PK Subban. If O'Byrne gets sent back to Hamilton again, this could be it for him as a Hab.

Rounding out the list of last chance guys, this time by his own choice, is Jaroslav Halak. Jaro has had great numbers everywhere he's played. He's proven he's a competitor and a dedicated professional. He pulled the Canadiens back into playoff contention three years ago as a 21-year-old rookie. The next season he was unfairly sent to Hamilton in favour of Carey Price, after outplaying him in camp, and proceeded to dominate the AHL with a .929 save percentage. Then, last year, he won a few miraculous 40+ save games to stop the Habs' wretched slide down the standings after Christmas and get the team into the playoffs. Despite that, he was still benched in favour of Price, no matter how badly Price performed. This isn't meant to be a condemnation of Price, or a deification of Halak, but it's a fact that Halak hasn't been treated very well in Montreal, despite some extremely helpful performances on his part. If the Canadiens (namely Gainey and Martin) continue to shove Halak off to the side even when he's playing better than Price, the team will lose him. And that will be a mistake. He's not asking to play every game, but he is expecting a fair shake. I hope he gets one because the team is better for having a backup as capable as Halak.

I'd like to see these guys take full advantage of their last chances. A fan develops something of an attachment to the players the team drafts and develops, and we want to see them make it. We should see some fierce competition in camp next month as these guys fight for their professional lives. This is the year their value will be determined and they have to the Canadiens or another team...that they're worth at least a chance.


Yves said...

Great post J.T.

I'm hoping "they" all step up for this season.

I'm rooting for Chipchura. At times hes played well.... let's hope that he finds a spot with Martin's new system.

I kind of have a soft spot for him too.

As for O'Byrne, I actually have a bit of a soft spot too. Maybe Martin and the new coaching staff might help O'Byrne out alot.

J.T. said...

Yves, I like O'Byrne too. I didn't realize how much until I went back and re-watched the own-goal video. My heart went out to him because he was so obviously devastated by that...and everyone booing him after they lost the game in the shootout. I hope he pushes Gill into the seventh-man role with a great camp.

saskhab said...

Chipchura could probably play the wing as well. It's not like he HAS to play centre to be successful... big, defensively responsible wingers who can take faceoffs and kill penalties are also valuable in this league. I still like Chips, and think he'll do fine this year. He had a tough go last year because Carbo wanted to run 3 offensive lines and the team was overstocked with serviceable veterans like Begin, Dandenault, Kostopolous and Laraque to play 4th line wing. That's not as much an issue now.

If nothing else, both Chipchura and O'Byrne will be the reserve players, the guys ready to step in when other players need a sit down or someone gets sick/injured. It may be their last chance to impress, but they'll get the first shots out of the group of non-regulars to do so.

If Greg "Mr. 1 point in 21 games and no PK ability" Stewart gets plenty of chances ahead of Chipchura, that'll be a real mistake.

bonscott said...

I think chipchura will make it this year, that o'byrne has the size but no talent, and that having two young goalies who are competing for number one is not a bad thing.
My only concern now is how much is gainey regretting signing hamrlik for that huge contract, if only there was a team stupid enough to take it on, i feel that a trade of plekanec and kostitsyns would not be far behind. While i like plekanecs work ethic, i feel we cannot have a player who openly admits to playing like a little girl, and the kosts have no heart.

DB said...

Two other young players who need to show a lot this year are Lats and Sergei. Both have had their moments, but like most of Montreal's other young players have been maddenly inconsistent.

If Martin can get a consistent performance out of his young players then it is likely that coaching was the main problem rather than partying, media pressure, poor leadership or whatever other reasons fans have put forward.

I'm certainly cheering for Chips, O'Byrne and the other young players to succeed because if they don't I'm afraid I could take out my frustrations on the TV.