Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Naked Draft

Remember that story from your childhood? The one about the emperor? He believed the shifty tailor who claimed the clothes he'd made were so fine they were invisible to the naked eye, and he ended up parading around the city, starkers. The only one with the courage to point out the emperor had been shafted and was actually in the altogether was a naive little girl.

Unfortunately, I think I have to play the role of the little girl in the story of the Canadiens' recent draft history. After the atrocious legacy of first-rounders to the Habs' (dis)credit throughout the nineties, we've been cutting Trevor Timmins a lot of slack because he's actually picking guys who are able to play in the NHL. However, it may be time to finally admit the head scout isn't doing such a great job. His responsibility to the team is to pick players who make the it better, not just guys who can play in the NHL. And so far, not one player Trevor Timmins has picked has really made the Habs a better team.

Seriously, the most recent Habs draftee that's actually making an impact on the big team is Tomas Plekanec. He was picked in the third round in 2001. Eight years ago. Eight. That's a huge number of years in a league in which a team's window to win typically amounts to five years or less. Trevor Timmins has been drafting for the Habs since 2003. In that time he's picked guys like Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Kyle Chipchura, Ryan White, Matt D'Agostini, Greg Stewart, Ryan O'Byrne, Carey Price, Jaro Halak, Mathieu Carle and Max Pacioretty. Disregarding the players he might have picked instead of any of those guys (although Carter, Richards, Getzlaf, Parise, Lucic, Kopitar, Perron et al are enough to make you cry) the fact remains none of the Timmins draftees on the team right now are difference-makers. And that's what drafting is all about. In the end, the only thing that matters is that the player you pick helps your team win. Nobody cares at this point that Datsyuk was drafted in the seventy-ninth round of his draft. What matters is that he's helping his team win games.

The first rounders are particularly grievous. If we look at all the other teams in the East, we see at least one player drafted in the first round by most of those teams that have become important, if not franchise players. In the northeast, Ottawa has Spezza. Buffalo has Vanek and Stafford. Boston had Kessel, and has now turned him into TWO first rounders. Only the leafs' draft record is worse than the Habs', with no first rounders of their own choosing on the roster in important roles. The other teams in the East also have first-rounders who make a difference. Pittsburgh? Okay...let's not talk about them. Philly has Carter and Richards, Gagne, Giroux and Van Riemsdyk. Caps? Again, an embarrassment of riches. Atlanta has Kovalchuk and Little, Isles have Okposo and Tavares, Devils have Parise, Zajak and Brodeur, Florida has Olecz, Horton, Weiss and Frolik, Tampa has Stamkos and Hedman, Carolina has Staal and Ward and the Rangers have Staal and Del Zotto. So, every team in the East, bar the Habs and leafs has a first-round pick contributing significantly to its success.

Looking at the Habs' first rounders, it's too early to judge Leblanc from 2009. Their first rounder in 2008 went to Calgary for Tanguay. The 2007 picks were Pacioretty, who's struggling to score at the NHL level and McDonagh, who's now a Ranger. In 2006, the Habs picked David Fischer, who's in his fourth year of college hockey and still considered a "prospect." The year 2005 saw the selection of Carey Price at number five overall, which was a risky pick at the time and still hasn't been justified by the player's performance. (Don't think about Kopitar...don't think about Kopitar...) In 2004, the Habs picked Kyle Chipchura who's been fighting and failing to nail down a fourth-line role on the team for three years now. And Timmins' first draft year with the Habs, the 2003 Super Draft, brought us Andre Kostitsyn. He of the five points in 18 games. So, yes, the first round under Timmins has been less than stellar, to put it kindly.

I have another issue with Timmins' picks though, and that's their similarity. When the team picked Lapierre, it was picking a good defensive centre with heart and great leadership qualities. Fine. But then, Timmins went out and drafted Chipchura, Olivier Fortier, Ryan White and Mathieu Aubin. Description? All good defensive centres with great leadership qualities. So then Timmins picked defencemen to address the organization's deficiency in that department. He chose Ryan O'Byrne, a big guy with mobility, if not a lot of offence, who was headed to college. Then he picked Joe Stejkal, Fischer and Mcdonagh...all mobile guys with some size and not a lot of offence. To offset that, he picked an offensive D with a great shot and not stellar in his own end in Mark Streit. Then he picked Yannick Weber, Mathieu Carle and PK Subban who all fit the exact same bill. You can't fill a roster with those kinds of players without sacrificing something.

Timmins gets a lot of credit because of the sheer number of his picks who have made the NHL. But if you look at the number of his picks who actually make a significant contribution to the team, you begin to realize he's possibly overhyped. That's because for a team like Montreal, which has been middle-of-the-pack for more than a decade, drafting is vital. It's the only opportunity a team has to get really good players for free. If they can't draft well, they have to fill important roles on the team through trades or free agency. Trades are tough when you don't have assets you've drafted to send to your trading partner. Free agency costs money and eats cap space which keeps you from filling other holes on your roster. Drafting well gives you a leg up on the opposition because you can use your assets and money to ADD to the team you've built, rather than use them to build from scratch.

I guess we can ignore the fact that many of the successful picks on other teams have managed to make an impact at an early age, and accept that most of the Timmins picks are 25 or under. But at some point we're going to have to stop using youth as an excuse for lack of talent.

So, I have to say, right now...Trevor Timmins has no clothes. And neither do the Habs.


Anvilcloud said...

Doesn't matter. All of those great guys you mentioned wouldn't have done well with us. We'd be banging our heads against the wall while Carter was grinding on the fourth line and AK was scoring 50 in Philly. I'm being somewhat serious. In effect I'm saying that there's more to it that who you draft. OTOH I get and mostly agree with your thesis.

DKerr said...

I agree that Trevor basically has not swung for the fences for that home run hitter, but I would not fault his stocking of defensemen by their similar skill sets. Who could predict which one will ascend? Who knows, PK may be that home run hitter on the blueline. I remember him not being listed in the Hockey News top 100 prospects that year.

Please, let's not discuss the contributions of all those Panther top 10 picks and could Tampa miss picking Stamkos 1st and Hedman second overall?

Winning and losing changes the perception. Right now, everything looks hopeless, nobody scoring, FAs taking big cap room, etc. Obviously, the drafting looks terrible. A couple of years ago, the brothers were producing, the goalies looked great and the drafts were providing the supporting cast to a winning team. Now, they all look like duds

saskhab said...

It's called development. It all stunted under Don Lever in Hamilton, and Guy Carbonneau in Montreal. That's where the disconnect happened.

Notice that Streit and Grabovski thrived outside of the Montreal limelight?

Gainey wanted to fire Lever in 2007 for the stunting of Habs prospects, but then the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup. In hindsight, that was a mistake. AHL teams aren't for winning (sorry Hamilton fans), they're for development of young talent.

My main criticism of Timmins is that he is ALWAYS looking for the home run, IMO. He's trying to find the diamond in the rough, whether it's in Belarus, a Connecticut prep school, some high school prom king in Minnesota, or a tier 2 junior player. How many guys have been drafted high out of the major junior program under his watch? How many guys have been drafted out of the Swedish Elite League? The numbers are staggeringly low... he's always looking for the late bloomers when there are guys that are playing at a high level right now... that are AHEAD of the curve at 18.

Topham said...

You might be interested in this:

Timmins has been fine relative to his rivals. Even in the first round. If you take away top 5 picks your list of rivals looks as square as the Habs:

Ottawa has no one of note. Buffalo has Stafford. Boston had no one, and has now turned him into TWO first rounders. Only the leafs' draft record is worse than the Habs', with no first rounders of their own choosing on the roster in important roles. The other teams in the East also have first-rounders who make a difference. Pittsburgh? would still be a bottom feeder without top 5 picks. Philly has Carter and Richards, Gagne, Giroux and Van Riemsdyk. Caps? NOt so great when you take away Ovechkin and Backstrom. Atlanta has Little, Isles have no one, Devils have Parise, Zajak and Brodeur, Florida has Olecz, Horton, Weiss and Frolik, Tampa has no one, Carolina has Ward and the Rangers have Staal and Del Zotto.

Really you'd be staring down Philly and New Jersey.

Montreal is in the same position as Toronto in that aiming for a top 5 pick is completely unacceptable leading up to the draft, not having a star picked on draft day is also not up to standards. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't. I think the management have done well considering the restraints.

Ad to that that Timmins does better beyond round 1 than the vast majority of rivals and you see he must get his clothes back.

J.T. said...

@Topham: Ah, but you can't take away the top five picks. The Habs have had one too, and he's still in the "yet to be determined" category when it comes to figuring out how much he'll be able to help the team. My point (or one of them anyway!) is almost every other team has a first round pick who's making a difference right now. The Habs do not.

Christopher Sama said...

Everyone basically brings the same toolbox to work... it's how you learn to use the tools...

I agree with most of the comments here - maybe Timmins is good or okay - but doesn't really matter because of poor player development.

I think Boucher will do wonders in Hamilton and Martin will help the newer prospects who get called up...

I also feel that Carbonneau hurt this team on many levels... I hate playing the what if game, but what if Ryder didn't fall into Carbo's doghouse? And Streit wasn't used as a forward? And how much was he to blame for the lack of cohesion last season?

Ryder and Streit aren't superstars but good role players who are appreciated on their current teams.

We drafted good players, killed their mojo, and then let 'em walk...

This organization need to do better to help players succeed.

AndyF said...

I'm more inclined to think that player development is what's done us in. Taking a look at how poorly Latendresse, Grabovski, SK74, Carey Price, Chris Higgins, and others have been coached, I would say the problem lies there.

In many cases, the missing piece was life-coaching rather than physical conditioning and skill development. The Habs have nothing in their organisation for that.

J.T. said...

@Andy & others who cite player development as the crux of the problem: I don't really buy that, in that it's not quantifiable. If the Habs are so consistently bad at developing players, management can change coaches much more easily than it can start over with a new bunch of players. And, if player development is such an issue, how come guys like Plekanec, Higgins and Ryder had their best seasons with the Habs? Even Komisarek played his best hockey to date in a Montreal uniform (although I think he can probably thank Markov for that.) Halak has developed extremely well for a ninth-rounder too.

No, I think any development system is only as good as the talent within it in the first place. I mean, how many different ways, from how many different people does Guillaume Latendresse have to be told to go to the front of the net? Or Andrei Kostitsyn to shoot the puck?

That said though, Andy, I completely agree the Habs need a life coach within the system. I think Carey Price suffered when he showed up in Montreal at age twenty, without having ever lived on his own before. He was left by himself to deal with the pressure of the job while also sorting out how to run a household and manage his time and behaviour. I think it would have helped him to have an older teammate take him in, like Mario did for Crosby and Gonchar for Malkin.