For some teams, success can be attained from acquiring players through trades and free agency. That can work in the short-term, however, eventually teams will have to overpay to keep those players around, or see them walk in free agency as was the case with the Columbus Blue Jackets this offseason. Winning for long periods of time in today’s NHL has proven difficult for some teams, given the hard salary cap and the demands of the game’s best players.
Yet, elongated success can be achieved through proper development. Some teams have been able to use it to their advantage, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, have been one of many teams that have failed to consistently produce quality talent within their organization for the past decade. Through poor drafting that’s led to a disappointing minor league system, the Canadiens have to figure out how better develop players within their own ranks.
Canadiens’ Poor Drafting History
The start to any good development system is the draft. It is where all the best scouting minds within an organization come together to figure out who their team should select to help be the future of the franchise. Granted, a lot of it comes down to the luck of the draw on where their team is on the draft board.
Unfortunately, there have been multiple years where Montreal has chosen players that have not worked out professionally. Since the 2007 Draft, which saw the Canadiens draft P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty, only nine draft picks have played at least half of a season with the Canadiens. It could have been 10, however, Mikhail Sergachev was traded to the Lightning before given a real chance with the Canadiens. This does include a poor 2008 Draft, which has seen zero of the Canadiens’ five draft picks earn any NHL experience. The closest being Danny Kristo, who played 271 games in the AHL over five seasons, and only nine within the Canadiens’ organization.
Minor League Mishaps
When the draft picks turn pro, the majority find themselves in the minors. This stage is meant to see who can simply make it at the professional level in North America. The Canadiens, over the past half decade, have had three different locations for their AHL affiliate. For 13 seasons, Hamilton was home for the Canadiens’ prospects. After that, they had a two-year stint in St. John’s, Newfoundland, followed by their current home in Laval, just outside of Montreal. In terms of bringing up quality talent, the Canadiens have struggled to do so on a consistent basis since leaving Hamilton in 2015.
The number of quality players who have graduated from the AHL level to the main roster in Montreal has been mediocre at best. It is not like there has not been skill to make their way onto either Hamilton, St. John’s or Laval’s rosters. Jarred Tinordi was very capable defencive defenceman coming out of the OHL. After joining the Hamilton Bulldogs, his development seemed to plateau, and only played a handful of games with Canadiens before being dealt to the Arizona Coyotes organization in 2016.
Gabriel Dumont was a very dynamic forward who the Canadiens selected in the fifth round of the 2009 Draft. After finishing second in the QMJHL in scoring in 2009-10 with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Dumont joined the Bulldogs. For the better part of the next six seasons, he failed to become the complete goal scorer he looked to be in junior. Now in the Minnesota Wild system, Dumont has clearly turned from young scoring star to bus-riding veteran.
One of the biggest blunders in the Canadiens’ development was Zach Fucale. Fucale was an outstanding goaltender in junior. With the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, he won a Memorial Cup in 2013, and the Jacques Plante Memorial Trophy for best goals-against average the following season. To top it all off, he helped Canada end their five-year drought at the World Junior Championships, winning gold in 2015. Granted, it was a surprise that he was drafted by Montreal in 2013, given that Carey Price was entering his prime.
After turning pro in 2015, Fucale’s game fell off dramatically. Falling quickly out of favour with Canadiens’ management, he was anchored down in the minors, spending the majority of his time in the ECHL with the Brampton Beast. He has not touched the ice in the NHL since leaving junior, and he most likely never will.
The players individually cannot take all the blame, as the teams that have surrounded them have not been all that great either. Since the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup in 2007, a Canadiens’ AHL affiliate has made the playoffs just four times. Three more times in Hamilton, and once in St. John’s. Between 2011 and the present, the Bulldogs, Ice Caps and Rocket have finished with a record below .500 six times, five of which were under head coach, and former Canadiens defenceman, Sylvain Lefebvre. Lefebvre coached in all three cities for a combined six seasons, and after an abysmal 2017-18 season that saw the Rocket finish with a league-worst 58 points (24-42-7-3), he was finally relieved of his duties.
Former Blainville-Boisbriand Armada coach Joel Bouchard stepped in last season and helped improve the Rocket to 78 points. However, the Canadiens still have not been able to put a quality team together in the minors.
What Needs to Change?
Better Front Office
First step starts at the top with removing Larry Carriere. Carriere was brought in as assistant general manager in 2010 after scouting with the Capitals. Despite having previous experience in the front office, he has failed mightily as director of player development as his hand has been involved with the Canadiens’ AHL struggles. It is time for a change, and that change can come from within. Trevor Timmins has been with the club since 2002, and shares the assistant GM duties with Scott Mellanby. Timmins is in charge of the club’s amateur scouting department. By placing him in charge of the Rocket, it will give him the ability to oversee all development of talent throughout the organization, all the way from scouting to minor league development.
With Timmins in charge of scouting, that also means he, along with the rest of the Canadiens’ hockey operations, need to a better job of drafting. To be fair, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin had traded a lot of picks for short-term playoff rentals over the past half decade. However, with a rebuilding team, Montreal is in a prime spot to continue to obtain picks from other teams, giving them more opportunities to look at higher-end prospects. Their strategy needs to change as well. The Canadiens are going to have to start drafting the best players (from ‘Grading the Montreal Canadiens’ 2019 draft class,’ The Athletic, 06/22/2019) available, rather than drafting players to fill the holes in the lineup. This will help them find players who could be NHL-ready sooner rather than later.