Player Development Is Habs’ Best Hope

If the Montreal Canadiens keep all their picks in the upcoming draft, they will be adding 10 new prospects to the organization. With a top-three pick, four second-rounders and picking at the top end of each round, it gives the Habs a lot of opportunity to identify and draft high-end prospects.

However, the draft is just the beginning. Adding 10 new prospects to the organization is a great start, but turning them into NHLers is a whole different story. With player development under scrutiny in Montreal under Marc Bergevin, it’s a perception that will persist unless they get results.

Lack of Development in the AHL

Where a player plays post-draft is a big decision for some. CHL players tend to stay there, as the rules limit them from moving unless it is to the NHL. However, players from other leagues have more of a choice. For USHL and USNTDP players, they can choose between the CHL, the NCAA or the AHL. European players can choose between staying or coming over to play in the CHL or AHL. All these leagues have their pros and cons, and the fit comes down to the individual player and his development.

For the Habs, it’s been the AHL development that’s been a sore spot. Sylvain Lefebvre coached the farm team for six years that were marked by a lot of losing and questionable player development. Bergevin finally made a change this offseason by bringing in former QMJHL coach Joel Bouchard. Considered to be a bright, up-and-coming coach, the hope is Bouchard’s experience with young players and bringing new ideas to the organization will buck the trend of constant losing and poor player development.

Joel Bouchard
BOISBRIAND, QC – OCTOBER 27: Head coach of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada Joel Bouchard regroups his team against the Drummondville Voltigeurs. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The coming years will have a lot more prospects coming through the organizational ranks, and many players will spend time in the AHL with the Laval Rocket. It’s where most of them will play professional hockey for the first time and learn Montreal’s system.

Barring a miracle, not all of Montreal’s prospects will become NHL players, but putting them in the best position to succeed, along with Bouchard’s coaching, will be a big part of being able to properly evaluate them. Some of the recent player development issues include prospects playing out of position, players in roles unsuited for them and giving undeserving veterans more ice time. 

The Centre Conundrum

The Habs lack depth at a lot of positions, and filling those gaps in free agency is expensive and often only a short-term solution. Unfortunately, the Habs do not have a No. 1 centre on the team or a potential one waiting in the wings. For whatever reason, the Habs struggle to develop centres.

Signing John Tavares would certainly alleviate that issue, but relying on whether or not he will sign with the Habs is short-sighted. Paul Stastny would be the next best choice free-agent wise, and he would be Montreal’s top option by default. However, at this point in his career, Stastny would be a stop-gap and is realistically better as a No. 2 centre than a No. 1. 

John Tavares
John Tavares (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Habs could attempt to trade for one, but chances are it will require giving up the third overall pick. The 2018 draft unfortunately isn’t stocked with centres at the high end. 2019 has the next American hockey prodigy in Jack Hughes, who has been excellent with the USNTDP and is a top-end talent who has been stylistically compared to Patrick Kane.

Getting Hughes would require the Habs to completely tank next season and hope the lottery goes their way again, which is a dangerous game to play. Montreal’s best option is to draft centres and develop them alongside their other current prospects. 2017 first-round pick Ryan Poehling has the most upside of the team’s centre prospects, and his potential projects him to be a No.2 centre.

Slow Progress

Bergevin has made steps this offseason in trying to modernize by bringing in the likes of Bouchard and Dominique Ducharme. Lack of player development is a problem area and one that needs to be solved as soon as possible. It’s part of the reason why the Habs are so poorly built and lack quality depth. It’s not going to bear fruit right away with the 2018 cohort yet to be drafted and the 2016 and 2017 classes finishing their junior eligibility. Improved player development is long overdue for the Habs, but the real results of this new approach will materialise in the next five years.