Canadiens and Wild Suffer the Same Problem: Farm Team Development.

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Canadiens and Wild Suffer the Same Problem: Farm Team Development.
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A lot of teams in the NHL still have a hard time finding and drafting the right prospect. Or maybe it’s simply because they don’t have the tools to make them grow into stars? There is a plethora of talented prospects that never make a real impact at the NHL level for some reason. Reasons can range from lack of effort, disgruntled youth, overrated player, size, competitiveness.

 

Sometimes the assessment of a junior player is just completely off the mark. And other times, the development system is to blame.

 

There have been many first round busts through the years regardless of what spot they are drafted. But I noticed a familiar pattern between two teams. Both teams have had prospects over the years coming up the ranks, only to crumble at the NHL level, stay stuck in the minor leagues, or provide only marginal contributions once at the NHL level.

 

I’m talking about the similarities between the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild. For some reason, many experts thought for many years that Montreal had a awesome prospect pool just waiting to explode into NHL stardom.

 

In fact, Montreal was ranked No. 2 on the prospect depth chart by Hockey’s Future for years…until this season. They recently realized all that talent and «depth» has apparently vanished, and Montreal dropped to No. 14.

 

Montreal is, in my opinion, in much better shape than the Wild where there is a dearth of depth. It’s simple really, for those two teams, the rank in the draft does not matter, whatever hot prospect they will get will only provide marginal contribution to their respective teams.

 

At some point, for a head scout and general manager, you want those «talented prospects» to take over the team and steal the veterans spot and ice time. And for most teams, that's exactly what happens. Chicago, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Washington, Anaheim...I could keep going on and on. But the fact is on almost every roster in the NHL, the core is made up of young players in their early 20’s, drafted and developed by their respective teams.

 

For the sake of this comparison, I’ll say right now that out of the bunch, Mikko Koivu and Tomas Plekanec are probably the best two. And both are still on the team that drafted them. And both provide about the same offensive numbers. So I’m not going to mention them further.

 

Now, look at Montreal. The inability to develop young players has forced Bob Gainey’s hand over the years to sign veterans to fill a hole. And not only Gainey, it’s been the same story for years, this is what has plagues the Canadiens since the mid 90’s.

 

First round draft picks should, at this point, be at the top or near the top of their teams scoring chart. But the reality is very different. Were they all bad choices? Doubtful. Because if you follow junior players and the drafts year after year, you hear about those prospects and scouts are often unanimous. Pro scouts use the same tools and criteria for their analysis and when the scouting reports come out, not always, but often the reports say about the same thing.

 

So where does it go wrong? Why is Montreal forced to sign established players for their top line? Why is the Wild in the same position? As I mentioned, it’s an inability to develop their talented prospects. I’m not saying these players are bad, just that they never reached expectations and especially, they never show the potential that a first or second round pick should.

 

Chris Higgins was a big disappointment for Montreal’s management and was shipped away to New York where he continues to struggle. Mike Komisarek showed lot of promise, but decided to leave after a horrible year. Andrei Kostitsyn is lost in translation and seems to be regressing. Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse make an interesting and dynamic duo but are not scaring any defence out there. Kyle Chipchura feels like a career minor league player.

 

You probably already all forgot about David Fischer, the first choice in 2006 and Cory Urquhart, second round of 2003, picked 21 spots before Maxim Lapierre. Same goes for Duncan Milroy. And as time passes, I feel Matt D’Agostini is fading away as well.

 

We’ll never know if Ryan McDonagh could eventually replace Komisarek. Max Pacioretty is struggling badly and is not showing much signs of becoming a dominating power forward so far. Mikhail Grabovski, Alexander Perezoghin and Marcel Hossa all left after disappointing seasons.

 

All those prospects were regarded as «top line talent», «potential stars», «40 goals scorers» or, «defensive stud». So…what happened? Their development was botched. That’s what. By being unable to develop their talent in the AHL or juniors, we’ve lost those «potential stars» in the making.

 

The result? An average team with average players who need to fill holes with more talented players through trades or free agency.

 

Now look at the Wild. Have you seen James Sheppard? The Wild have been waiting for him to progress and break out but he’s been going the opposite direction. To his defence, Sheppard is an offensive minded player and has been forced into a defensive system for years. I’m afraid this has effectively slowed if not stopped his development.

 

Maybe he was brought to the NHL too quickly? The 9th overall pick is 2006 has managed only 44 points in 180 NHL games. He had 225 points in 187 games in the juniors.

 

And how about Benoit Pouliot? The fourth overall pick in 2005, just one spot before Carey Price. The Wild thought they had a real sniper there. I remember Trevor Timmins talking about him and saying if Pouliot had been available at the number five spot, he was to become the new Montreal Canadiens top prospect. Thank the hockey god he was picked fourth overall. Pouliot is an effortless skater but again, is not developing into an NHL caliber player. He’s struggling even worse than Sheppard with only 65 games in the NHL so far for a weak 18 points.

 

Patrick O’Sullivan was thought to be a first round pick but dropped quickly thanks to family problems. So scouts thought the Wild could have a real steal drafting him in the second round…only to trade him away for Pavol Demitra before his first NHL game.

 

AJ Thelen anyone? What? Don’t remember him? Can’t blame you. The 12th overall pick in 2004 has been playing in the East Coast league for the last three seasons. He’s not even fit for AHL duty, that says a lot.

 

And what about Pierre-Marc Bouchard who, like James Sheppard, tore up the junior league with 235 points in just 136 games!? He’s managed 267 points in over 400 NHL games so far. After draft day, scouts said the Wild drafted a potential star and point per game player, maybe the best forward available in the draft after Rick Nash.

 

But when Bouchard reached the NHL, scouts suddenly said he was too small and would’ve benefited from at least another year in the juniors and maybe one in the American league. Pierre-Marc Bouchard unfortunately never reached the same level of excellence. And I have to agree with those scouts. He was brought up to the NHL too soon.

 

It’s easy to look at scouting reports and the ISS ranking and determine who will be the top 10 picks next year. But even getting the first overall draft spot is no guarantee that player will eventually lead your team in any way (see Alexandre Daigle in 1993 as reference, or Patrik Stefan in 1999)

 

Earlier this summer, general manager Bob Gainey decided not to renew Don Lever’s contract. Everybody was shocked. Lever had been coaching Montreal’s farm club, the Hamilton Bulldogs, for since 2005 and was said to be a genius at developing young players. The Bulldogs even won the Calder cup in 2006-07 after an incredible year.

 

But after a quick assessment of his younger players, Gainey probably noticed that none of the players Lever developed were actually good enough to build the team around, so he was forced to get those players elsewhere.

 

And the fact that, in Montreal, coaches have to speak some french to talk to the media, and Lever doesn’t, probably weighted a lot and he was replaced with Guy Boucher who should be, in a few years, the Montreal Canadiens new coach and again, is said to be a magician with developing young players.

 

So getting a high draft pick is no guarantee of success. Even the best player available can become a bust if not developed properly. Confidence, skill, size, experience and also a feeling of urgency is important.

 

Skill, you either have it or don’t. Size comes with time. Confidence and experience comes from playing in all situations. And as for that feeling of «urgency» will come once the prospect feels he’s good enough to steal a roster spot from a veteran.

 

All that comes from developing at lower levels before reaching the NHL. It takes time and a good system in which to develop those prospects. And my feeling is that both Montreal and Minnesota have been in the same boat for years. The prospect pool is there, the talent is there, now all they need to do is find a way to get those guys from minor leaguers to NHL stars.

 

And it all starts with the farm team system…

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