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The Montreal Canadiens need to take a lesson from the Toronto Maple Leafs

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A division rival overhauled its development system, and it’s paying massive dividends.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens have serious issues on their hands right now: they’re not winning games, and their development pipeline in the AHL isn’t exacting bursting with talent outside of Nikita Scherbak and Noah Juulsen. While they did well in the last NHL draft to address two major holes in their prospect pool, the team still lacks NHL-ready (or even close to NHL-level) talent right now. Part of that comes from trading away players in deals, missing draft picks from deadline swaps, and various overall mismanagement of the assets they did have.

The Canadiens’ farm system has been an abject disaster since the time of Marc Bergevin’s arrival in the organization. The Hamilton Bulldogs and St. John’s IceCaps made the playoffs a combined one time under his tenure, and that was a four-game best-of-five series which they lost. In the team’s inaugural season, the Laval Rocket are also on track to have the worst finish ever under head coach Sylvain Lefebvre.

Andrew Zadarnowski

As you can see from the chart above, the Habs’ AHL affiliate hasn’t seen a single winning season, or even many prolonged periods around a .500 record.

Perhaps more concerning is that during these extended downturns, the AHL clubs aren’t outwardly producing much in terms of potential NHL stars, with only a handful of players sticking in the NHL full-time and with decent results. Of those players, three were traded away (Sven Andrighetto, Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn), one played fewer than 40 AHL games total (Brendan Gallagher), and one has only just found a place in the regular lineup (Charles Hudon). There have been players with extremely high expectations failing to come out of the sustem ready to make an NHL impact, like Jacob de la Rose and Michael McCarron, who both looked like decent future NHL players in their first years within the organization.

After stockpiling draft picks after a rebuild under Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, and Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an absurd amount of prospect depth to work with. They’ve been extremely patient with their high-end stars, letting players like William Nylander, Andreas Johnsson, and Kasperi Kapanen play major minutes for the Marlies, while mixing in short NHL stints until they forced the hand of Mike Babcock and stayed in the lineup.

Players like Nikita Soshnikov and Josh Leivo have proven their worth at the AHL level, yet due to a backlog of talent in the NHL can’t even get regular minutes. By comparison, Montreal regularly scratches one of its better defensive options, and for whatever reason has given more ice time to fourth-liners than actual goal-scorers.

It seems that anyone called up from the Marlies in the recent seasons fits in almost immediately at the NHL level due to the coaching styles and the development they received. Justin Holl and Travis Dermott went from the the AHL this year, to seamlessly fitting in the NHL, with Dermott now being a staple on the blue line.

Montreal has seen at most two successful NHL call-ups, one of whom has a limited sample size in Nikita Scherbak, the other being Nicolas Deslauriers who has found a home on the fourth line, but he’s significantly older than a typical prospect.

Another long-standing issue is with players who might not be NHL stars, but can be good contributors at the AHL level. Toronto has made use of guys like Colin Greening and Ben Smith, but they don’t take away ice from the young players being groomed for NHL roles. In recent years, top prospects in the Habs’ AHL system have been benched for such players as John Scott on defence, Joe Finley, Bobby Shea, Nick Tarnasky, and other options with no projection for an NHL roster spot. Having veterans isn’t an issue, but it can become one when players who need the ice time to develop are pushed to the side.

Despite multiple seasons spent at the bottom of the AHL standings, the Canadiens have stuck by Lefebvre in the AHL. They’ve fired or let assistant coaches walk, but stuck with a man who has been given more leash than he deserves at this point.

Flanking him on the bench is Nick Carrière, a coach whose best season prior to joining the AHL ranks was going 8-5-3 at the NCAA Division III level. If Lefebvre is fired, is hiring his assistant who has even less experience really the route they’re going to go? Or if he’s being groomed for an NHL job, what part of his resume qualifies him for it right now?

Compare this to the current iteration of the the Toronto Maple Leafs. Since cleaning house and burning the franchise to the ground, their system has paid major dividends for the NHL club. They lost AHL head coach Dallas Eakins to an NHL deal, replacing him with Steve Spott who made a deep playoff run, and was then hired to work in the NHL for Toronto before moving on to San Jose. They then promoted Gord Dineen from assistant to head coach, with the team losing in the first round of the playoffs in his first year behind the bench. Dineen took a step back when Sheldon Keefe was hired, acting as an associate coach instead. With Keefe behind the bench, the Marlies have become one of the AHL’s elite teams, combining youth, good systems and a dash of proper veteran presence to create a terrifying team to play against.

Replacing Lefebvre shouldn’t be a hard task. There’s a perfect candidate for the Canadiens right in their own backyard. That man is Dominique Ducharme, who is one of the most respected coaches in junior hockey, and on the biggest junior stage of all he collected a pair of gold medals with Team Canada. He stated he was done coaching the national team after his latest medal, and with him not currently coaching a team he’s readily available for a promotion from the QMJHL. He has a proven track record working with top prospects, whether they were players for the Halifax Mooseheads or Canada’s under-20 team.

He is not the only option. Another member of Team Canada’s World Juniors staff, Joel Bouchard, is also the president, general manager, and head coach of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. In recent seasons, the Armada have become one of the top teams in the QMJHL, and, much like Ducharme, he is a coach who could himself gain development for a future role behind the Canadiens’ bench.

Roster mismanagement has plagued the Canadiens and their minor-league clubs, especially in this most recent season. Laval has lost almost all of its scoring talent due to trades, injuries, or call-ups. Byron Froese was recalled and has been a mix of a healthy scratch and fourth-line centre for far longer than the 10-game/30-day rule that allows waiver-eligible players to play with the NHL club for a short period of time before being returned to the AHL with no chance of a claim from another team. The same applies for Daniel Carr and Nicolas Deslauriers.

These were all crucial players for the Rocket. Without them, and due to the lack of star prospects, the team has predictably faltered.

Most embarrassing of all is that the Canadiens then tried to add one of their ECHL affiliate’s stars, David Vallorani, to the Laval roster, but was apparently unaware of the contract rules of the AHL. It’s inexcusable for a team that has such a vast amount of resources to handle such things.

Recently, signing players to tryouts, as they have with Nikita Korostelev and Anthony Beauregard, is something Toronto has used to great effect in the past, in addition to signing NCAA seniors and CHL over-agers. Montreal’s interest in players like Jimmy Schuldt and Hayden Verbeek shows promise that there’s a plan to change the approach to free-agent additions.

These don’t always have be on NHL deals either. Signing a player to an AHL deal and then opgrading that to an NHL deal if he earns it, like Markus Eisenschmid did, is a possible solution as well.

This is an important off-season for the Canadiens, who can either choose to clean house and start fresh, or revel in the mediocrity of an AHL team that struggles to hit a winning record. There needs to be accountability for why there are so few NHL-ready prospects, why project prospects haven’t progressed, and why the AHL team cannot win more often than it loses.

There are options out there to take over coaching and development at the AHL level. The Canadiens’ general manager should act immediately in the off-season to set the farm team on the correct path, and following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lead isn’t a bad plan of action.