A team whose only NHL player a year ago is now in the KHL is getting ready for the Stanley Cup Final.
If the Montreal Canadiens wanted any more proof that a quick turn around is possible, they only have to look at the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights roster is proof that there are quality NHL players being discarded from their teams or not given a full opportunity, and it just intensifies the importance of pro scouting. Of course, it doesn’t help that the man responsible in part to build Vegas’ roster, Vaughn Karpan, was with the Canadiens organization before taking the job.
And, sure, some of the players were solely available because of the expansion draft rules, but not all of them. And, it’s one thing to lose a player for free because you have to. It’s another to offer a prospect or draft pick for someone who can contribute immediately in the National Hockey League.
Not every team will start their life with Marc-Andre Fleury, but luckily the Canadiens have a pretty solid start there in Carey Price. They also have key building blocks all over the roster.
So here are some things that Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens could take into consideration with the success Vegas has had.
1. Good goaltenders bounce back
Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off of a season where he had a 3.02 goals against average and .909 save percentage for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, starting in 34 games. This season, he has a 2.24 goals against average and .927 save percentage playing for a team not many people expected much from.
This year, Carey Price started 48 games and had a 3.11 goals against average and .900 save percentage in what was the worst season of his career just as he’s about to start a massive contract.
But the Canadiens shouldn’t panic. Goaltenders sometimes have bad years, but the good ones bounce back. Fleury is just one example.
(Another lesson? Goaltending depth is important. Vegas had to use five goaltenders this season, four of which started games. You may not always need that many, but in case of an emergency, you’ll sure be happy you have depth. Using that many goaltenders isn’t a recipe to win a division, but it doesn’t have to eliminate you, either.)
2. Talented players are everywhere - even on your own team
I’m not going to say that anyone - including Vegas - thought it was getting a 43 goal scorer when Columbus asked them to take William Karlsson. But the fact that he and so many other Golden Knights set career highs while competing towards being Western Conference champions shows you something.
Sometimes all a player needs is a real chance. The Canadiens have an example of this. Paul Byron was claimed off of waivers and started his time with the team as a healthy scratch before becoming a 20 goal scorer in two straight seasons. On the other side of the coin, Montreal traded Sven Andrighetto, who ended up playing well in an expanded role with the Colorado Avalanche. Sometimes you just need to give these players a chance in your own organization, let them make mistakes, and take the advantages they bring.
A candidate for this type of breakout on the current roster is Daniel Carr. All he has done is thrive in the minutes he has played, which has mostly been on a fourth line. There hasn’t been much opportunity in the Canadiens’ top-nine, but creating a fourth line of skilled players would be a good start.
These players are everywhere, and the smart teams will be the ones to find them more often than not. Part of that is finding the ones in your organization. Another part is finding the ones other teams undervalue.
3. Speed kills (or: the true meaning of Moneyball)
I don’t think there’s anyone that will go out and say that Vegas is among the most talented teams. There’s a reason they are the surprise they have been. But they epitomize the new NHL. The players on Vegas were discarded by their previous team. Some of them so undervalued, their team chose to lose them specifically. Sometimes to protect other players, sometimes because they were just expendable.
But most of them have something in common: They are designed for the way the league is going, not the way the league was. Some teams have exploited this and have become successful because of it. Vegas had no choice. They had to take the players no one else wanted - literally.
Moneyball is seen as the mantra for statistical analysis and new ways of looking at numbers. But that’s not how it started. It started as a way to look for players who weren’t valued what they were actually worth. It was looking for market inefficiencies. Billy Beane and company saw on base percentage as an undervalued asset and built a team around it because they couldn’t afford players everyone else was bidding on.
In current NHL circles, the undervalued asset is speed. Vegas was forced to pick their team based on this and the results speak for themselves. Gerard Gallant worked for the Canadiens under Michel Therrien, who also emphasized speed. Gallant took part of that, and fine tuned it. And that takes me to my next point.
4. Flawed players can excel in a defined role
Not every player Vegas chose went on to score 43 goals. But there’s something a lot of people often forget about even the worst NHL players: They are still talented. The key is to put them in the best positions to succeed, which Gerald Gallant did a masterful job of.
Players like Deryk Engelland, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Ryan Reaves have contributed for the Golden Knights in limited roles. They haven’t been over-relied upon and have come up big in moments.
Examples in recent Canadiens past of them not doing this would be Dale Weise getting top-six minutes, Jordie Benn being a good third pairing defender, and a not very good top-pairing one, Jacob de la Rose playing centre between Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, and, well, some would say any other combination of centre with Galchenyuk and Drouin mentioned in the same sentence.
Sometimes it’s not about the engine in the car, it’s the road the car is put on. Vegas got that right.
5. Sometimes a little luck goes a long way
At the start of this season, the Canadiens were playing well but were plagued by a league-low shooting percentage and league-low save percentage, both indicators of just bad luck. For the Vegas Golden Knights, they haven’t used luck to make this entire run, but sometimes you need good fortune to shine down on you at the exact right time. Luck won’t bring you all the way to a Cup final, but you do need some. And when you do get it, you need to make sure it comes at the right time.