The Tampa Bay Lightning are the envy of many in the hockey world, and not just for their powerhouse of an NHL team. Two years in a row now, they’ve managed to pick up arguably the most interesting free agent out of the QMJHL.
Last year it was Alex Barré-Boulet. Reportedly, the Montreal Canadiens had first offered him only a minor-league deal versus the Lightning’s entry-level contract, but in the end, the centreman flew down south at the end of his season.
Barré-Boulet was a good playmaker in his last year in the QMJHL. He had a knack for finding his teammates in high-danger areas, holding on to the puck under pressure and using quick passing plays to set up great scoring chances. He wasn’t a perfect forward — his skating drew some concerns, and still does — but it was undeniable that he was smart, knew how to drive offence, and could even pull off some highlight-reel plays. In 2017-18, for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, he finished at the top of the league with 116 points in 65 games.
Now, it’s the turn of Jimmy Huntington to join the Lighting's organization, having signed a contract on March 1.
He is another intriguing player. His production exploded this season, breaking the point-per-game mark and looking poised to hit at least 90 points. He has characteristics of a late bloomer, impressing on the ice not only with superior physical attributes, but because of the way he thinks the game.
Playing for the Rimouski Oceanic, he is often paired with Alexis Lafrenière, but he is far from a passenger on that line. Huntington is a good passer who makes some use of deception, and even if he is primarily touted as a playmaker, he can just as well use his quick hands to score. He has skill, and his ability to find outlets under pressure gives him a chance to transfer his offence to the professional leagues. They’re all factors that put him on Tampa Bay’s, and probably many other teams’, radar.
Huntington wears #23 with the Rimouski Océanic.
No team can force such free-agent players to sign with them, and that includes the more local Montreal. Ultimately, players pick where they want to go, and even if they did pursue the free agents, Jimmy Huntington, like Barré-Boulet before him, decided on Tampa Bay.
That being said, it’s the job of an organization to pursue the players with the most potential and make themselves as attractive a destination as possible. In that regard, there are elements that Montreal could work on to help themselves be more enticing.
Junior free agents are interesting assets that don’t cost more than a contract slot (something Montreal holds plenty of), and it’s why they are gambles worth taking. The identifiable skill they have can pay off for an organization willing to take a chance on them. Barré-Boulet has already proven to be a good bet for the Lightning with 48 points in 54 games for their AHL affiliate. He now looks like a legitimate NHL prospect.
In the recent past, Montreal has targeted free-agent over-age players who showed the ability to produce in their Junior leagues, but who weren’t creating offence at the same level and whose skill didn’t stand out as much as the above names.
Solid two-way play, strong work ethic, and leadership qualities are attributes that Montreal’s CHL free agents possess, and while that may facilitate the transition to the professional leagues, those aren't necessarily traits that make them impact players at the next level. The prospects they acquire end up playing a supporting role in the AHL, which isn’t the best springboard to an NHL career. The best-case scenario for them is probably carving out a niche doing the same thing at the replacement level in the NHL.
Instead of continuing to focus on players who won’t be big drivers of offence at the next level, it would be more beneficial for the Habs to bet on skill; to try to hit on a lottery ticket by going for free agents with more translatable offensive attributes, even if there are more holes in their overall game. The job of the AHL staff is then to work upon those weaknesses, developing them within a top-six offensive role.
The parallel of Alexandre Alain, whom the Habs offered an ELC last year, and Barré-Boulet is interesting here. They were teammates with the Armada, and were also playing on the same line. Alain finished second in total points, behind Barré-Boulet.
But to start their career in the AHL, Alain has been mostly playing in the bottom six with limited power-play time, while the latter (arguably a better offensive driver from the start, but less of a two-way forward) has been made to shine in the Syracuse Crunch’s top six, albeit on a much deeper team than the Laval Rocket.
The Crunch have a track record of bringing players into their team this way, propping them up immediately in impactful roles. With this method, the affiliate certainly played a role in the development of undrafted talents into NHLers, like Yanni Gourde and many other later-round picks of the Lightning.
This previous success certainly factors into the decision for young free agents to pick Tampa Bay over other organizations that have not shown they can do the same thing. The prospects feel they have a better chance to make it to the show by choosing the Lightning organization.
To level the playing field and attract Junior free agents, Montreal will have to continue their attempt at moulding the AHL team into a successful one, showing that they can start being a springboard of development.
The good news it that Montreal’s process of changing how they operate has already started. They brought in a coaching staff that is passionate about player development, and that staff should receive an influx of promising drafted players from the CHL and the NCAA next season. The ingredients will be there to start transforming the Rocket into an organization that produces NHL players.
Success begets success. It is very true looking at the top choices for those on the free-agent market. It will take time and a proper approach for Montreal to erase the previous failures of their minor-league system, be a prime destination for those looking to launch their professional careers, and compete with the development success of the Tampa Bay Lightning.