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The Montreal Canadiens have learned from past mistakes when it comes to European prospects

The desire to have all their players in one place was having adverse effects on those forced to travel overseas.

Collberg - Gregory Shamus Getty Images

In 2012 when the Montreal Canadiens chose Sebastian Collberg with the 33rd overall pick in the NHL entry draft, the expectations were high on the Swedish forward. He had suited up for 41 games in the SHL, and while not scoring any points in the top Swedish league, he was a 0.81 point-per-game player in the Swedish SuperElite (U20s).

Djurgården’s head coach Robert Ohlsson was part of the coaching staff in Frölunda in 2013. After we finished recording our podcast for the “Coach’s Challange” he mentioned how the Montreal Canadiens wanted Collberg to be present at camps at every opportunity, and how that created a problem for the young forward’s development.

“Collberg went to everything Montreal asked; he travelled across to North America at every instance. Andreas Johnsson (who now plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs) got the chance to play with good players in Collberg’s absence. Johnsson got to play in every situation that Collberg should have played in, and when Collberg came back he wasn’t in the lineup anymore.”

In a way, the Canadiens hindered their own prospect’s chances of playing in a much better and bigger role with his SHL team when they brought him over for the rookie camp when the season had already started in Europe.

Following the selection of Collberg, Montreal drafted a few European players that stayed with their European teams come early fall when the rookie camp was going on; Artturi Lehkonen, Lukas Vejdemo, Joni Ikonen, Jesse Ylönen, and Jacob Olofsson. The only player who has gone to the rookie camp is Arvid Henriksson, who at the time wasn’t part of the senior team in either Liiga or the SHL. The organization trusted that the European team would develop the player to fulfil a big role with that club instead of interrupting their season for a camp that most likely wouldn’t lead to a roster spot in NHL. The only exception is Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was drafted third overall and had a signed contract with the NHL team, which makes the situation a bit different.

Coach Ohlsson is full of praise for the latest step that Montreal took with European prospects last year: hosting their own scouting combine in Stockholm.

“It is a great thing, and a great way to go, Montreal is ahead of the game here. I understand the North American fans wants to see the prospects up close, but the travel over to North America interrupts the training for the prospects. It is at least a six-hour time difference, and the player needs to get used to that first when they get to North America, then acclimate himself back when he gets back to Europe. Then there is a flight that takes away training time too.... It adds up quite fast, if you consider the combine, the draft, and the development camp.”

Coach Ohlsson is not the first to express these feelings. Sam Hallam, coach of the Växjö Lakers, and Magnus Sundquist, coach of Brynäs, have voiced the same concerns about travel time and loss of training to Eyes On The Prize over the last year. More often than not, the young prospects are looking to claim to a roster spot on a professional hockey team for the first time. It is a huge step, and focus for the prospects should be on achieving the next goal, not the final one.

The draft summer is especially important, and with the addition of a European combine that yielded prospects Alexander Romanov and Jesse Ylönen last year, the Canadiens took another step to support their European prospects: holding the development camp directly after the draft. This limited the flights across the Atlantic, and at the same time maximized the training time for the prospects. None of the Euro prospects were called for the Rookie Camp, thereby giving them the best chance to succeed in their European clubs.

Collberg never regained his spot on Frölunda’s roster seven years ago, and it certainly looks like Montreal learned from the experience. It should be lauded when an organization learns from its previous mistakes. This doesn’t mean that Collberg would have turned out to be an NHL player his whole career if they had kept him in Sweden, but it would have given him the best possible chance for a hockey career. His confidence bottomed out when he got back to Sweden and lost his spot in the lineup.

However, the Canadiens’ management team realized what had happened and took another approach with Lehkonen. He was the next high European draft selection, and he stayed for the start of his Liiga and SHL seasons.

It is early into this new approach, but the insights and experience that the Canadiens have gained in regard to the rookie camps and summer training, limiting travel and maximising the chances for early success in Europe, is the right way to go.

Montreal now has closer contact with the teams than before, making sure that the two organizations work toward the common goal. Another important step in cultivating relationships with clubs and players, letting them know the ones overseeing development are heard and that the players are seen.

All this leads me to believe that none of the European prospects (Ikonen, Ylönen, Olofsson and any other potential new addition from the 2019 NHL Draft) will be present at the rookie camp this fall. However, this should not be taken as a bad thing. It comes down to facilitating the best development route for players in the long run, and in the end it will only benefit the Canadiens.