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Boom and bust: 20 years of Trevor Timmins

Trevor Timmins certainly built a reputation as a scouting and drafting guru during the first half of his Montreal tenure. How much did he live up to it in the second half?

2019 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

For most fans, the Director of Amateur Scouting — even for their own team — gets a few days in the limelight around the annual Entry Draft and then fades into the background for the rest of the year. By the end of his tenure, Trevor Timmins in Montreal was definitely the exception to this rule.

First hired in 2002, Timmins was the leading hand behind the Canadiens prospect pool for an entire generation of fans. He has played a large part in the construction of Canadiens’ rosters over the past two decades, whether in the form of direct draftees or indirectly through players acquired for his selections. At the same time, Timmins also figures centrally in some of the Canadiens biggest drafting misses, from complete busts to players whose ceilings were not commensurate with their draft position. As he departs the Montreal stage, what is Trevor Timmins’ contribution to the Canadiens past and present?

Timmins first caught the eyes of the Canadiens organization as a member of the Ottawa Senators. Promoted to Director of Hockey Operations midway through the 1998-99 season, his drafting resume over the next four years featured the likes of Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette, Brooks Laich, Ray Emery, Christoph Schubert, and Greg Zanon — all selected outside the first round. Timmins also hit on four out of his five first-rounders during this span: Martin Havlat (26th, ‘99), Anton Volchenkov (21st, ‘00), Jason Spezza (2nd, ‘01), and Tim Gleason (21st, ‘01), missing with Jakub Klepis (16th, ‘02).

His early tenure with the Canadiens saw much of the same. From 2003 to 2006, the Habs added Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O’Byrne, Jaroslav Halak, Alexei Emelin, Mikhail Grabovski, Mark Streit, Guillaume Latendresse, Matt D’Agostini, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Ryan White from outside of the first round. As for first-round selections, David Fischer is one of the most famous flops in Canadiens draft history, while Andrei Kostitsyn (10th, ‘03) carved out a decent NHL career but could not live up to the lofty standards set by his draft-class peers.

These, however, were balanced out by the selection of franchise cornerstone Carey Price (5th, ‘05) and Timmins’ magnum opus: the class of 2007. With two first-rounders at his disposal, Timmins added Ryan McDonagh (12th) and Max Pacioretty (21st). He then added P.K. Subban (43rd) and Yannick Weber (73rd) to the mix. Together with Price, the class of 2007 would define the Canadiens for the next decade.

The small problem was that the class of 2007 received relatively little support from those who Timmins would select to follow them. For the five drafts spanning 2003 to 2007, Timmins selected seventeen players who would play 100+ career NHL games. For the four drafts spanning 2008 to 2011, that number was three: Brendan Gallagher (147th, ‘10) Jarred Tinordi (22nd, ‘10), and Nathan Beaulieu (17th, ‘11). The 13 players comprising the classes of 2008 and 2009 combined for a total of 141 NHL games between them [Gabriel Dumont (90), Louis Leblanc (50), and Joonas Nattinen (1)].

The emergence of Price, Pacioretty, and Subban meant that the Canadiens did not immediately feel the effects of this drought, and Gallagher’s selection bought Timmins even more time to rectify these lean years. His next big opportunity came in 2012: not only was he armed with four selections in the first 64, but the Canadiens would also be selecting in the top three for the first time since 1980.

For Canadiens fans in 2021, Alex Galchenyuk is a story of untapped potential. In hindsight, the Sarnia Sting product was certainly not what the Canadiens would have hoped for from a 3rd overall selection, but could Timmins have done better? Is Galchenyuk’s story one of a poor draft class, a misjudged ceiling, improper development, or some combination of the three?

On draft day, with the assumption that Nail Yakupov would be the first overall selection, the decision for the Canadiens (among forwards) was between Galchenyuk and Filip Forsberg. Although Mikhail Grigorenko was also ranked highly, his inconsistency likely ruled him out of the equation. The publically-available rankings gave a slight edge to Forsberg: #1 (among European skaters) by NHL’s Central Scouting, #2 by ISS, #2 by the Red Line Report, and #3 by McKeen’s Hockey. Galchenyuk, hampered by an ACL injury that kept him sidelined for his entire draft season, was placed #4 (among North American skaters) by CSS, #14 by ISS, #6 by the Red Line Report, but #2 by McKeen’s.

There were three pivotal differences between Galchenyuk and Forsberg. Galchenyuk was a centre, Forsberg a winger. Galchenyuk weighed in at 198 lbs, Forsberg 181 lbs. And Forsberg was generally understood to need a few years of seasoning. Indeed, the Swede’s lengthier trajectory was sufficiently established that the Washington Capitals were able to decide that they weren’t willing to wait and instead moved him to the Nashville Predators in 2013. Amusingly, Forsberg actually made his NHL debut two weeks after being dealt, although he also required a year at the AHL level the following season.

Galchenyuk ticked all of the boxes for a Canadiens team looking for a big centre. The selection was near-universally hailed as a good one, and Galchenyuk even exceeded expectations by jumping directly into the NHL the following year after the conclusion of the lockout. For the first five years of the American’s career, it looked like Timmins’ gamble was paying off. Not only did Galchenyuk outpace Forsberg, but he also outpaced other 3rd overall selections, including Jonathan Drouin (‘13) and Jonathan Huberdeau (‘11).

Then the wheels came off.

Galchenyuk’s selection was not the best one, but it was still a good one. Galchenyuk met the Canadiens’ immediate needs and delivered five solid seasons before becoming surplus to requirements. Indeed, the impact of picking Galchenyuk over Forsberg would not be felt by the team until 2017, when the team was forced to acquire Drouin to fill a role that Galchenyuk could not hold.

Does this absolve Timmins? Galchenyuk was a reasonable gamble who outperformed everyone else in that draft class bar one for a not-insignificant amount of time. As misses go, it was not a major one.

The much bigger problem with the 2012 draft is the fact that Timmins was unable to acquire any other NHL talent aside from Galchenyuk. Eleven of the 30 second-rounders taken in 2012 have played 100+ NHL games. Fourteen out of 30 third-rounders met the same benchmark. The Canadiens, despite having two seconds and a third, managed to pick none of them. Certainly, Sebastian Collberg and Dalton Thrower were touted by CSS and other scouting agencies, but the purpose of having a scouting staff is to be better than the publically available rankings. In fact, of the five non-first-rounders, only Charles Hudon (122nd) ever made it to the big stage.

The later-round failures of 2012 compounded with the aforementioned similar failures from 2008-11. This inability to provide supporting talent — from a man who had built his career on striking gold in the later rounds — ultimately meant that Galchenyuk had to be a bonafide success because there was no one else coming from his generation.

And 2013 would be a near inverse of 2012.

Armed with five picks in the second and third rounds, Timmins managed to hit on three of them. While Jacob de la Rose and Sven Andrighetto are closer to D’Agostini and White rather than Vermette and Grabovski, they were at least NHL players for a time. Artturi Lehkonen, on the other hand, is a bonafide success story without any clauses, and Timmins did well to pick up the 9th ranked European skater (per CSS) in the late second round.

Unfortunately, any headway in the later rounds was wiped out by the selection of Michael McCarron, whose selection implied from day one that the Canadiens had amended “BPA” to mean “biggest player available” rather than “best.” While people held out hope that McCarron could add tools to his imposing frame, such dreams never materialized. The Michigan native would play 69 games for the Habs spread over three seasons, tallying an unimpressive two goals and six assists, before being dealt to Nashville.

It has to be said that there is considerable controversy around this pick and whether the general manager’s hand was involved or not. For the purposes of evaluating Timmins, it doesn’t matter. If this is his pick, he owns it. If this is not his pick, he owns it anyway by allowing someone else to usurp his position and authority. At this point, Timmins has been with the organization for over a decade. He is not a neophyte who needs to kowtow in order to preserve his career. It would have also been incumbent upon him to prevent a repeat of the Louis Leblanc selection debacle — which is accompanied by rumours of a similar nature.

McCarron’s selection would also mark the start of a three-year stretch of first-round misses. While it is certainly more difficult to draft at the bottom of the first round than at the top, there were still NHL players available in that range. In fact, from 2013 to 2015, 15 players who would accrue 100+ NHL games were taken within 10 picks following a Canadiens first-round selection: Shea Theodore, Marko Dano, Jason Dickinson, Ryan Hartman, Adam Erne, de la Rose, Nikolay Goldobin, Adrian Kempe, Brendan Lemieux, Ivan Barbashev, Jacob Larsson, Anthony Beauvillier, Christian Fischer, Travis Dermott, and Sebastian Aho.

That’s 15 players out of 30, 11 of whom played NHL games this season — and Thatcher Demko is poised to cross the threshold shortly. By contrast, the Canadiens' three selections— McCarron, Nikita Scherbak, and Noah Juulsen — have 166 games between them, and only McCarron has hit NHL ice this year.

Unlike 2013, where a first-round miss was compensated by later-round successes, Timmins was not so adept in 2014 and 2015. Of nine draftees, only Jake Evans looks to have NHL potential, although Lukas Vejdemo may still have an outside shot. Brett Lernout (73rd, ‘14) is an easy miss to point at, not just because of the 79th selection that year, but also because of Elvis Merzlikins (76th) and Ilya Sorokin (78th), who could have gone a long way towards spelling Carey Price. Similarly, Juulsen instead of Beauvillier or Aho in 2015 is a common regret, but Timmins also passed on Nicolas Roy (96th) and Mathieu Joseph (120th) for Vejdemo (87th), as well as Kirill Kaprizov (135th) and Dominik Simon (137th) for Matt Bradley (131st).

If 2007 was Timmins’ magnum opus, then 2016 can tentatively be positioned as his last hurrah (pending the 2018 or 2019 draft classes). Mikhail Sergachev may not be the best defenceman of his class (that honour currently goes to Charlie McAvoy), but the gap between the two is not large. Timmins also managed to secure Victor Mete with the 100th overall selection, striking a bargain for a player ranked as high as 54th by FC Hockey. Will Bitten’s inability to make the NHL is mitigated by the fact that only four out of 21 players selected after him in the 3rd round have passed 10 NHL games, a threshold recently passed by Michael Pezzetta — who might just yet make it three NHLers out of six selections.

The larger problem was the misses of 2008-15 were starting to take their toll. The stars that had guided the Canadiens through the first half of the decade were starting to fade. Price was no longer superhuman, Subban would depart a week after the 2016 Draft, with Galchenyuk and Pacioretty lasting another two years in the Tricolore. With no one in the prospect pool to replace them, the Canadiens had to look elsewhere. And so Sergachev was traded for Drouin, Mete was pressed into service immediately, and the team turned increasingly towards free agency and the waiver wire during this period.

This elevated urgency would also result in a shift in drafting philosophy. Starting in 2017, centres and defenders would dominate Timmins’ priorities for the next three drafts. Of 28 total picks, the Canadiens selected 11 defenders and eight centres. This strategy creates a paradox. It’s not reasonable to expect immediate relief at the NHL level from prospects taken outside of the first round. However, by the time a player has developed, the positional need may no longer exist. As such, if one is going to employ a draft-by-position strategy, it is better to apply it to the first round and exempt it from the rest of the draft, and not the reverse. Succinctly, volume is not the answer to an immediate positional void.

Which brings us to Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Kotkaniemi was not a favourite to be the 3rd overall selection in 2018, but his case was building momentum with each passing day. On draft day, the centre sat 8th in EOTP’s draft rankings aggregator, with a high position of 3rd (ProspectsFanatic) and a low of 18th (The Hockey News). From this perspective, Kotkaniemi was a larger gamble than Galchenyuk had been in 2012.

And in the same vein as Galchenyuk, the Canadiens did get value from Kotkaniemi. The Pori native came up aces in his rookie season, outperforming Barrett Hayton and Filip Zadina, and even putting up a fair fight against Brady Tkachuk (trading 10 goals in exchange for much better defensive metrics). Unlike Galchenyuk, the wheels started to fall off in year two rather than year six, which is a large reason why Kotkaniemi currently finds himself a Carolina Hurricane.

Again, was this a mistake by Timmins? The Finn was the best centre available in the draft by some distance — the next two, Hayton and Joe Veleno, were 13th and 14th respectively by aggregate, with no individual ranking placing them above 10th. If the Canadiens were looking for a centre that could deliver an immediate impact at a position of weakness, Kotkaniemi was the right decision.

If they were looking for the best player available? That’s a whole other story.

As with McCarron, Timmins’ fault in the Kotkaniemi affair either lies in his acceptance of suboptimal drafting objectives and practices or his inability to exert corrective influence as an assistant general manager. If he did not believe that selecting Kotkaniemi was the best course of action, it was on him to do something about it.

Truthfully, neither Tkachuk nor Quinn Hughes would have solved the fundamental flaws with the Canadiens overnight — a case made stronger by the current predicaments of the Senators and Vancouver Canucks. But Kotkaniemi’s struggles and eventual departure really drove home how endemic the Canadiens’ drafting woes have been in the first half of the 2010s.

Timmins certainly played an instrumental role in building the Canadiens of the early 2010s, but try as he might, he could not build the Canadiens of the early 2020s. Not even with the grace period afforded by Price, Gallagher, Subban/Shea Weber, and Pacioretty/Nick Suzuki. In the nine draft span from 1999 to 2007, using the 100 games played benchmark, Timmins oversaw the selection of 27 NHLers, all of whom also hit 250 games played except for Brandon Bochenski. In the nine draft span from 2008 to 2016, he drafted just 10 players who hit 100 NHL games. Of those 10, four (de la Rose, Tinordi, Andrighetto, and Hudon) will almost certainly not hit 250 games played.

The Canadiens currently have eight players drafted by the franchise on their active roster, but six of them (Alexander Romanov, Mattias Norlinder, Cole Caufield, Pezzetta, Evans, and Ryan Poehling) are either eligible for the Calder Trophy or one season removed from eligibility. Instead, the team’s key figures largely trace back to before the last lockout: Price from 2005, Gallagher from 2010, and Suzuki by way of Pacioretty from 2007. In particular, the current blue-line corps is constructed almost entirely through the general manager’s office.

Timmins didn’t have to get the best one, he didn’t have to get every one, but too often over the last 15 years, he failed to get anyone. And every prospect who leaves the organization without bringing a return adds a debit to the organization’s prospect depth. If there are more debits than assets, the franchise sinks into prospect debt.

Eventually, the debt comes due, and it’s time to pay up.