2001-02 was an emotional season for the Canadiens. It was the first full season under the ownership of American businessman George Gillett, who bought 80% of the team as well as the then-called Molson Centre in January 2001 for a discount rate of $185 million (and only putting $50 million down at the time). Also in their first full season with the club were General Manager André Savard and Head Coach Michel Therrien (the first go around). The team returned to the playoffs that season after a miserable three year absence, on the strength of Jose Theodore's Vezina and Hart Trophy worthy season, and with the inspiration of captain Saku Koivu's successful battle with Burkitt's lymphoma. It was an amazing season, with every bit of success seemingly more remarkable than the next.
In hockey terms, the team was still a mess. Mediocre veterans littered the roster in an attempt to make the team more competitive while building a respectable stable of youth to lead the team through the 00s. Tanking was not in the agenda, something that rankled some fans who felt the team's mid-season trades in 2000-01 robbed the team of landing a star forward of the caliber of Ilya Kovalchuk or Jason Spezza.
This strategy was partly inspired because the team was having trouble filling all the seats in the new arena without being competitive. The Canadian dollar hit a record low in January 2002, trading at below $0.62 USD, and the Canadiens did not have the kind of local cable television deal fans are used to nowadays, with several games a year not being televised at all.
It was a different time. The Canadiens currently have one of the best reputations at the draft table, but the 1990s did quite a lot of damage to the team's reputation at the draft table, and most felt the Canadiens were years away from being competitive as a result. But one thing that wasn't clear by the summer of 2002 was this: the Canadiens actually had an amazing draft year out of nowhere in 1998. As of 2002, the team's top two under 25 talents were from this draft, in Andrei Markov and Mike Ribeiro. Little did people know that there was even more still in the AHL system that would go on to have very good NHL careers.
The 2002-03 AHL season would change this. The Quebec Citadelles, Montreal's farm team for the past several years, folded after the 2001-02 season and the Canadiens entered a split affiliate arrangement with the Edmonton Oilers in Hamilton. Their coach, hired by the Oilers, was Claude Julien. Several players would get renewed chances under Julien, and the 2002-03 Bulldogs would go down as that franchise's greatest team, though they ultimately fell short of winning the Calder Cup in seven games.
Of course, we didn't know that in the summer of 2002, which is where this fictional vote of our panel (many of whom would've been at summer camp grossing girls by showing them bugs) would've taken place. I don't know exactly how the results would've gone, but I figure I'd give it a try.
First off, a word on the graduates, the 25 year olds. They included depth winger Chad Kilger, who many still believed could figure out his scoring touch and become a decent middle-six power forward at the time. Of course, by the age of 25, you kind of know what you have in a player, and in Kilger's case, this of course never came to fruitition. He'd be waived a couple years later by Bob Gainey and end up in Toronto. Kilger had a lot of tools to work with, but never put it together.
The idea that you know what you have in a player by age 25 was not true for Stephane Robidas. Robidas had played over 120 games the previous two years for the Canadiens, and the way they used him didn't indicate they didn't trust him, as he played 20 minutes a night in 2000-01 and over 18 in 2001-02. But down the stretch he was benched with the return to health of several defenders, particularly Craig Rivet. The Canadiens had three veteran right handed defensemen in Patrice Brisebois, Rivet, and Stephane Quintal. This is one instance where new management might not have really realized what they had, and Quintal got squeezed out when all three veterans were healthy.
Robidas, along with 26 year old Francis Bouillon, would be made available in the 2002 waiver draft in favour of those veteran players. The waiver draft was a process where teams had to decide which waiver eligible players they felt were most important to the club for the coming year, and was a way to give better chances for guys who were caught in between the AHL and regular NHL duty a chance with a new team, much like MLB's Rule 5 Draft.
Robidas and Bouillon were deemed expendable by GM Andre Savard in favour of the guys with the bigger contracts and longer NHL histories. The other defencemen that the Canadiens protected included Andrei Markov, Sheldon Souray (who was out with a season long wrist injury), and Karl Dykhuis. Dykhuis would play 74 more NHL games over two years with the Canadiens in a very limited role (averaging under 14 minutes a game). Quintal would play two full seasons more in a top four role. Dykhuis was obviously the guy in retorspect that should've been made available, however he came off the 2001-02 season as a top four defenceman in the regular season who led the team in plus-minus. And even with Markov ready to take on a bigger role, the injury to Souray (who had also stepped up into a top four role in the playoffs) left that void on the left side if the team lost Dykhuis. It was a short-sighted gamble for a team that was supposed to be thinking long term and both players were claimed, Robidas by Dallas and Bouillon by Nashville. Bouillon only lasted a month in Nashville before coming back to the Canadiens on waivers. Robidas proved the kind of defenceman that unpredictably excelled under the 'new NHL' rule changes in 2005-06 and became an All-Star.
Tough decisions sometimes go the wrong way, but this would be the start of a ridiculous trend for useful young Canadiens defencemen being lost to waivers because the new management didn't know what they had, or made a gamble that they got burned on.
Now onto the actual list itself. I've organized it by games played and the point shares statistic, which are courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com:
Back in 2002, Andrei Markov was indeed considered the best young Canadiens asset, even with some hype generating in the farm system. For me, Markov truly broke out in the 2002 playoffs, flashing the two-way skill that would propel him into a front line role that he still plays with the Canadiens to this day. In 2002-03, he and Craig Rivet would form the team's top pairing, and Markov was clearly the new top guy on the blueline, succeeding Patrice Brisebois.
Mike Ribeiro was just getting started with his NHL career, and would have a bumpy 2002-03 year getting bumped around the Canadiens lineup, as the Canadiens were loaded in veterans at centre behind Koivu in Yannick Perreault, Doug Gilmour and Joe Juneau. At this point, objectively, Ribeiro looked like a real solid bet to make a long term impact. He was a scoring star in junior who made a seemless transition to the AHL, scoring at a high rate at age 20 and 21 (89 points in 97 games). He'd go on to a very productive NHL career that continues today, even if he is a lightning rod for criticism at times.
Back in 2002, we thought differently about goaltenders than we do today, so putting Garon at three even though he had proven very little by age 24 wouldn't have been shocking. People genuinely still believed he could be a starting goaltender in the NHL, but the Canadiens would have to figure out a way to get him into NHL games right away. Theodore had stepped into the role of NHL superstar with his 2001-02 campaign, and veteran Jeff Hackett was proving difficult to trade. Theodore would struggle to begin 2002-03 and make the decision more difficult. Eventually, Hackett was dealt to always goalie desperate Philadelphia and Garon got his shot as a backup, a role he never really grew out of in the NHL.
Jan Bulis rounds out the top four, a well established NHLer at that point (did you know he made the NHL at age 19?) who had yet to develop offensive ability. That would change a bit this season, as he would jump to the double digits in goals for the first time in 2002-03 and maintain that scoring pace until leaving the NHL in 2007. And thanks to his one season with the Vancouver Canucks, his memory is still firmly entrenched in the hockey community thanks to Harrison Mooney and Daniel Wagner's blog.
After the top four, the hope truly begins for the Canadiens. Recent first round round picks like Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek, Marcel Hossa, Alexander Perezhogin and Christopher Higgins gave Canadiens fans actual hope. These were guys that actually looked like good players, unlike the busts of the 1990s. Hainsey in 2002 was coming off a very successful rookie AHL campaign and looked NHL ready. He'd make the team due to that open spot on the left side with Souray out, but eventually was sent back to Hamilton. Komisarek was about to turn professional after two highly productive seasons at the University of Michigan. The Canadiens continued their new found love of NCAA players by picking Higgins in the first round of the 2002 Draft.
Marcel Hossa, Alexander Perezhogin, and 2001 third round pick Tomas Plekanec showed the Canadiens were also keen on continuing to buffer their European content that had been steadily rising (Koivu, Bulis, Markov and Richard Zednik were all seen as key players on the main team). Objectively, Hossa wasn't all that special at really any point as a prosect, but he had a successful NHL debut in 2001-02 as a callup and looked close to NHL ready. Perezhogin dazzled on Russia's gold medal winning WJC squad, and probably would've had a successful NHL career had he not been offered better money in Russia in the summer of 2007 (a year before the KHL came into existence). Meanwhile, Plekanec was showing good signs as a potential mid round steal just a year after his draft day, and was about to make his North American debut.
After the top 10, first round busts Jason Ward and Eric Chouinard would get renewed chances in the coming years in the NHL but ultimately fail to stick. Francois Beauchemin was quietly establishing himself as a top AHL defenceman, but he'd become the next waiver victim of the Canadiens two years later, when Columbus picked him up the day before the NHL lockout as Bob Gainey tried to sneak him through waivers. Beauchemin was expected to be on the Canadiens roster whenever the next season was going to start, having leapfrogged Hainsey in the organization. Beyond him, Duncan Milroy and Jozef Balej (eventually dealt in the Alex Kovalev trade) looked like decent young wingers, while the Canadiens had a few interesting prospects in junior scorers like Eric Himelfarb, Christian Larrivee, and recent picks Jonathan Ferland and Michael Lambert. European prospects like recent second rounder Tomas Linhart, Russian winger Alexander Buturlin, Swedish winger Johan Eneqvist, and Finnish goaltender Joni Puurula all had reasonable resumés at this point as well.
But it was Michael Ryder, who was entering his third season as a professional, that would be the real surprise in this group. Ryder was a top junior scorer who struggled to stick in the AHL his first two years, but did quite well in the ECHL. Reunited with his old junior coach Julien, Ryder broke out into a top AHL forward in 2002-03, and eventually made the Canadiens in 2003-04, finishing second in the Calder Trophy voting. But in the summer of 2002, he looked like a guy that was once highly considered who was on his way to being a bust. 20th on this ranking might even be generous, although the bottom part of this group didn't look all that spectacular.
The other player near the bottom who'd amount to something was Russian blueliner Konstantin Korneyev. In 2002, he was picked in the 9th round, but was a worthwhile gamble as he had starred on Russia's U18 WJC team. He's gone on to be a three time KHL All-Star, a 2010 Russian Olympian and two-time World Champion. He's a very good player who could've made a decent NHLer had he ever felt the desire to come over, but he never did. I figure we would've liked that pick at the time and put him on the bubble of the top 25.
A side note, one guy who didn't make this top 25 list did end up making the NHL briefly: Bahamas born giant center Andre Deveaux. Deveaux didn't look like much than a big dude who had a hockey stick when picked in the middle rounds of the 2002 Draft, but in his mid-twenties he became a pretty good AHL player who could drop the gloves, and he got into 31 games for Toronto and the Rangers as a callup, recording two assists and a cool 104 PIMs. In other words, he still didn't amount to much, but you might happen to remember his name.
In the end, this group was probably a lot better than people anticipated in 2002, but only because of the 1998 draft surprises in Beauchemin and Ryder. The Canadiens made pretty good use of their early 2000s first rounders, but unfortunately Ron Hainsey, probably the best of them, was also the victim of waivers. He failed to make the Canadiens out of 2005 training camp, was sent to the AHL and then was called up in November 2005 but failed to pass through re-entry waivers. Again, it was Columbus who benefited, the same team that took Beauchemin. Doug Maclean may have done nothing to help Columbus become any good, but he sure did his best to make the Canadiens worse.