Habsent Minded is a podcast series on all things Montreal Canadiens. In the latest episode, Patrik Bexell was joined by Hadi Kalakeche, Matt Drake, Jared Book, and Anton Rasegård for a round-table discussion on Jeff Gorton’s big-name prospect misses during his New York Rangers tenure, namely Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov. How much blame does Gorton bear, and what has he learned from these experiences?
Patrik Bexell, European Correspondent: On the topic [brought up last time] of being shell shocked with regard to [Jesperi] Kotkaniemi and [Alex] Galchenyuk, we have to bring up the fact that Jeff Gorton, while with the New York Rangers, has had some high profile prospects who didn’t pan out. Lias Andersson, one of my favourite players, as well as Vitali Kravtsov come to mind. Can we be confident that they have learned from their mistakes?
Anton Rasegård, Staff Writer and Podcaster: Although it’s been a short time, what we’ve seen from Gorton is that he’s a reasonable, thoughtful, general manager. We’ve also seen some evidence that the Rangers farm system as a whole might have some problems, and I just want to add Nils Lundkvist to that list. I think it would be hard to pin that entirely on the GM. But obviously, we need to see if Gorton has learned from the mistakes made while he was with the Rangers, as well as mistakes made by Marc Bergevin in terms of drafting and development.
Jared Book, Deputy Managing Editor: I agree that Gorton’s development history is a legitimate concern, but at the same time, I think he may understand [the need for] patience a little bit more. All of the questions that we’ve had, all of the questions that others have raised about Shane Wright, none of them were asked of Alexis Lafrenière. Lafrenière was seen as a no-doubt franchise player from the get go. Yes, some people argued that Quinton Byfield might be better, but that was largely about drafting a centre over a winger. And [Lafrenière] has had a slow start. Yes, COVID got in the way, and — I’m not saying that he’s a bad player, but he’s still only had 19 goals this year. But you look at the Rangers now in the playoffs. Who’s leading the team? Of course you have your [Chris] Kreiders and [Mika] Zibanejads, but they wouldn’t be where they are without Filip Chytil, without Alexis Lafrenière, who are taking steps forward.
Patrik: [Igor] Shestyorkin?
Jared: I was talking about forwards, but Shestyorkin definitely counts as a success story for Gorton. In any case, just like we expect players to develop, I think we also should expect management and executives to develop as well. We see so many coaches do better in their second jobs than their first ones. I think Gorton is aware of both his shortcomings and his successes with the Rangers, the latter of which outweigh the former given that his old club is in the Eastern Conference Final only a year after his departure. More than that, there are other people involved. It’s noteworthy that Gorton wasn’t the head of hockey operations with the Rangers — that was John Davidson. There was also an owner in James Dolan who is maybe not as open-walleted as Geoff Molson (you can ask New York Knicks fans how they feel about Dolan).
I think there’s something to be said about having the ability to build a team like you want to. There’s Adam Nicholas, Kent Hughes, Martin St. Louis, none of whom were parachuted from Gorton’s New York staff, to offer new perspectives. There’s [director of hockey analytics] Chris Boucher. So I don’t think we can say “oh, the Rangers development hasn’t been good, so the same thing is going to happen in Montreal.” I think that’s a little bit too simplistic. [Editor’s note: this episode was recorded prior to the hiring of Marie-Philip Poulin.]
Hadi Kalakeche, Catching the Torch, Assoc. Editor & QMJHL Regional Scout - DobberProspects: I think the main thing that players and front office staff have in common, when it comes to developmental tools, is habit formation. Having the right habits is what builds better development. Jeff Gorton, for all of the things that went wrong in the past, has good habits. He doesn’t hesitate, for example, to trade up [in the draft order] when he has a player that he really wants, and that’s a very good habit, because the drop off between 10 and 20, between 20 and 30, is exceedingly steep.
Matt Drake, Editor: Talking about learning from one’s own mistakes, there’s also something to be said for learning from other teams’ mistakes. One of the comparisons that keeps getting made is between Shane Wright/Juraj Slafkovský and Auston Matthews/Patrik Laine, where you had a complete player who’s a centre versus a big winger who can score. Now, I absolutely do not want to say that Wright is Matthews and Slafkovský is Laine — if it turned out that way, I think the teams picking first and second overall would both be pretty happy. But the point I want to make is what if the Toronto Maple Leafs experienced a fear of missing out and said “we don’t want to pass up this 6’5” winger who puts pucks into the net.” If they go that direction and pick Laine instead of Matthews, how does the Leafs organization look right now? I’m going to go ahead and say that everyone involved in that decision would have been fired. I’m going to go ahead and say that they don’t get close to the level of success that they’ve had (and yes, I know they can’t win in the playoffs). It would have been a massive mistake. So the point I’m trying to get across is that it’s important to learn from the mistake that the Leafs didn’t make. Don’t get FOMO and go after the big winger. Yes. I think Slafkovský is going to be a good player. He might even be a better contributor than Wright next year. But Kent Hughes said that they want the better player for the future, and I believe that’s Shane Wright. I think that’s what the Habs front office, after learning from the mistakes that were made and weren’t made, believes as well.
Keep your eyes peeled for part four, coming soon, where the panel closes by looking at the Canadiens’ other selections in the draft, who could be available, and whether the front office should explore moving up or down in the order.
Readers looking for the first part, covering whether the Habs should select Shane Wright first overall or not, can find it here.
Those looking for the second part, discussing what to expect from the first overall pick in his first year with the franchise, can find it here.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The full, unedited conversation that serves as the source for all four parts is available below.