Sometimes when it comes to developing players, you give the benefit of the doubt to the people in charge. However when a head coach hasn't made a single player significantly better by any account, and has seemingly made a few worse, while running a record of 59-83-4-12 in nearly two and a quarter seasons, it's difficult to do so.
If you talk to anyone who watches the Hamilton Bulldogs regularly, there is one absolute constant since the beginning of last season; whatever little offense there is, Sven Andrighetto drives it. He is, very obviously, the most dynamic and hard-working player on the Bulldogs. Surprisingly strong for his size, Andrighetto is a voracious forechecker, and his speed forces opponents to play conservatively for fear of being caught for an odd man rush.
Yet Friday night in St. John's, Andrighetto was made a healthy scratch by the Bulldogs' head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. It was speculated that Andrighetto may be getting a call up to Montreal, but Lefebvre quashed that right way post-game by saying he'd be back in the lineup Sunday evening. So what was Lefebvre's reason for the scratch?
"Sven's got to understand some things, it's a message that we sent him tonight. He's a good kid, and he's gonna bounce back from that. We want him to compete every shift he's out there. He's got the skills, he's got the wheels, he's got a lot of things going for him, and we just want him to be competing every night, and competing at the NHL level. Competing how he can compete, not compared to the other guys. We want him, and we need him to be at his best, and he's a big part of this club, and he's gonna be back in this lineup on Sunday."
Sounds semi-reasonable, right? Only Andrighetto has two goals and one assist in his last four games with a +2 rating, leads the Bulldogs in goals with six, and shots per game 3.23.
The Bulldogs are currently absolutely stacked at forward for the AHL level, and with Jarred Tinordi down there, they have at least one NHL level defenseman, and three guys who are extremely close in Magnus Nygren, Greg Pateryn, and Davis Drewiske. As far as the AHL goes, this team should be tearing opponents apart on a nightly basis, yet they're 5-7-2-0, essentially losing two games for every one they win.
Last year the Bulldogs had both Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, along with an NHL quality netminder in Dustin Tokarski, and still couldn't get over the .500 mark, a rare thing in today's game. Of the 158 AHL games Lefebvre has coached, the Bulldogs have lost 99. Under Lefebvre, the Bulldogs have a goal differential of -111. They've scored just 378 goals over that time, yet have over 170 fights. When those are the kinds of priorities a team has, it's no wonder Hamilton hasn't won back to back games this season.
This has been a common theme in both the Habs and Bulldogs' coaching staffs. Therrien was always trying to send messages to Subban last year with numerous benchings, telling him he can't do certain things, and that's worked so well that Subban has become a worse player. Therrien tried to do the same thing to Lars Eller this season, who was clearly playing very well in tough minutes, until a talk with Marc Bergevin seemed to get Eller "un-scratched" right before game time. Since, Eller has continued to play well, and the goals have started to come for him.
Maybe this is a little naive, since I've never coached professional hockey players, but usually if you want to send someone a message, you talk to them first. If you're so bad at communicating with your players that you need to scratch them in order for them to understand what you're telling them, maybe you're not very good at your job.
An important position
The big job of the coach of the Bulldogs is to develop prospects, so it's understandable that winning games isn't the first thing the Canadiens are paying attention to, however the head coach of the Bulldogs is also a training position, a valuable spot for the Canadiens to groom future coaches of the team.
Let's pretend for a moment that Lefebvre's first priority is to develop players. Who has Lefebvre made better? Brendan Gallagher produced at a higher rate in the NHL in his rookie season than in the AHL. Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu both continually draw better reviews at the NHL level than AHL level. Louis Leblanc was used as a grinder with career face punchers for two seasons with little to no powerplay time until he was traded away for future considerations. Morgan Ellis, a promising young defenseman coming out of junior, was one of the Bulldogs' most dependable players last season, and was the only player with a positive goal differential on the team aside from Greg Pateryn, was scratched every game this year in favour of career plugger Joe Finley, and sent to the ECHL. Darren Dietz, a 20 goal scoring defenseman in junior, has just one goal in 47 professional games.
With his record of development, and his record in the standings, there is a less than zero chance that Sylvain Lefebvre will ever coach a game for the Montreal Canadiens. That's a big deal, since the Habs can only groom one person at a time.