The Montreal Canadiens have a lot of work ahead to modernize their developmental system

A new arena in Trois-Rivières is possibly part of a bigger plan.

This past week, Ryan Clowe, the head coach of a brand new ECHL team, the Newfoundland Growlers, made his first official appearance in St. John’s. About a week earlier, he was wearing a blue and white tracksuit as a coach at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ development camp, where he was scouting some of the players he would be coaching. Clowe is a Maple Leafs employee, hired specifically to develop players at the AA level of pro hockey.

The Maple Leafs organization had a healthy relationship with their previous ECHL affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears, but now appear to be taking a much more direct involvement with the Growlers. They signed a long-term agreement and are providing the coaching direction to develop players for roles at the AHL level with the Toronto Marlies, and, if they do their jobs well enough, eventually in the NHL.

Under the guidance of new general manager Kyle Dubas, the Maple Leafs organization has effectively set up a three-tier development system more similar to baseball than to a traditional hockey structure. The team is betting that this is the modern way forward, as success on the ice translates to success financially, and a Calder Cup championship last month was evidence of a successful approach.

As NHL teams compete for talent in a parity world, the need to unearth the next Jonathan Marchessault or Yanni Gourde is becoming a necessity, and teams who set themselves up correctly will gain a competitive advantage. The Toronto Maple Leafs are among the best right now in that regard.

What does this have to do with the Montreal Canadiens?

Roster turnover at the AHL level is normal, but for all the arguments that using 51 players throughout the season sunk the Laval Rocket to the bottom of the standings due to instability, the 47 players used by the Calder Cup-champion Toronto Marlies are evidence to the contrary.

Quality and quantity of depth was a major issue for the Rocket this past season, which is where the difference lies. The Rocket ran out of depth players by mid-October — a shocking thought if you consider it was just the start of the season — and that had an impact down the stretch as injuries and call-ups mounted.

Former head coach Sylvain Lefebvre carried the brunt of the criticism when it came to the performance of the Rocket in their inaugural season, ultimately resulting in his dismissal, but Larry Carrière, the team’s deposed AHL general manager, carries a significant amount of the blame as well. From not being aware of a rule on player eligibility to the lack of effective in-season additions, it was a difficult season for the man in charge of putting the AHL squad together.

With Marc Bergevin back in charge of the minor-league dealings, the organization has already taken steps to address the depth concerns for next season by signing 10 players to AHL contracts; double what the team had last season. There might be more signings coming as well. That’s the good part.

The bad part is that the Canadiens don’t yet have a place for all these players to play, as they do not have an ECHL affiliate aligned for next season. The relationship with the Brampton Beast was a difficult one last season, with few players heading the Beast’s way and plenty of their own players signed to tryouts in Laval. It’s looking more and more likely that the Beast will move on from their partnership with Montreal.

“Disappointing” Brampton Beast season leaves Habs affiliation in doubt

So Montreal may have to find another ECHL affiliate for this upcoming season, but options are getting scarce. Fifteen NHL/ECHL affiliations have been finalized for next season, and only 12 ECHL teams remain unaffiliated. The game of musical chairs will continue until four NHL teams are left standing, as there are fewer ECHL teams than NHL clubs.

The problem with not having an ECHL affiliate lined up is that the Laval Rocket roster now stands at 35 players, meaning that almost half of the roster would be a healthy scratch should that number carry into the season. That is not a sustainable developmental model, although frankly not one that is foreign to the Canadiens.

Last season they preferred to sit Simon Bourque for weeks at a time without game action rather than send him down to the ECHL when they did have an affiliate. Surely the team isn’t going into a new season with that situation a possibility for their prospects once again.

Should the Canadiens not get their own team, another option would be to disperse players across several teams in the ECHL, but it’s hard to call that a developmental system.

Although steps were taken to ensure depth, it’s a cart before the horse kind of situation. The Canadiens need a stable ECHL affiliation, one that they actually commit to on a long-term basis rather than go year-by-year as they have been doing for years now.

Maybe that is actually the plan?

In late February, there was some noise that the city of Trois-Rivières was digging around, trying to see if they could secure an ECHL franchise to play in a new hockey arena that they were planning to build. The mayor of Trois-Rivières, Yves Levesque, even mentioned having conversations with the Brampton Beast, to move them to Trois-Rivières to continue to function as Montreal’s affiliate. When contacted, the Beast had no comment on the matter.

In an article in Le Nouvelliste, journalist Steve Turcotte went on to say that Geoff Molson is keeping a close eye on the arena construction, and that Levesque has already spoken to the President of the ECHL. So, at the very least, there have been some preliminary fact-finding discussions being had.

The arena, scheduled to open in time for the 2020-21 season, would seat 4,390 people. At the ground-breaking ceremony last month Levesque went on to say, “I always deliver; there will be a hockey team inside the new Colisée de Trois-Rivières. I would think that junior [QMJHL] would be interested in seeing a team come here, otherwise there are ongoing discussions with other leagues.”

So perhaps the Canadiens organization took notice of what the Toronto Maple Leafs have set up and realized that this is the model going forward. Perhaps in two years’ time we will see an ECHL affiliate that works in close partnership with the Canadiens in Trois-Rivières, to find the next diamond in the rough.

“That would make a lot of sense for them,” one ECHL executive said. “Trois-Rivières is a good location, close to a lot of the New York-based teams.”

A tweet of mine from last year might no longer just be a far-fetched idea, but an actual long-term reality for the Montreal Canadiens.

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