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The Habs and The Quebecois Syndrome

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On this St. Jean Baptiste day of 2018, while residents in Quebec and Quebec-born Canadian citizen celebrate our birth province’s holiday, the dust is settling on what was a very uneventful NHL Draft. Aside from a few trades picks for picks, this year’s Draft was abnormally quiet on the trade front, with only one major trade having been completed between the Calgary Flames and the Carolina Hurricanes. Like everyone else, Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin sat there and let his Draft experts, led by Trevor Timmins, work their magic in hope that it pays off in the long run.

Now before anyone thinks that since moving to beautiful British Columbia, I have become an anti-Québécois, let me remind you of a piece I wrote a few years ago, one of my most satisfying article, one that I point out to anglophones who downplay the need to have Quebec-born players on the Canadiens.

The outrage on Twitter was, however, palpable with many residents in Quebec, particularly French speaking, being outraged with the fact that their beloved Habs only managed to select one player from the QMJHL.

True that with all the picks that they had, the Canadiens only managed to select one local player, by calling Samuel Houde‘s name at number 133. But I was curious to find out why it was the case. Were the Canadiens really spitting on players from their own backyard and selecting others at similar talent? If that were the case, those Quebec-born players would have been selected soon after the Habs’ picks, I figured… right?

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Well I did the research and here’s what I discovered:

  • 217 players were selected at the 2018 NHL Draft
  • 22 of them (10%) came from the QMJHL
  • Half of them were born in Quebec
  • Of those 11 selected, 4 were goalies, a position the Habs don’t need
  • And of the 7 remaining, the Habs were able to select one.

So what does that tell you folks? It is telling me that overall, the QMJHL is doing extremely poorly at developing players attracting interest not just for the Montreal Canadiens, but for the other 30 teams! It tells us even more, as off those playing in the Q, more than half (55%) of them are not even Quebec-born players! Yes folks, it means that 0.05% of the players drafted in 2018 (11 out of 217) were born in Quebec. And that’s Bergevin and Timmins’ fault for not selecting them?!?

Oh really? Is that really how fans feel in Quebec? What are Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault, Nicolas Deslauriers and Charles Hudon? Chopped liver? That’s four local products, more than we’ve seen on the Habs in a long, long time and considering that the number of them is dropping like flies in the NHL, that’s actually very remarkable. Further, someone tweeted this to me…

It seems like it’s not because the Habs aren’t trying. Under Bergevin, they even invested more in scouting in Quebec and in the QMJHL. The team is building outdoor ice rinks to allow young people to skate and play hockey! To borrow an expression from François Gagnon, “Simonak”, what more do you want them to do?

So for those who can differentiate the forest from the trees, let’s take a bit of a break, and hope that Bergevin can pull the trigger on a trade or two to solidify his formation, mostly at the centre position and even find a defense partner for Shea Weber. We’re less than a week away from free agency. Go Habs Go!

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Max Domi Will Be a Fan Favourite

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Attitude… Not just wanting to win, but hating to lose. Those were some of the words used by Montreal Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin in his post-season press conference. After making changes to the coaching staff, management team and the scouting department, Bergevin is in full strides with his plan, the one he sold team President Geoff Molson in order to keep his job in Montreal. His first somewhat major player movement: Alex Galchenyuk gone, in comes Max Domi.

One word to describe Domi: Dynamite. Much like his father Tie Domi, Max is all about effort and hard work. There’s just no shift off with this guy. Intense. Physical. In your face. Standing at 5’10” (might be a bit of a stretch) and 195 lbs, he’s a bit bigger Brendan Gallagher. Remember how solid physically Francis Bouillon was, nicknamed ‘Frank the Tank‘? Domi is a brick wall. What he didn’t get from his father is the fighting ability, although he’s very much willing to drop the mitts if or when it’s needed, but not against heavyweights like his father did. He makes up for it by being much more gifted offensively and skills-wise than his father… and with speed to burn!

Domi is coming out of not one, but two disappointing seasons after a very promising first year. There were rumours that he wanted out for some time. It just wasn’t working out for him with the Coyotes, a team that’s been at the bottom of the standings year in, year out, a team rumoured to be in financial distress for some time. Domi is a competitor. He wants to win. He’s no franchise player, but neither was Alex Galchenyuk, whom he was traded for. But unlike Galchenyuk, he has no off-ice issues. He does take his career seriously and brings with him a lunchbox attitude. There’s that word again.

You know what Habs’ fans? Don’t make the same mistake some of you did with Shea Weber and dislike Domi because he was traded for a player that you liked. You owe it to him and to yourself to preach the ‘wait and see’ approach. Something tells me that he will be a fan favourite in no time in Montreal. Go Habs Go!

Habs Select… Jesperi Kotkaniemi

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The NHL Draft is not a perfect science. What many fans, and sometimes even media members tend to forget when evaluating prospects is that teams don’t look at it the way they do. The easiest part of the job is to compare those young men TODAY, where they are at this moment. What true experts do, you know the ones who actually go watch them play live, the ones who conduct the in-depth interviews, the ones who run the psychological tests, is to try to the best of their abilities to evaluate those prospects’ ceiling. When will they stop progressing in their development? And when looking at 17-18 year-olds, it’s no easy task and that’s why, folks, there are mistakes made every single year.

The Canadiens shocked some by selecting young Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with their first pick, the third overall pick at the 2018 Draft. Yet, the young man, who played against men in Finland’s top pro league, finished the season with 10 goals, 29 points in 57 games with Assat. What does this relate to? Patrik Laine, potentially the best Finnish forward to come along since Teemu Selanne, had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games in the same league before he was chosen second overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2016.

Team: Assat (Finland)
Position: C
Shoots: Left
Age: 17
From: Pori, Finland
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 190 pounds

And Bob McKenzie’s take…

Yet, it seems like the scouts interviewed by TSN’s Bob McKenzie didn’t feel it was a stretch at all. While some fans were wanting Filip Zadina, professionals didn’t necessarily agree with them:

While Zadina is still very much a consensus top-five pick, relative to the other prospects, five of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN ranked him outside their top five. Five scouts had him in the top five, including three of them at No. 3, but he had three 6’s, a 7 and a 9 as well. That’s a far cry from the mid-season polling, when all of Zadina’s marks came in between 2 and 4.

The No. 5 spot on TSN’s final rankings goes to Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was No. 19 on the mid-season rankings and No. 10 on the draft lottery edition rankings. His strong performance at the World Under-18 Championships in April has vaulted him into the top five and provided this draft with something that it seemed to be missing all season long — a potential No. 1 centre.

If you’re on Twitter, you likely noticed that the surprise, even the outrage in some cases, was apparent with a few Montreal Canadiens’ fans. Yet leading into the Draft, scouting reports everywhere had Kotkaniemi as the top centre available and likely a Top-5 selection. Here are some more scouting reports on the Canadiens’ new prospect, provided by eliteprospects.com:

Matias Strozyk – 2017 – “A smart forward with a dangerous shot, Kotkaniemi possesses a high hockey IQ and determination with the skills to back it up. Positions himself well and often seems to be a step ahead of plays. Stickhandling and creativity allow him to split professional defences as a teenager. Decent size and frame, yet a very capable skater.”

Adam Kimelman – NHL.com – April 30: “Kotkaniemi played regular minutes in Liiga and won’t turn 18 until July 6. He’s used in the middle and on the wing, and kills penalties, which speaks to his high hockey IQ.”

Mike Morreale – NHL.com – April 30: “Kotkaniemi, who compares his style of play to Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, is a playmaker with strong hockey sense, a good compete level, a quick shot, and a nose for the net.”

Craig Button – TSN – April 28: “He plays the game in a similar fashion to Anze Kopitar and to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.”

Sam Cosentino – SportsNet – April 28: ” Has been on an upward trend dating back to the Ivan Hlinka tournament last August. Displays some heaviness in his game.”

Steve Kournianos – SportingNews/The Draft Analys – April 28: “Like his countryman Kupari, Kotkaniemi spent his draft year playing in Finland’s top circuit. Only difference is Kotkaniemi significantly out-produced him. He’s a mature playmaker with world-class vision, but his first-step quickness at this stage of his development is average.”

Cam Robinson – DobberProspects – April 26: “Great puck skills and finishing ability, but skating still a work in progress. Offers an awkward stride that doesn’t generate a ton of top-end power. That hasn’t stopped him from putting up more than respectable numbers Liiga though, albeit from the wing.”

The most in-depth scouting report that I was able to find was written by Derek Neumeier who had this to say about the Finnish prospect:

When looking at his potential NHL upside, there’s certainly a lot to like. The Pori native is an expert when it comes to puck protection, using his big frame, long reach and sharp mind to keep the puck safe and secure. When it comes to “sword-fighting” (winning stick battles for pucks), he’s incredibly successful. Additionally, he’s still a little scrawny, so once he adds more muscle he’s only going to get better in this regard. It doesn’t matter what zone he’s in, once Kotkaniemi gets the puck on his stick something positive is likely to happen. He keeps a good awareness of his surroundings and isn’t phased when pressure starts to close in on him, calmly carrying the puck forward into open ice or correctly turning around and skating it back to the defensemen behind him to get something else set up. His play without the puck isn’t particularly notable, but he knows where he needs to be, competes hard and uses a quick stick to disrupt opposing players.

His 29 points from 57 Liiga games don’t tell the whole story of his offensive abilities. Kotkaniemi is a high-end playmaker, feeding hard, tape-to-tape passes through tight spaces to reach his teammates. He’s not an overly flashy passer (although he sometimes shows off nifty stick language to deke out defenders first), but he’s consistent and efficient; the puck almost always gets to where it needs to go. His shot might be his best weapon, though, as there are times where it looks like it might be among the very best in this year’s draft class. He can tailor his wrist shot to go top corner or bore though a gap in a goalie’s form, and he can really unleash some powerful, accurate slap shots and one-timers if he’s given too much time and space.

Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin had this to say about the possibility of Kotkaniemi’s chances of playing in Montreal next season:

“He’s coming to Montreal next week for our Development Camp. We’ll look at him closely and we’ll go from there,” indicated Bergevin. “We’ll do what’s best for him in the long run, but we also have to look at the big picture and his future.”

Some fans were concerned with the fact that Jesperi played the wing last season but to those, rest assured: Kotkaniemi is a centre and will be playing centre in the NHL. He was playing against men and his teenager’s frame hasn’t filled-in yet, so he’s not quite heavy enough yet to play that position against full grown men. But when he played with kids his age internationally, he was dominant… at centre.

Kotkaniemi sees himself as similar in style to countryman Aleksander Barkov, the skilled and powerful 6-foot-3 centre the Florida Panthers drafted second in 2013.

“I think he’s a little bit of the same kind of player as me, but I try to be like him,” Kotkaniemi said. “He’s very calm when he’s on the ice and I like that.”

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