It's damn simple really, the New Jersey Devils have the largest scouting department in the NHL with 23 active scouts to evaluate talent for their team and are known for making very few mistakes at the annual NHL Entry Draft or when it comes to signing undrafted players, or acquiring players through trades.
New Jersey can't fill their arena when the Montreal Canadiens are in town most of the time, or other big-name teams. They play a very boring style of hockey that rarely lifts fans out of their seats and engenders excitement about their trap style of hockey. This club is not nearly as wealthy as say, a hockey club that sells out their 21,273 seat arena with 54 luxury boxes and sells just about every item imaginable that you can stick the Montreal Canadiens crest on. Montreal currently has 15 scouts working for them and considering their wealth, you would think in order to gain a leg up on the competition, they could double their scouting department. They have the money to hire away scouts from other teams, make better offers to the best people and cast a wider net around the world to get their talent. Why go so far? Simple, I'll examine Montreal's work in the Entry Draft at the 1st round for the Canadiens and what kind of personnel the team passed up on from 2000 to 2006. I won't discuss the 2007-2009 drafts as I feel it's too early to really count out the selections there, although some astute scouting acquired P.K. Subban, who may emerge as the finest defencemen of the 2007 draft.
The 2000 Draft
D Ron Hainsey, selected 13th overall
- Ron Hainsey's tenure with the Canadiens organization was troubled and ended up with him being picked off of waivers to Colombus and he ended up in Atlanta currently, the organization screwed up, but there were also better choices.
C Marcel Hossa, selected 16th overall
- Marcel, the brother of NHL star player Marian Hossa, he never came close to emulating his brother and is now a player in the KHL.
With more astute observation by the scouts, these superior choices were all available
- D Brooks Orpik 18th overall, key shutdown defencemen for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
- D Anton Volchenkov 21st overall, Ottawa's best physical defencemen, delivers one of the hardest checks in the NHL and is a shot-blocking piece of concrete around his net.
- RW Brad Boyes 24th overall, a good-size winger with a 43 and then 33 goal season in his two previous NHL seasons.
- D Niklas Kronwall 29th overall, the heir apparent to Detroit's top defencemen title when Niklas Lidstrom retires, he can break a man with his check and can quarterback a PP.
Any way you mix it, taking either of these two for Montreal would have vastly improved the team, just Volchenkov and Orpik alone would have made Montreal's own zone a punishing, fearsome place for any team to try and enter easily. Markov with Volchenkov has been a fantasy of mine for several months now.
The 2001 Draft
D Mike Komisarek, selected 7th overall
- He was a good guy for Montreal, but his position went to his head. Playing alongside Markov inflated his value and created a sense that he was worth 4 million and over a season, despite having the offensive instincts of your average NHL goaltender. 10-point defencemen who can block shots and hit are handy, but his poor fighting skills and lack of will after the Lucic fight in the 08-09 season seemed to indicate he was not a solid rock for team leadership if he is so easily rattled. Still, he could've been traded for value when Volchenkov/Orpik/Kronwall would've come out as better prospects in the system down the road, a decent pick in a fairly weak draft year.
C Alexander Perezhogin, selected 25th overall
- Another pick that never worked out, limited time in Montreal but never established a role, now a KHL player like Marcel Hossa. A wasted pick considering his impact and no other NHL clubs attempting to get him.
Accepting the Komisarek pick, Perezhogin had several worthy replacements.
- C David Steckel at 30th overall, 6'6" and a solid 3rd/4th line role-playing centre. Little scoring aptitude, but a faceoff specialist and PK man that would benefit the club greatly, role-players can't be undersold at times.
- D Fedor Tyutin at 40th overall, 6'3", generally solid defencemen who could find Top-4 work with his abilities, okay offensively and can do shut-down work.
- C Michael Cammalleri at 49th overall, well I shouldn't have to tell you about Montreal's favourite goal-scoring sensation this season. Could've had him with an astute scout watching him carefully perhaps and probably at cheaper than 6 million a season as well.
The 2002 Draft
C Christopher Higgins, selected 14th overall
- A failure of player development, or a case of a player who just couldn't function in a party city, I'm not sure. He hasn't been the same since the 07-08 season after reeling off 3 straight 20-goal seasons since joining the Big Club full time. I find it hard to talk against this pick as the line after him was pretty thin for good players.
Although, Cam Ward, the goalie who bounced Montreal from the 2006 NHL Playoffs was taken by Carolina at 25th overall. The team could have potentially selected an elite goaltender in 2002, something to think about. Duncan Keith was also taken in the 2nd round, careful scouting might have delivered what is this some writer's favourite for a Norris trophy.
The 2003 Draft
I hate talking about the 2003 draft, I really do, of 30 players taken in the 1st round, nearly every single of them has seen NHL action and a fair number of them are prominent NHL stars and Andrei gets a lot of flak for not developing as quickly as his fellow draft class members.
RW Andrei Kostitsyn, 10th overall
- I really like Andrei Kostitsyn, I like his strength, his speed and his fantastic reflexes. I love his nickname AK46, the guy has a cannon of a shot either with his wrist shot or his slapshot and he can hit the net with it with ease when he's on his game. The problem has been his consistency, after a breakout season in 07-08, he had 27 goals and 25 assists, not bad for a 22-year old kid taken 10th overall at the time.
- I suspect part of the problem with Andrei after his breakout was more of his star linemate, Alex Kovalev. Kovalev is a magnificent player when it comes to stickhandling and shooting, he is an artist with the puck and is so creative offensively you'd think he would have more than two seasons where he went over 80 points. The problem is while he is an artist with the puck, he is an artist that is often lacking inspiration. Andrei is a young player that needed to learn to give his effort all the time because goals and assists would come from effort, Kovalev was not an example of that. In the 08-09 season, with Robert Lang, a veteran player who did provide that kind of play and support for Andrei, led Andrei and his brother Sergei on a campaign of terror across the NHL in January, they were the team's best line for that month.
- There have been other issues, the culture shock of sorts of Andrei Kostitsyn, a Belarusian native to moving to Montreal of all places, he had spent time in Hamilton but I suspect the young man would have done well to live with a veteran member of the organization and someone who he could speak freely with, namely the team's finest defencemen, Andrei Markov. It couldn't have been easy for him to get used to the city I think and Markov could have helped him in that.
- The bad press of the 08-09 season, when in a horrible piece of yellow journalism, La Presse did their best to smear the Kostitsyn brothers as gangsters. Andrei and Sergei both really went into a funk after that point and who could blame them? Their adopted team and city had them labelled as gangsters when they were doing their best to win hockey games for the team. They'd lost Robert Lang, their veteran centre who had been leading them to great results not long before and they'd had trouble rediscovering their magic.
I should mention the alternatives, but a lack of good player development for Andrei I feel is more the reason than anything of why we haven't seem him match the offensive abilities of the following players and the bad press, he and his brother didn't deserve.
- C Jeff Carter, 11th overall, a 40-goal scorer with Philidelphia last season, at 6'3" he would've been a big centre for the Canadiens organization.
- C Zach Parise, 17th overall, a 40-goal scorer with New Jersey last season, an inch shorter than AK but a two-way forward with great offensive instincts.
- C Ryan Getzlaf, 19th overall, the big centre everyone's talked about for Montreal for years, a scoring sensation in Anaheim, his prescence in Montreal would've been quite welcome to many.
- C Mike Richards, 24th overall, I hate his guts but he's an excellent two-way forward with a 30-goal range and lives to score shorthanded goals.
The 2004 Draft
C Kyle Chipchura, 18th overall
- It's hard to hate this kid for having his achilles tendon slashed in an accident and permanently hampering a player whose speed was never his greatest asset. It was nobody's fault that happened really, but he doesn't seem to really possess a skill set that justifies a 1st round selection. His passing was terrible and he had no nose for the net, coupled with poor foot speed, I wonder what the scouts really saw in him.
- C Travis Zajac, 20th overall, a strong and capable centre with the New Jersey Devils, with 62 points last season including 20 goals.
- D Jeff Schultz, 27th overall, Mike Green's physical partner in Washington, a physical shutdown player that tempers Green's overly offensive instincts with solid defence as his partner, at 6'6" he provides some serious physical prescence.
- D Mike Green, 29th overall, Washington made 3 picks in the 2004 Draft, Ovechkin, Schultz and Green, all 3 today are bonafide NHLers, one is the best offensive forward in the NHL and one is the best offensive defencemen in the NHL while their 3rd pick is a solid defensive defencemen, that is the power of scouting. Mike Green would've been quite the coup for Montreal.
At this point, likely someone on the blue line would have had to go in a year or two with such an embarrasment of riches, but Montreal could've commanded a hefty price with so many talented defencemen and so many teams desperate to have an operative Top 4. Picks, prospects and talented forwards could have been acquired for the club.
The 2005 Draft
G Carey Price, 5th overall
- This was not a wasted pick, the players taken 6th-10th overall have not exactly gone on to stellar NHL careers. Price's only fault was his being rushed to the NHL too quickly and player development not taking it's proper course with him.
- A further year in the AHL and possibly a Calder Cup repeat win would've been what he needed, but an overestimation of his progression in nets led to his being brought in too early, coupled with the fact that again, the organization ignored the need to follow the course as more NHL clubs are doing and having young stars live with the veteran players of the organization.
- A lost cause? Hardly, it's been a bumpy road but I've seen him dominant too often in his young career to think this is a tragic story that will never get better.
Possible replacements: You have to discuss the alternatives after all. If you consider that Cam Ward could've been close to ready for NHL action at this point, there was only one top talent left that you could reasonably argue drafing was good for the organization.
- C Anze Kopitar, 11th overall, another of those big centres the organization has chased but has failed to get a hold of, the top scorer in LA, the only Slovenian in the NHL from a country with about 1,000 registered hockey players. He has a great skill set but I wonder about how well he would've adapted to Montreal like several of the other young stars. A possibility though, if handled properly.
The 2006 Draft
D David Fischer, 20th overall
- I don't know the full story on Fischer, I've heard reports he struggled with some injuries that have hampered him but I can't be certain about that, the number of games played in NCAA hockey would seem to dispute that and it seems more like the pick was just wasted. It happens and there weren't that many gems taken after him.
Potential replacements: Not a lot, but there were a couple of definite improvements.
RW Claude Giroux, 22nd overall
- An offensive forward with Philidelphia, small but a definite NHL-quality player. Could have been moved for other assets or kept on as a depth player for the term of his rookie contract.
G Semyon Varlamov, 23rd overall
- The potential starting, franchise goalie of the Washington Capitals they've not had since Olaf Kolzig. He showed great ability in the 2009 playoffs and is practically undefeated in regular season NHL appearances. He's struggled with injury this season but his ability is apparent and could have a very bright NHL future.
Forwards: Not a lot, I still hold that AK's still on class with some of his fellow draft members and hasn't had the development necessary to show it. He'll come around, but if Getzlaf or Carter had been taken, it would have allowed either of them and Tomas Plekanec to hold the #1 and #2 centre slots, allowing Captain Saku Koivu to go back to the 3rd line in a reduced role, but still holding team leadership until a new leader emerged from the ranks. Potential drafting of Michael Cammalleri would have improved things notably as well for offensive purposes. The key though is with the all the defensive prospects on the Canadiens depth chart, dealing some for offensive talent would have been simpler considering the lack of depth across the NHL for good defencemen and Montreal could have commanded some very strong prices in the trade market.
Defence: Andrei Markov with 3 partners selected out of a possible listing of of Brooks Orpik, Duncan Keith, Jeff Schultz, Anton Volchenkov, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green. Any way you slice it, that is severe, punishing hitting power with fantastic puck-moving ability. Montreal's defence wouldn't be quite the Big Three of Robinson, Savard and Lapointe, but it would be the most fearsome blue line in the whole NHL, with others traded for more picks, prospects or talented forwards.
Goaltending: Cam Ward, he's had his critics for World Championship performances but a 2006 Conn Smythe on his shelf and pushing his team to a Conference Final in the 2009 playoffs indicates a serious amount of skill. He could've been a veteran prescence for Carey Price if he was still selected 5th overall and possibly shuffled along later if Price proved to be the better candidate. Semyon Varlamov in the system as well would've given the team an embarrasment of riches at that position.
So consider this lineup for yourself, with an allowance that Mike Komisarek with possible ingredients was moved in the 2003 draft for Anaheim's 19th overall pick. This would be the potential Canadiens roster for the 2008-2009 season that ended so poorly last year and this isn't even the most ambitious list I could put up. Also, Gui Latendresse moved in a much earlier deal for Ben Pouliot, but again, this isn't as stacked as I could've made it.
Michael Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Benoit Pouliot - Ryan Getzlaf - Alex Kovalev
Christopher Higgins - Saku Koivu - Sergei Kostitsyn
Tom Kostopolous - Maxim Lapierre - An enforcer not named George Laraque
Andrei Markov - Anton Volchenkov
Mike Green - Brooks Orpik
Josh Gorges - Ryan O'Byrne
Jaroslav Halak (would split duties with Huet for 07-08, Huet departed but Jaro is No. 1)
Carey Price (would have spent the 07-08 season in the AHL)
I'd call that a Cup Contender squad and I didn't even mention Ward, Kronwall, Keith, Giroux or several other options I came across while studying those draft groups. Obviously not all draft choices can pay off, but if you doubled the scouting department and spent the money to hire the best scouting people in the world, you can bet you'd find a lot more draft gems than what Montreal came up with across those 7 years of drafting.
That's a cap-compliant roster by the way compared against what most of those players were earning at the time and based on the concept that management would extend the young players smartly before their contracts ran up. A 1st-class hockey power without tanking for top 5 picks, just spending where it counts, player development and drafting. A dream, but honestly, with 30 top scouts working for the organization, it would've been a much more easily achieved dream.