Stu Cowan: Gorton gets to the heart of Habs woes – player development


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There is a long list of first-round draft picks that haven’t worked with the Canadiens for one reason or another.

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“We probably need to work on developing our players here,” said Jeff Gorton at his first press conference last week as the new executive vice president of hockey operations for the Canadiens.

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“Player development, I think they have a few gentlemen in place who are doing a good job,” Gorton added. “I think we need more. The way the game went, the way these kids are, they need help in so many ways as soon as we draft or sign them. I would love to develop this a bit better.

The two gentlemen Gorton was probably referring to are Rob Ramage, the Canadiens player development director, and Francis Bouillon, the player development coach. These are the only two people listed under “player development” on the official Canadiens website.

Player development and / or the draft has been a problem for Canadians for a long time, which is a major reason GM Marc Bergevin and Assistant GM Trevor Timmins were fired.

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There is a long list of first-round draft picks that haven’t worked with the Canadiens for one reason or another. This list includes Louis Leblanc (2009), Jarred Tinordi (2010), Nathan Beaulieu (2011), Alex Galchenyuk (2012), Mike McCarron (2013), Nikita Scherbak (2014), Noah Juulsen (2015), Mikhail Sergachev (2016) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (2018).

Ryan Poehling, the 2017 first-round pick, is starting to carve out a place for himself with the Canadiens after a bumpy start to his career.

Poehling scored a hat trick and added a shootout goal in his NHL debut with the Canadiens on April 6, 2019 – a 6-5 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final game of the season at the Bell Center. After suffering a concussion in a preseason game the following season, Poehling was sent to the Laval Rocket in the AHL and has since admitted that he didn’t handle the demotion well.

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“You come out of college and have a great first game and then the sky is the limit for you,” Poehling said this season. “Especially in this place, where the media and the organization and the story behind it.… So you have so many expectations for yourself and then the way I fell like that, it felt like the world was falling on you.

“You think so hard of yourself and you think so low of yourself,” Poehling added. “But for me, I think I finally realized, stay on that path… and that’s kind of where it kind of narrowed down in my second season, which was good.”

Poehling was 11-14-25 last season with Laval and 3-3-6 in seven games with the Rocket this season before being called up by the Canadiens. Poehling said the main thing he gained last season was confidence and that showed in his game with the Canadiens, posting totals of 4-0-4 in 13 games before facing the Blackhawks in Chicago Thursday night.

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When asked after being called up if he feels more out of place in the NHL now, Poehling replied, “Yeah, sure. Now more than ever, 100 percent.

Defender Aaron Ward was a first-round pick (fifth overall) by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1991 NHL Draft before being traded to the Detroit Red Wings after completing his final season at the University of Michigan. Ward played three full seasons with the AHL Adirondack Red Wings before clinching a regular berth in the NHL. He would play 13 seasons in the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings (1997 and 1998) and a third with the Carolina Hurricanes (2006).

Ward is a regular guest on Mitch Melnick’s afternoon show on TSN 690 Montreal radio and is always interesting to listen to, combining his knowledge of the game with a sense of humor and great storytelling.

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“It’s not like (the Canadiens) don’t have guys who can play at a high level in the future,” Ward said last week. “They just need a little aging – I’ll put it that way. … It’s about development.

“If you think of how the Detroit Red Wings were organized back then, they guys were never in a rush,” added Ward. “Using Adirondack, using Grand Rapids (the current AHL affiliate), it was almost a given that they were going to force you to learn what you are and who you are, and to take your time doing it and there was never a rush to get out guys. So obviously, when you arrived in the National Hockey League, you were ready for the game. It wasn’t like the coaches had a job ahead of them to shape you.

“I don’t think that Montreal, in the development of its players or its recruitment of players, has substantially given this team enough players to be able to afford the luxury of leaving guys in Laval. Looking back, it’s 20/20, but it would be really nice to have a guy like Sergachev (who was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Jonathan Drouin) still here.

The hindsight is indeed 20/20, but looking back, at least Gorton knows what one of the biggest problems for Canadians is.

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