Rabid Habs

The Team Dynamic

Forner Habs Ryan White

The team always comes first. It’s a fairly self explanatory ideology. What’s best for the team needs to take precedence over the best interest of any one individual. After all, players come and go, but the crest on the front of the jersey remains the same – marketing executives stand down. That said, it’s difficult not to make connections with individual players. Over the years, I’ve found myself cheering for certain players to succeed, based on different reasons. Maybe they worked really hard to reach the NHL. Perhaps it’s a case of overcoming an injury. Whatever the reason, it’s often impossible to view a team through a lens, so refined, that a player is nothing more than a number on the back of the team’s jersey. One such example, for me anyway, is Ryan White.

Watching Ryan succeed in Philadelphia this year is bittersweet. I certainly couldn’t be happier for the young man, who has overcome a very significant injury and climbed his way back to the NHL after signing a two-way deal. But I’m also somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t provided a further opportunity in Montreal. Now, with the Flyers, his role has grown to include more TOI, a spot on the third line and shifts with more skilled players, specifically Wayne Simmonds. In the process, White has been named the second star in back to back games. He has four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in his past four games, has been excellent in the faceoff circle (100% in 4 of his last 5 games) and has averaged 4-10 hits per game. Although I fully expect these numbers to decline as the sample size grows, it’s becoming a safe bet to assume that he will earn another contract in the league. He’s young (26), he has decent size, is a good skater and is now contributing offence in a role he never played in Montreal. The issue with players like Ryan White is that they become typecast. Very early in his career he was identified as a fourth liner with no potential beyond 5:00-10:00 minutes a night. Now, I believe it’s fair to say that he may not have done enough to earn a promotion, but, was he given the opportunity to maximize his potential with the CH? IMO, there are parallels that extend beyond the comparison to Dale Weise, another former fourth liner who was typecast under Torts in Vancouver. The parallel I’m referring to is Lars Eller.

My greatest fear with Eller is that he’s traded, only to become a fixture on another team’s second line. To watch Eller play wing on the third line is to watch a man completely out of his element. The team might as well hand him a broom instead of a hockey stick. He looks lost and his confidence continues to suffer. The issue in Montreal, which is not unlike many other teams, is players are assigned a position based on a slotting system. Like a chess board, you have different pieces assigned different roles and expectations. Although I agree that you can’t place players in positions in which they can’t possibly succeed, over 82 games there has to be a way to engage all members of the group so that they remain focused and challenged to reach their full potential. In this respect, the deployment of our players is perplexing. Prior to Gonchar going down with an injury, Nathan Beaulieu’s TOI had dropped considerably. Despite his steady play, his ice time had been reduced from 16:00-18:00 minutes a night, to 8:00-12:00. Now, one week later, and he’s become a steady 20:00+ minute guy and has looked the best he’s been all year. But, if not for the injuries to Gonchar and Emelin, would the coaching staff have adjusted?

Galchenyuk’s short term leave opened the door for Jiri Sekac to skate inside the top 6, where he’s played his best hockey in weeks. Although the points haven’t materialized, he’s created scoring chances, which will begin to be reflected in the stats column. He’s proving that he’s capable of a larger role and responsibility, which bodes well for both the team and player. That said, the coach seems hesitant to provide him an opportunity on the first line, something that I don’t fully understand. In hindsight I am glad we got to see what Dale Weise was capable of doing with advanced opportunities, including skilled players to play with, TOI and power play time. I suppose it’s too much to expect all players to get time on the first line, although truth be told, Pacioretty could probably continue to produce with me as his right winger.

The difference though between Eller and Beaulieu/Sekac is that Eller has become expendable, as deemed by the coaching staff. I surmise that this is the case because of the way he’s been used. I’m not going to use this article as a vehicle to slam into Desharnais’ utilization, the coach, or otherwise. My point is simply to illustrate that certain players can thrive when used in unconventional roles. Further, make no mistake, this same thing is happening across the league. Patrick Weircioch can’t crack a Senators lineup, sitting out in favour of Eric Gryba and Jared Cowen. When he does enter the lineup, it’s as a 6th defenceman. Some team, if patient, is going to land this player for next to nothing. I firmly believe, inside the top 4, with ice time, support and an injection of confidence, Weircioch can become a steady 25+ point guy. He has the size (6’5″) and skating that teams covet. But, in Ottawa is just won’t work. I see upside in Shawn Matthias in Vancouver and Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno in Buffalo. Across the league players are being held back, as much as they are holding themselves back.

When I look at trades, I always like to target players who have not reached the pinnacle in their professional lifecycle, both in terms of age or production. Finding these hidden gems can be challenging as their value is often cloaked in a thick cover of underutilization and riddled with a lack of confidence. In the next 10 days, players will be traded. While we hold our collective breath for the next deal to be announced, or busy ourselves watching 12 hours of deadline coverage, consider those players who might appear downtrodden. Remember the Ryan White’s who have been picked off the scrap heap, only to reappear reincarnated in a new role with new responsibilities. When trading for an elite player like, you are trading for what they have accomplished. When trading for a young player or prospect, you are trading for potential. In both instances, you are often required to overpay as a hedge against future success. GM’s are reluctant to be tied to a one sided deal, so in an effort to guard against being pick pocketed so to speak, they affix significant valuations to prized commodities. If you want that asset, it’s available, but the price is at a premium. The area in which a strong GM and his leadership team can exploit an opponent is finding that miscast player. It’s having the ability to see value in Gonchar when others thought him finished in Dallas. It’s seeing the potential in Dale Weise, when he had little value remaining in Vancouver. It’s grabbing Mike Weaver for a 5th rounder, then watching him hold the fort through the balance of the regular season and excelling in the playoffs. This is an area in which I believe Bergevin has distinguished himself among his peer group and an area where I believe he strikes again.

In closing, I couldn’t be happier for White. Looking ahead – and trust me when I say that I hope I’m wrong – I wonder if we might reflect on Lars Eller in a year or two and lament the loss of a player who we only briefly saw in a primary role, with skilled wingers and power play time. But, that’s the business of hockey. There are only so many roster spots, only so many minutes in a game and only one puck to play with. As in the game of chess, it’s the player – like the hockey coach – who chooses how to position his pieces. Some are better than others. Some can do things others can’t. Just don’t tell that to the player. Just ask Ryan White.

I invite your feedback and welcome continued discussion on this topic or issues otherwise specific to hockey. Please connect with me @LWOScjcasselman.