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Analysis of Reinbacher’s pick: To win, the CH wants to rely on the best defense in the circuit

Like many, I would have been excited – maybe a little surprised, but excited – if the Habs had drafted Matvei Michkov last Wednesday night.

But in my mind, even the scenario of them trading up was more likely than them drafting him, as I wrote here in my mock draft.

But as I was careful to point out:

If the Caps, Wings or any other team hadn’t come up with an interesting offer, the CH would have turned without regret to the great Austrian right-handed defenseman David Reinbacher, the best defenseman of the 2023 auction. This scenario may still be very plausible, if not the most realistic, especially if Hughes isn’t overly interested in Michkov.

As anticipated, the Habs opted for the most likely scenario, that of coming to a negative conclusion about the young Russian and not receiving a compelling enough offer to cede his position at No. 5.

What would have been a convincing enough offer?

An offer that would have had more overall value in the medium and long term than the opportunity to draft David Reinbacher.

The burning passion of the fans

I’m sensitive to the emotion of the fans, and without these passionate fans, no professional sportsman or owner would be lining his pockets.

But when emotion turns into excessive passion, it often turns into blindness.

So when it comes to drafting a young player destined to fill a leading role, I’ll never side with arguments that say, “out of respect for the fans, they should have taken so-and-so”, as I’ve heard repeatedly over the past few days.

Yes, fans pay good money, they want entertainment, they demand that their tastes, preferences and sometimes even moral values be taken into account, as in the Logan Mailloux case.

But in what other serious fields do we let non-specialists, not to say complete incompetents, dictate the decisions that should be made in high places?

Well, in chorus with your best friend Plato, you’re going to say “in politics”!

And you’re absolutely right! I’ll send you your DEC in the mail!

But it’s all very well being cute, and even relying on Geoff Molson’s poetic elan, to say that “the Habs are the people’s team”, that their true owners are the fans, etc., but the CH, like the 31 other NHL teams, is first and foremost a private company.

Private companies, or serious public institutions, be they prestigious investment firms, cutting-edge marketing firms, Michelin restaurants, or even hospitals and universities, are generally not democracies! They are aristocracies and/or meritocracies, led by skilled managers who hire the best professionals they can muster in the field.

They are not led by Pierre-Jean-Jacques, who writes childish comments that a certain Bob Gainey once dubbed gutless bastards, like this random one:

I know popcorn redenbacker au fait 22 pts en 46 parties ça fait dur Le ch ou il s’en va je sais au tournoi peewee deQuébec

We may not like Reinbacher’s choice, we may not agree with Hughes, Bobrov and Gorton’s decisions every day of the week and twice on Sunday, but in the very complex case involving Michkov, the CH made a professional decision based on a ton of data to which very few of us have access.

Didn’t Nick Bobrov himself once work for SKA St. Petersburg, and isn’t his own father still a scout for the same team?

Whatever our fantasies and what we think the Flanelle should have done, this is the reality: at the end of the day, the CH decision-makers, with the team they want to build in mind (more on that below), preferred to draft the best defenseman at the auction rather than the most talented forward still available.

Time will tell if they were wrong or not.

Who will Reinbacher be compared to?

That said, even though I often agree with Mathias Brunet (Quinn Hughes, Juraj Slafkovsky, Lane Hutson, for example), and even though I’m willing to try to reduce the amount of bile poured on the organization and young Reinbacher since Wednesday night, I think the La Presse columnist went a bit too far when he said :

“To be fair to David Reinbacher, he shouldn’t be compared to Michkov, but to what a fifth overall pick can become.”

As far as I know, a5th overall pick can become hundreds of things, just like a 7th overall pick by that count!

There’s no absolute limit to excellence or mediocrity prescribed by a draft rank!

Why would it be more relevant and fair to compare Reinbacher to Elias Pettersson, drafted5th in 2017, or Luke Schenn, at the same rank in 2008, rather than to Matvei Michkov, on whom they have, rightly or wrongly, turned their noses up in 2023?

Sorry Mathias, it’s probably a little professional deformation, but when it comes to relevance, the philosophy teacher in me just doesn’t get it! Fortunately, this doesn’t happen to you too often! (Wink).

The players drafted by the CH have always been compared to the players they didn ‘t draft the same year, especially those who were drafted right after them!

That’s the name of the game!

We can find comparables to 1970 if we want, but we’ll always rightly compare Reinbacher to Michkov. The Canadiens’ decision-makers don’t expect anything else anyway.

They know that, talent-wise, they’ve chosen to pass over a very special little forward who was the stuff of dreams for many.

Instead, they opted for the man who, in their eyes and in the eyes of at least 95% of teams, was the best defenseman in the 2023 draft.

It’s a defensible choice in itself. We don’t need to add to it.

Or if we do, as special as Michkov is, talented imperfect small forwards, they already had a few in the system, while complete right-handed defensemen with real #1 potential measuring 6’2, soon to be 200 lbs, they had none.

Hutson will be a dominant offensive defender, but he’ll need help alongside him on the defensive side of the game

So let’s just give the runner a chance, let’s do it in good faith, with respect, and if possible preserve our quasi-final judgment, for at least a few years, say at least 5 years.

But, I know, that’s a lot to ask of a beating heart…

The Habs want to build something special at the blue line

Ahhhh, the famous (false) dilemma between choosing the best player available and choosing according to need!

“NEVER pick based on need early in the draft! It’s heresy!”

That pretty much sums up THE right thing to do definitively according to many, as if one option automatically excluded the other.

But 99% of the time, teams always consider both sides of the coin, especially when a player has his share of red flags, both on- and off-ice.

So I agree wholeheartedly with Arpon Basu when he says that the concept of “team building” must absolutely be considered at the draft, and therefore, inevitably, organizational needs.

All teams do this to some extent.

Bob Hartley doesn’t say anything very different when he says that a field hockey club is like a puzzle; to win, you have to put the right pieces in the right place.

What many fans and more or less enlightened observers still underestimate is that the draft remains an excellent, if not the ultimate, means of finding those right pieces!

Gratos too!

As Nick Bobrov rightly reminded us in his press briefing, complete defensemen with #1 potential like Reinbacher are very rare both in the draft and on the market. It’s often this kind of player who, when added to the puzzle, ends up making the difference:

It’s no mystery to anyone how difficult it is to acquire certain assets and what it takes to acquire them,” Bobrov said. “We all watched the playoffs, and for two months of the year, we get reminded what works and what wins that maybe we tend to forget for 10 months, and we get reminded again. So we felt that David, given what he’s done this year and last year, in fact, his growth, his potential are very, very intriguing and extremely difficult to obtain.

Rereading this passage, I can’t help but think of Alex Pietrangelo, 4th overall pick in 2008, dearly acquired by the Golden Knights on the free-agent market and winner of two Stanley Cups.

So think twice about not selecting them when they’re available.

It’s just that, at the draft, we have to proceed on the basis of projections rather than through transactions or the free-agent market, where we know a little more exactly what we’re getting.

The problem is that the average fan doesn’t like projections.

Why is that?

Because the average fan is, by definition, a “Thomas” who has seen little or none of the young hopefuls play, and who doesn’t believe until he sees.

If you dare to tell him that according to the observations of experts on the field, or according to the statistical models of other experts like Thibaud Chatel, player X could well become an elite first-pair defenseman, the average fan will say “there’s still nothing to prove from NHL Chose Popcorn”.

The average fan is systematically against decisions that don’t go in the direction of his opinion based on his first impressions, his preferences, his interests, his prejudices and a bunch of commonplaces repeated a thousand times over in recent weeks.

Just like Shane Wright last year.

The future best defensive player on the circuit?

But if we tried for two minutes to put ourselves in the head of the CH’s expert managers, who are trying to build a “contender club, good for the long haul”, as Kent Hughes trumpets it, what kind of analysis would we get?

Well, in their position, based on what they’ve inherited, I can’t think of many better ways to build such a club than to implement a modern defense worthy of a winning club.

A mobile, talented and tough defense that relies on all the right pieces in all the right places, a defense that would ultimately give them a competitive edge over 95% of other clubs on the blue line, starting with those in their division, a defense that could bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the Golden Knights, a club that had no scorers over 70 points last season…

So let’s project ourselves back in time just a little and imagine what the Tricolore’s defense will look like when its six main blue-line prospects reach maturity.

David Reinbacher: Hyper-versatile, possesses all the qualities to become the club’s #1 defenseman in a few years’ time and play 25 minutes a game if need be, playing in all phases of the game. Potential for around 50 points while being an octopus defensively.

Lane Hutson: Power-play specialist, expert in rebounding, puck control and puck-movement,4th forward on virtually every 5-on-5. Can play on a first pair with a slightly less offensive, defensively brilliant and stronger defenseman. Will have an immediate impact when he arrives with the club, which could be as early as next spring. Potential of 60-70 points.

Kaiden Guhle: Excellent2nd-pair defenseman, quite versatile, can surprise offensively with nice breakthroughs at the net and a devastating shot. Great 5-on-5 utility, rugged and future short-handed specialist. A difficult warrior to face, but must learn to stay away from the infirmary by better measuring his energies and choosing his battles. Potential of 30-35 points in such a role.

The good Kaien will have to learn to stay healthy, a challenge for him every season since he was drafted.
(Credit: screenshot)
Logan Mailloux: Very good second-pair offensive defenseman, nice toughness, but also needs to pick his battles better to stay healthy. Can play on the power play and must play with a partner who is smarter than him defensively at 5-on-5. Potential for 35-40 points in such a role.

Arber Xhekaj : Excellent third-pair defenseman. A warrior, the team’s protective big brother. Numerical disadvantage specialist, but can surprise with great offensive skills (shooting, skating, hands). Must continue to keep his game simple at 5-on-5 and pick his battles to stay healthy. Can play in the top-4 if needed, thanks to appreciable versatility. Potential for 25 points in such a role.

Justin Barron: Excellent third-pair defenseman, can contribute offensively and play in the top-4 if needed. Must continue to improve his defensive positioning and decision-making. Potential for 25-30 points in this role.

Imagine all the players on this defense in their prime a few years from now.

Do you see many teams with such a fine blue-line profile in the NHL over the next 3 to 10 years?

Do you, like me, see a defense with potential that’s a little out of the ordinary?

Of course, by not choosing Michkov, we’ve theoretically sacrificed some offense.

But, as the five most recent Stanley Cup winners (Capitals, Blues, Lighning, Avalanche and Golden Knights) vividly demonstrate, champion clubs are usually well-balanced between defense and offense.

With a few adjustments and additions up front in due course, I believe that this balance is quite attainable in Montreal in a few years’ time, especially if the defense participates in the offense as it has the potential to do.

After the addition of Pietrangelo, the Golden Knights re-evaluated their needs and eventually went for a Jack Eichel to give themselves a bit more bite on the attack.

All in good time.

A surplus? No problem!

I’ve chosen to focus only on the organization’s six young defensemen with the most potential. I’ve omitted several of them, and I haven’t even included veterans Matheson, currently in his prime, David Savard, still effective despite a loss of mobility over the years, and Edmundson, who was traded yesterday for 3rd and 7th round picks.

For one, last year’s Matheson, who finally burst onto the NHL scene with a projected 14 goals and 58 points over 82 games, will be worth a lot of money if he keeps playing like this!

Still under contract for three seasons and having just reached his peak at 29, Matheson could just as easily extend his stay with his boyhood club in a big-brother role, or be traded down the road for some big value up front.

Matheson was one of the NHL’s most underrated defensemen last year.
(Credit: Screenshot)
If we decide to keep him, we may be able to make one or more transactions with certain young players.

For example, if we like veteran Matheson’s presence in the lineup, we like his skating and above-average offense on a first or second pair, and we think Kaiden Guhle may be too risky injury-wise, he could be the next sacrifice a la Romanov before his value drops.

Or maybe it’ll be a more modest Harris, Struble, Xhekaj, Barron, Mailloux or Engstrom who leaves, but the return might not be as great.

No matter. You get the idea. As we saw again yesterday with the spectacular contract of Dimitri Orlov, just acquired at a high price by the Bruins during the season before signing in Carolina, good defensemen are worth a lot of money and the CH already has a surplus of them that it is just starting to monetize, as was the case with Romanov (eventually for Dach) and Edmundson.

So, don’t worry too much about the perceived lack of attacking talent. When the time comes to look for a top gun up front, Hughes will have some rare resources to offer defensively.

The rest of the draft?

Basically, we played darts with the goalkeepers, targeting three of them. Along with the right side of the defense, this was the other major organizational need to be filled. Jacob Fowler seems to have the potential and personality to play in Montreal, but that’s as far as we’re going to go for the time being.

As for the rest, nothing to write home about. We’ll no doubt know more about a few of them at the end of the development camp I’ll be attending on Tuesday.

We’ll be in touch soon!

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