Choosing a Path for Mattias Norlinder

Segue Issue 21-01

September 20, 2021

Trying something new here that I’m calling Segue. In music or storytelling, a segue is an uninterrupted transition from one piece of music or scene to another. Like many of you, I read a ton of Habs material. Sometimes one point from an article grabs my attention, and in Segue I’ll zoom in on that one point.   

For my first go at this, I’ve selected a September 16th article from Sportsnet’s Eric Engels where he provided an update from rookie camp regarding a young Swede. Mattias Norlinder is in Montreal and impressing.

You can read the original article from Engels here:

Engels provides a great breakdown of Norlinder’s skill set, what he has already accomplished in Europe, and what coaches are saying about him. He also references the shallow pool of right side defencemen, and how that might give Norlinder the edge. Norlinder is, of course, a left shot defenceman who can play both sides. The question that arises for me is the measure of readiness.

Fresh off the Jesperi Kotkaniemi debacle, fans are a little skittish about rushing young players to the NHL.

After losing Kotkaniemi this summer – he who was rushed to the NHL at 18 and would have benefited from development time in Finland and away from the MTL spotlight – the Habs have to be approaching Norlinder and other promising prospects more cautiously.

We all remember Gord Miller’s insistence that Kotkaniemi should return to Finland – I agreed with him at the time and have waffled a dozen times since. The argument from opposers was that the kid won his spot. Yes, he did. In high school I won the silver medal for the 1200-meter track race. There were two of us competing.

That example is not a knock on Kotkaniemi. He impressed in camp. But the willingness to keep him in Montreal was directly related to GM Marc Bergevin’s inability to acquire another centreman to serve as a placeholder for two or three years. Kotkaniemi won a race with few competitors at the time.

The Habs are now in a similar position on right side defence. The lack of depth there has been obvious for years, but some were certain Weber would have a Chara-like career and play until he was eligible for a federal pension. That hope took a hard hit this summer, and now Norlinder’s chances of making the team may be higher based on his ability to play that side. For me, the question is not whether the hole is big enough, but whether the prospect has sufficiently developed in the necessary areas to genuinely compete in the NHL.

This time around the Habs have placeholders. This year will be a transition year for the Canadiens and they have placeholders. Brett Kulak is still on the roster. Chris Wideman has been added. It doesn’t matter about the placeholders if the coaching staff believe Norlinder can be added and truly make a difference in the top six. But if he cannot, I’m not convinced Norlinder should stay just because of weakness at the position.

Fans and pundits will point out that Kotkaniemi had a strong rookie season.

Gord Miller took a lot of lip from fans during Kotkaniemi’s rookie year, where he performed well. But then came the sophomore year, when young players often have a setback. Other teams know more about them, new expectations are set, and sophomores sometimes hit a bit of a wall. The challenge for sophomores is the adjustment.

Kotkaniemi’s second year in the league was further complicated by a series of injuries. Limping along in your sophomore year is typical. Doing it as a 19-year-old under the bright lights of Montreal is something else altogether. His third year was better, but at the end of the day Kotkaniemi is no longer a member of the Montreal Canadiens because somewhere along the way a shift happened such that another team valued his potential more than the team that drafted him. Gord Miller is probably feeling vindicated.

Norlinder is 21 – three years older than Kotkaniemi was when he joined the Habs. He has had the experience of playing with men. While he didn’t dominate against men in Sweden, he did perform well. There is much angst about the development of prospects in the Montreal system, but Norlinder has already had a better developmental pathway than some other prospects that have gone off the rails.

Norlinder’s confidence is high, and by all accounts he is determined to earn a spot. He has acknowledged the work he needs to do in his defensive game, but I found myself wondering if he had any clue what he was in for.

I remain skeptical about the Habs ability to embrace a pure offensive talent in the defence position.

If Norlinder is a fit for the Habs in the 2021-22 season, it will be because he fills both a new hole on the right side as well as a hole that has existed for years. The Habs are in desperate need of a puck moving defenceman who can contribute to the offence and quarterback the power play. As much as this is what the Habs need, this is a team that loves its stay-at-home D.

Three summers in a row Bergevin has signed a defenceman with limited offensive ability. He loves a big body that stays close to his own net and protects the goalie. Limitations of this line of thinking aside, this is not exactly Norlinder’s profile. His strengths are offensive.

The scouting report is that Norlinder still has work to do on his defensive coverage. Defensive coverage is something that has traditionally been a bit of an obsession for this coaching staff. Perhaps the work that Norlinder needs to do would be best done in Sweden – away from the bright lights of Montreal. I’m not sure it serves anyone well to bring in an offensive weapon only to obsess on fixing his defensive game and potentially bench him for every defensive gaffe.

Three years later, the coaching situation in Montreal has changed considerably.

As strong as Claude Julien’s coaching pedigree was, many questioned whether he was the ideal coach to lead a team through a rebuild/reset. For kids there are so many adjustments, and so many things to learn. When the coach sees benching and scratching as core teaching instruments, that can be rough on a young player.

In many ways, Dominique Ducharme is still an unknown. It’s hard to knock a guy who led the team to the Stanley Cup Final, but he did so with two important kids sitting in the press box intermittently. But let’s face it. There was a turning point in the playoffs when the focus for the Habs shifted from team developmental run to legitimate Cup run. We may disagree on who the best players were to get them there, but the coach was icing who he felt gave the team the best chance to win.

Ducharme gets the chance to hold training camp this year. He has coaches he selected and some players who were key fixtures under Julien are no longer around. This is Dom’s time to make this team his. That may or may not mean different opportunities for kids and less punitive responses when they fail. The fit between this coach and a young team is still to be determined, but it seems fair to say that judging him based on decisions in crucial playoff games is unfair.

If it were my call, I’d play the long game where Norlinder is concerned.

Norlinder may be the plug for the gaping hole in the Habs defence group that has existed since the departure of Andrei Markov. He may help fill the gap on the right side with Weber out. But it won’t matter if he is rushed before he’s ready to do it and it ends with him watching from the bench or press box instead of logging valuable developmental ice time.

Another factor I’m considering is Alexander Romanov. The Habs already have a young defenceman that had not developed enough to be trusted to play for most of the playoffs. Romanov is still very much in their plans and is obviously still in developmental mode. A risk averse team like the Habs are probably not suited to having one-third of their D group in development.

My call would be to let Norlinder work on his defensive game in Sweden, and at 22 he’ll be even readier for the rigours of playing in Montreal. The Habs already have a long list of guys that we wonder about whether things could have been different with a better developmental path. All will be better served if Mattias Norlinder is never added to that list.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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