Habs fans

Dear Habs fans: Chill the fuck out

“No matter who’s in charge, no matter which kid we draft, no matter who gets traded for whom, Habs fans will nitpick and moan at every opportunity. Same script, different cast. We crave players drafted by other clubs, but if we HAD drafted them, we’d find ways to slander them, too.”

Whenever I see David Reinbacher’s name trending on Twitter, I always brace for another onslaught of negativity.

That’s especially the case when Matvei Michkov’s name is trending alongside it. The Montreal Canadiens selecting Reinbacher ahead of Michkov — the latter considered a generational goal-scoring talent — fifth overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft drew swift and vicious backlash from many fans, the level of which was jaw-dropping even for a fanbase notorious for its Star Wars/Rick and Morty levels of toxicity when the team isn’t winning.

Naturally, the debate continues over whether GM Kent Hughes, head amateur scout Nick Bobrov, president of hockey ops Jeff Gorton and co made the right decision. A recent article (in French) on Hockey30 critical of Reinbacher has also picked up steam.

In it, writer David Garel brands Reinbacher as the “sixth-best defenseman” in the 2023 draft, comparing his start to the season unfavourably to those of Dmitri Simashev (picked immediately after Reinbacher at sixth by Arizona), Axel Sandin-Pellikka (17th by Detroit), Tanner Molendyk (24th by Nashville), Hunter Brzustewicz (75th by Vancouver) and Luca Cagnoni (123rd by San Jose).

Garel then aired his grievances with the Canadiens organization for not taking a talented forward fifth overall when good defensive options could’ve been had later in the draft.

He did all of this without examining areas of the game in which those players he cherry-picked may be weaker than Reinbacher. At best, it’s a myopic, big-brained way of evaluating the pick, putting too much stock into those players’ recent runs of form when development curves are almost never linear.

The piece ends with Garel saying passing on Michkov for Reinbacher is “a historic error that will follow us for a long time… a very long time…”

Sure, Jan.

This isn’t unlike fans complaining about selecting Reinbacher over offensive talent when the 2024 draft is full of top defensive prospects. But too many variables can change from one year to the next, so making draft decisions based on who might be at the top next year isn’t as proactive as some might think.

It’s not just people harbouring a grudge over Michkov (drafted seventh by the Philadelphia Flyers), though. Reinbacher’s start to the Swiss National League season for HC Kloten hasn’t been ideal. The young Austrian blueliner has just three points in nine games (his lone goal being an empty netter) to start his season in Switzerland, despite good underlying numbers. He’s missed seven of Kloten’s games this season due to injury.

Many Habs fans are hitting the panic button hard with Reinbacher before he’s even played an NHL regular season game, since he’s not exactly setting his league alight. This is compounded by Michkov playing at close to a point-per-game pace in the KHL, despite being loaned to HK Sochi by his parent club, SKA St. Petersburg.

Michkov’s KHL contract runs through 2026 and whoever drafted him would have relatively minimal control over his development, both reasons why teams felt queasy about drafting him. There have also been character concerns with Michkov, though Habs fans seem quick to dismiss these as lazy media-perpetuated stereotypes of Russian players.

Whether because of Michkov’s performances — or those of Zach Benson (drafted 13th by Buffalo), who recently scored a delicious through-the-legs goal for the first of his NHL career — or Reinbacher’s own, many loud and opinionated Habs fans take to social media to voice their righteous indignation whenever a player we didn’t pick performs well.

When our first-round pick’s development curve isn’t absolutely perfect, the pitchforks come out. Every day Reinbacher doesn’t have a great game and Michkov and Benson showcase their offensive prowess, the pressure builds. Clearly, Reinbacher’s margin for error with these fans is razor-thin.

Juraj Slafkovsky’s sophomore NHL season is also drawing plenty of chatter, both good and bad. A lot of it, though, has been bad.

Take this tweet from Czech hockey data chart account Andy & Rono, who’ve expressed concerns about the 19-year-old becoming the worst first-overall pick since Nail Yakupov in 2012. So-called experts of the game have already written Slafkovsky off as a first-overall mistake, including ESPN’s John Buccigross (who thinks Hughes should be fired for it) and Szymon Szemberg, managing director of the Alliance of European Hockey Clubs.

The latter’s tweet thread lambasting the Habs for their handling of Slafkovsky’s development was liked and retweeted by TSN’s Gord Miller and Craig Button. Yes, the same Craig Button who hasn’t been an NHL GM in two decades and claimed the Habs wouldn’t win a single game in their first-round series against the Leafs in 2021.

Joining the pile-on were the Arizona Coyotes, they of the 5,000-seat college arena and perpetual threat of relocation. They tweeted that stupid Vince McMahon meme to dunk on the Canadiens for picking Slafkovsky over Logan Cooley, who scored against us that night. The Coyotes’ head coach, André Tourigny, also made pre-game comments that could be interpreted as thinly veiled shots at the Canadiens’ handling of Slafkovsky’s development.

Yes, he was a first-overall draft pick, and that carries significant weight. And sure, Cooley’s career in Arizona is off to a great start and the kid looks like a star in the making. But Slafkovsky’s taken all kinds of unnecessary heat, including a Twitter thread sharing every time he was caught with his head down during his rookie season — as if that’s a cardinal sin even as a teenager adjusting to the North American game and learning to use his body at the highest level.

It feels like some fans are actively rooting for the big, bulky Slovak to fail just so they can stick it to Nick Bobrov and his scouting team. At least some outlets, like HFTV (formerly Habs Fan TV, whom we’ve done a feature on) and EliteProspects, have been trying to shift the narrative surrounding him. Slafkovsky’s linemates — namely Josh Anderson — haven’t done him many favours thus far. And yet, fans seem content to label him a scapegoat, clamouring to see him sent down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

Shortly after the discourse was at its most insufferable, Slafkovsky scored his first goal of the season in a 6–3 loss to the St. Louis Blues. He’s shown visible strides and flashes of true brilliance in his play since then, despite some labelling him as “Slafbustky”.

Frankly, he missed an opportunity to shush the haters during his celebration, even if he says he doesn’t pay attention to outside noise.

There’s a reason I muted Reinbacher and Slafkovsky’s names shortly after their respective draft days. Whether you’re on Twitter (no, I’m NOT calling it by Elon’s shitass name), or HFBoards, or CapFriendly’s Armchair GM, or r/Habs on Reddit, or any other Habs-related hellsite, you see such noxious discourse about both players that you feel like you need a hazmat suit.

Whenever Reinbacher makes one defensive mistake, vultures start circling, because that’s just classic Montreal. A viral tweet from MTLCanadiensTalk (@talk_canadiens) shows a clip of Reinbacher struggling to keep up on a play that led to a goal against. Because that could never happen to Michkov or to any of the six defensemen Garel named in his piece, right?

I’ve also shared takes from Habs fans going as far as to say Bobrov and his “fraudulent” scouting staff should be arrested (despite committing no known crime), as well as this chestnut from @NHLInsider67 saying the Habs would be a “way better team” if they replaced their scouts with Twitter armchair GMs.

L O L. Fuck outta here with that shit.

The hubris and self-congratulatory nature — not to mention entitlement — of our fanbase is truly staggering, as much as I can empathize with feeling upset about recent first-round picks. But Reinbacher still has top-pairing NHL upside, and especially if he can continue the chemistry he showed at rookie camp with Lane Hutson.

As if it wasn’t inexcusable enough to personally attack Reinbacher post-draft and compare him to Hitler based simply on his Austrian nationality, the poor kid is arguably being set up to fail in this market. And if Habs fans REALLY want to see Reinbacher’s career come anywhere close to Michkov’s, that must change, and fast.

The pick’s fallout even caught Habs brass by surprise, as Arpon Basu reported post-draft in The Athletic. This, of course, spawned tweet threads from fans gaslighting management for that shocked reaction, with others angrily taking offence to the idea that the fans could POSSIBLY be in the wrong.

Sure, we all watch tape, read scouting reports, peruse pre-draft rankings. We want to know what we have to look forward to as fans, especially when our team is shitting the bed. But to lash out at kids just trying to live their NHL dream is disgraceful. You also likely didn’t follow these kids’ pre-draft year trajectories, or meet them personally, or talk to their coaches, or have any insight beyond what you’ve read on the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong: I wanted Michkov a lot more than Reinbacher, too. I even considered it a “fireable offence” if we drafted Reinbacher before it happened, and I own that and admit to being dramatic. But to say we drafted Ben Chiarot over Nikita Kucherov is some truly histrionic bullshit, as if Michkov’s development curve is completely and incontrovertibly foolproof.

Similarly, let’s not pretend as if we egregiously passed on Brady Tkachuk in favour of Jesperi Kotkaniemi in 2018, when the majority of us wanted Filip Zadina. People were also not pumping Cooley’s tires before we drafted Slafkovsky — they (and I) were pumping Shane Wright’s. Stop moving the fucking goalposts based on who wound up having the better NHL career in hindsight. That does not make you an amateur scouting visionary, it makes you a revisionist historian over opinions you probably didn’t have when those selections were made.

In a way, I get it. How we handled Kotkaniemi’s development, as well as Alex Galchenyuk’s before him, is hugely regrettable. But times have changed and there’s a new regime in town with a much greater emphasis on development than either Galchenyuk — who Michel Therrien inexplicably never wanted to play at centre — or Kotkaniemi had. 

Hell, I was annoyed in 2020 when we picked Kaiden Guhle. Instead of Guhle, who felt like the unsexiest pick we could’ve made in that first round, I wanted Jacob Perreault. Not only because his dad is former Habs faceoff maestro Yanic, but also because he had the profile of a dynamic offensive forward, something fans have been screaming for for decades.

Fast forward three years, and it’s not even close. Guhle looks poised to be a top-pairing blueliner, while Perreault — drafted 27th that night by the Anaheim Ducks — has only played one NHL game to date with four seasons in the AHL, though he still has time to develop.

Scouting teams can and do make baffling decisions on draft day that look even worse in retrospect, and fans are (understandably) concerned after Bobrov’s past draft tendencies (*cough* Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov *cough*).

But calling Slafkovsky and Reinbacher busts before their careers even have a chance to take flight serves no good purpose, only feeding the egos of armchair GMs — perhaps as respite from their own self-loathing — who’ve convinced themselves they know better than those in charge.

How is this in any way productive, helpful or healthy? Why put so much energy into something that actively makes you miserable and is ultimately beyond your control? Amateur scouting is very much not an exact science, as much as some try to make it into one using advanced statistical figures like NHLe.

And sure, many NHL scouts are hired thanks to nepotism, their history as former NHL players and/or how well-connected they are within the league’s fraternity. I want scouts at websites like EliteProspects and Dobber Prospects to be hired by NHL clubs just to see if they’d be better or worse for it. Some of these scouts have gotten defensive and mouthy after criticizing the Reinbacher pick, with one even saying the Austrian will never win a Norris Trophy.

We’re all guilty of reacting emotionally to this team’s perceived missteps — I know I am. But it genuinely feels like Habs fans’ favourite pastime is complaining online. Get a load of this tweet from @Evil_JF dismissing Cole Caufield — easily our most talented scorer despite only six goals to start the year — as “a smaller Michael Ryder with a better shot.” Yeesh!

Even Martin St. Louis is taking heat from fans, despite us being nowhere close to contention any time soon regardless of who’s behind the bench. As Marco D’Amico pointed out recently, fans can’t decide if they even WANT a top draft pick, since they figure we’ll just fuck it up anyway.

Again, why invest that energy into something making you viscerally unhappy? What do you stand to gain? Who is that serving? Why not reinvest it into hobbies and interests that actually make you feel good? Are you just being an obnoxious hot take merchant for engagement, or do you genuinely believe how you’re talking about these kids is productive?

The worst part is, this is how the Habs fanbase has been for decades, as if putting our players in a hypercritical fishbowl is passed down from older generations as some hereditary badge of honour.

Drafting in round one has been a problem for this team longer than any Habs fan would like to admit. It’s valid to have unwanted flashbacks after a full decade of Marc Bergevin and his utter lack of emphasis on player development, and two decades of Trevor Timmins running the team’s amateur scouting.

But let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by killing Slafkovsky or Reinbacher’s confidence before their careers can take off. They’re literally teenagers. Sure, criticism is part and parcel of being an NHLer, but exposure to constant public vitriol will wear on even the most stoic and emotionally hardened among us.

Reinbacher also just came off a knee injury, and is playing for a subpar team in Switzerland who just fired their coach — though some argue that’s a reason we should’ve taken Michkov, as it’s another developmental factor the Habs can’t control. But instead of being grateful for the great prospects we DO have (Lane Hutson, Joshua Roy et al), we’d rather whine about not drafting the players WE personally wanted.

And if Reinbacher made a mistake during a game, so what? Developmental windows are the best times for mistakes to be made, and that should very much be kept in mind when Reinbacher comes over to North America as early as next season.

We always seem to covet what other teams have, and also can’t seem to be grateful for guys like Nick Suzuki or Cole Caufield, the kind of offensive players we sorely lacked in the early 2010s when our top centre was David Desharnais. Instead, you’ll see people picking apart aspects of Suzuki and Caufield’s games, too.

No matter who’s in charge, no matter which kid we draft, no matter who gets traded for whom, Habs fans will nitpick and moan at every opportunity. Same script, different cast. We crave players drafted by other clubs, all while failing to acknowledge that if we HAD drafted them, we’d find ways to slander them, too. Grant McCagg, divisive as he may be to some, was also right on target with this take.

Some fans will take exception to being called out like this, and that’s fine. But players are only as good as their most recent run of form in Montreal, and teenagers are no exception. And that has always bothered me — especially when they flourish elsewhere, given Kotkaniemi’s excellent season thus far with the Carolina Hurricanes (albeit while playing with a much stronger supporting cast).

Too many people also see our players as little more than pawns on a chessboard, and that sits poorly with me on a human level (see the discourse about whether we lost the Kirby Dach trade after his season-ending ACL and MCL tear).

Between Adam Nicholas and various other coaches and resources, player development is much more important than in the Bergevin years. We’re also not going to see that bear fruit for a while. Rebuilds are always a process, and many Habs fans have shown they’re not ready to see that play out. That’s precisely why rebuilds were put off for such a long time in Montreal, as there was a belief fans just couldn’t handle it. Some are proving them right, though others argue fans are more ready for a rebuild than management is.

The Montreal market is as intense as they come, but does it HAVE to be so suffocating for people as young as Juraj Slafkovsky or David Reinbacher? If you’d gotten that kind of public vitriol at their age for no other reason than not being the hockey player people wanted on their team, I can almost guarantee it would’ve broken you.

If we’re still having these conversations in a few years’ time, I’ll revisit what I’ve written here. But I hope for nothing more than for our Twitter-fingered “fans” to eventually eat a Michelin-star gourmet dinner of the juiciest, most delicious crow one can find, with David Reinbacher as the cook and Juraj Slafkovsky as their waiter. ■

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