By Bob Trask – The stage was set for changes in the Montreal Canadiens organization shortly after the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs last summer.
Marc Bergevin’s contract extension was put on hold, Logan Mailloux was drafted, Phil Danault opted for free agency, Jesperi Kotkaniemi signed the infamous offer sheet from Carolina, Shea Weber went on the LTIR and Carey Price had surgery.
The disaster continued into training camp where Joel Edmundson injured his back and Carey Price opted into the player assistance program. All teams were dealing with Covid issues but it seemed to hit Montreal harder than most.
Before the first puck was dropped for the 2021-22 season the team was in disarray and it became an ongoing PR nightmare. Something had to be done.
To his credit Geoff Molson took a hard look at the structure of the entire organization and made some key decisions. He carefully made his way through the minefield of culture, language and hockey that exists in Montreal in a way that no other city in the league has to contend with. There was not going to be a band-aid solution.
Choosing a bright hockey man in Jeff Gorton (an anglophone) who could work behind the scenes but not be the face of the franchise was an astute move. His mandate was not only to improve the organizational structure but do it in a way that satisfied all parties. Yes, the Montreal Canadiens are domiciled in Quebec but they are a franchise with supporters around the entire globe.
As a vice-president with a solid knowledge of hockey Gorton lacked bilingual capabilities but in a move worthy of a chess master, Molson and Gorton tackled that problem, too.
The man chosen to fill the role of GM would be someone who could interface with both French-speaking and English-speaking media. But he also needed to be someone with skill, discipline and a vision for the future. In each of his press conferences, Kent Hughes has demonstrate that he has all of those qualities and he can deal with the media comfortably.
Factions of the fanbase had continued to clamour for the addition of Patrick Roy to the organization. If not vice-president then GM, if not GM then head coach. With the first two roles already filled, if Roy was not going to be head coach then it would have to be someone that few would have argument with.
Enter Martin St. Louis. He is green as grass when it comes to being an NHL head coach but that might be the only part of his pedigree that is lacking. Fortunately he has former teammate Luke Richardson to lean on when he gets his feet under him. His other attributes shone through in his introductory press conference. Every Habs’ fan should listen to it.
And let’s not forget Chantal Machabee. Information about the Canadiens will flow through her and we are already seeing subtle improvements. She is breath of fresh air and I hope that Molson, Gorton and company give her the freedom to continue to improve and expand that department.
A Change in Culture
In an interview on TSN690 Marc Denis put it bluntly.
It was his belief that far too many in the Canadiens’ upper management chose not to live in the city. How do you get the pulse of your fanbase if you are living in St. Louis, Phoenix, Ottawa or elsewhere. It was a somewhat disturbing revelation. The culprits included Scott Mellanby, Sean Burke, Trevor Timmins and others.
Denis considered them as “consultants” and while he said the use of such consultants was acceptable, he implied that such an approach was less than optimal. In his mind management needs to live and breathe the Montreal experience up close and personal.
Use consultants for one-off opinions or second opinions but put the day to day operations in the hands of a resident management team. It remains to be seen how this will unfold.
Behind the Scenes
Another thing many of us did not know was the structure of the organization when it came to the behind the scenes work being done. It was a revelation that the team literally had NO analytics department, a bare bones player development staff and an unknown quantity/quality at both the pro scouting and amateur scouting levels.
Who was on the ground in Europe, at the NCAA level, at the USHL level and at the CHL level. With no analytics department, prospects had to be evaluated on the eye test level only. The same applied to pro scouting. When analyzing their own team’s needs and the players available from others it is obvious that little or no analytics figured into the decisions.
It seems that the new approach will be to develop an analytics department that will work with the scouting staff so the best possible decisions can be made. One isn’t better than the other; scouting and analytics should complement each other.
The behind the scenes changes are as important has the high profile signings already made.
In retrospect it seems amazing that this organization accomplished what it did while having one hand tied behind their backs.
This past autumn Geoff Molson set the new agenda and has allowed his management team to carry the ball from there. He had obviously been thinking about it for a while.
Jeff Gorton has proven to be a man of his convictions but it is Kent Hughes who has knocked it out of the park during the first couple of press conferences. He has a crystal clear vision of what he wants to accomplish and how long it might take to get there. His interaction with the media has been superb. Now we have to wait on his player moves before making the final judgment
And now the addition of Martin St. Louis has added to some long term optimism for the team. In the short term, we all look forward some spirited play and some exciting hockey, win or lose. Of course there will be lots of struggles along the way but there seems to be a path forward.
The era of cryptic answers and lack of transparency seems to have come to an end and replaced with an attitude of openness and a mood of optimism.