By Bob Trask – A quick look at the Atlantic Division in the NHL reveals a huge gap between the top teams and the bottom teams. Florida and Toronto are 1-2 in the division with 104 points and 98 points respectively. Ottawa and Montreal bring currently up the rear with 58 and 51 points respectively. In between are Boston, Tampa, Detroit and Buffalo with point totals ranging from 93 in Boston down to 63 in Buffalo.
Overall the Atlantic Division has been one of the most imbalanced divisions in the NHL but the bottom teams may be on the cusp of changing that. And the team with the biggest hill to climb is the Montreal Canadiens.
A Team in Disarray
For much of the 2021-22 season the Canadiens have been a team in disarray. It began shortly after the run to the Stanley Cup Finals with Marc Bergevin announcing that Shea Weber’s career could be over. That was followed by the departure of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault, Carey Price entering the player assistance program and the pre-season back injury to Joel Edmundson. And the injuries continued to pile up.
But the atmosphere of upheaval was limited to the players. The general manager’s future was also in doubt as Marc Bergevin had not signed a contract renewal. And amidst this turmoil, rookie coach Dominic Ducharme looked out of his element and the team responded accordingly.
By February the bloom was off the rose with a few die-hard fans claiming the team was better than it showed and a trip the the Stanley Cup finals the previous spring was proof of that. But the playoff run was an outlier that few wanted to accept. When you look at the long term performance and take away the 17 games played in the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Habs record has varied from poor to mediocre for a long time.
The Catalyst for Change
In a way, the horrible start to the season gave Geoff Molson the currency he needed to make some long overdue changes.
We saw the tip of the iceberg when Logan Mailloux was drafted. Without commenting on his situation or any progress toward redemption he may have made, he asked to be withdrawn from the list of draft eligible players. Instead the decision to choose him made it more difficult for everyone by thrusting the Canadiens, Mailloux and most importantly his victim squarely into the limelight.
There were other issues that came to light – some obvious and some more obscure. The bungled Kotkaniemi situation was the obvious one. The lack of (and maybe disdain for) a modern analytics department was more obscure. The communications department could have been renamed the non-communications department as the management walked around tight-lipped and developed an almost toxic relationship with many members of the media.
The Montreal Canadiens were the Potemkin village of the NHL – behind the scenes all was not going well.
Change was needed in a lot of areas and the dramatic failings of the franchise both on and off the ice gave Molson all the justification he needed to go beyond a few cosmetic changes.
Challenges for Ownership
The Montreal Canadiens operate in a unique market and Geoff Molson has said many times that he wants to embrace that identity rather than fight it. He recognizes the demographic of the fan base and media as being neither solely English speaking or solely French speaking. It presents challenges other teams don’t face, and while his decisions won’t satisfy everyone he continues to address the concerns of all Habs followers.
The man tasked with putting Molson’s vision into place was Jeff Gorton, a man with a solid resume that ticked the boxes for putting together a modern organization – but while he didn’t speak French, Molson had a work around. The new GM who would be replacing Bergevin and work under Gorton would be French.
That was quickly followed the hiring of Chantal Machabee who would open up the communications department, re-focus it and make it more transparent. It was a move that was widely lauded in La Belle Province and beyond. The improvement was immediately obvious.
The next two hires were not only high profile, they were born in Quebec. Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis filled the roles of general manager and coach.
While many bemoaned the fact that the Canadiens were working at a disadvantage when staffing their management and coaching roles because of the need to be bilingual, that myth was quickly put to rest. The Canadiens rose to the challenge and knocked it out of the park with these four individuals.
Now, they must re-sign St. Louis.
Behind the Scenes
The scouting department, the player development department, the analytics department and the special advisors don’t grab the headlines that a general manager and coach do, but their contribution is vital to a team’s success.
Vincent Lecavalier as a special advisor is a high profile name but Nikolai Bobrov who has been hired a co-director of amateur scouting is not. Bobrov should help to improve the scouting situation in Europe for the Canadiens.
Other names will be added in various roles to provide Montreal with its most comprehensive organizational structure to date. We may have to scrounge innocuous news releases and rely on other sources to keep track of everything that is happening but with social media word of change seems to get out quickly.
And from the sound of it, there will be a lot of open and free dialogue as communication between the various department is encouraged.
The Vision for the Future
With the management team in place and a new head coach behind the bench, the foundation has been laid on which the Canadiens can build for the future.
What has become obvious is that from Geoff Molson on down through Martin St Louis, the organization has a shared vision for the on-ice product. Naturally there will be discussions and disagreements on individual players and their roles but everyone seems to be striving to build a dynamic, up-tempo team that will be exciting to watch.
The entire group has also displayed a confidence in youth that has been absent for years. It is a welcome change to the approach that favoured plugging holes with veterans near the end of their careers.
In the end it comes down the players and we can expect to see trend where the team focuses on players whose skill sets fit with the vision for the team.
The first evidence of this can be seen in the Habs first two waiver claims under the new management team. Both Kale Clague and Rem Pitlick are good skating, offensive oriented players who were added to the roster in late December and early January. It’s too early to tell what their future with the team will be but we can see the type of player that the Habs will target.
More evidence can be seen in some of the early trade acquisitions. Emil Heineman, Ty Smilanic and Justin Barron are all considered to be superior skater. Again, their future with the team is not guaranteed but once again we see the type of player favoured.
With the addition of Justin Barron and Jordan Harris, team speed – particularly on the back end – has already improved. Expect that trend to continue.
The other trait that Kent Hughes has focused on is desire. Not necessarily the desire to play but more specifically the desire to play in Montreal. Hughes very candidly announced that the Canadiens would make every effort to accommodate Jeff Petry and trade him before next season. It’s obvious that an attempt will be made to minimize transactions.
With a sound management team supported by a comprehensive organizational structure along with an effective coaching staff, the Canadiens seem to be on the right track. The future looks clearer and brighter than it has in a while. Improved transparency provided by a modern, efficient communications department is getting that message across.
The one thing we need to remember has Habs fans is that success rarely comes overnight. Vaulting from last place in the division into a playoff berth is a huge jump particularly when teams like Buffalo and Ottawa have also added key pieces near the season’s end.
We can expect significant improvement next year but not necessarily a playoff spot. Pining for a 1st overall pick is a wish and hope strategy. If one of those fall into the Habs lap this year or next that is a bonus but it isn’t how successful teams are built.
Patience will be the key with steady improvements over the next couple of years. That should be when all the planning and work pays big dividends as many of the key young players reach the beginning of their peak production years.
Optimistically speaking, we can look forward to an improving team that will be consistently competitive for a number of years.
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