By JD Lagrange – There is no doubt, fans and media are still in the honeymoon stage when it comes to the team’s new management group and coaching staff. While you are slowly starting to notice some divergence of opinion, no one dares saying things against them, or at least not too vehemently. And guess what? It’s a good thing. They deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.
We’ve written about it before, this management team is not much different from the previous one, even though many will deny it until they’re blue in the face. How dare give any credit to Marc Bergevin and his gang, right? Well, at least two hockey men do dare doing so and some will be surprised who they are.
Jeff Gorton, while not going into much detail, has stated in more than one occasion that the Canadiens, last season, had the perfect storm against them. While staying short of exonerating his predecessors of any wrong doing, he recognized that the shortened seasons, the long playoffs’ run, the short off-seasons and injuries to key players have all contributed to painting a picture of the organization that wasn’t as bleak as it would seem to be, in spite of the lack of on-ice results.
Another man in the organization refuses to throw stones at his predecessor and that’s the Canadiens’ second man in command for hockey decision, General Manager Kent Hughes. In a recent interview with team Ambassador Chris Nilan on his The Raw Knuckles Podcast, Hughes spent 90 minutes talking hockey with the former Canadiens’ tough guy. When talking about drafting and player development, he was grateful of some of the moves made by Bergevin, Timmins and their scouting staff, many of whom are still employed by the Canadiens.
“In fairness to him [Bergevin], some of the young players, I’d love to take credit for them”, humbly said Hughes. “We [Gorton and Hughes] didn’t bring Guhle here. A lot of the scouts that are on our staff were part of that scouting staff, Trevor [Timmins] was the head guy.”
Referring to the reset started in the summer of 2018, when team President Geoff Molson approved his then GM’s plan of replenishing the prospects’ cupboards, taking the time to develop their own, Hughes recognized that those players are just starting to point themselves to the team.
“I think there was a nucleolus of good young players that were about to come and I think that the benefit that we had is you come in, maybe Montreal as a City, the fan base was a little bit more ready that it’s ever been before to potentially take a step backwards in order to take a step forward”, he added.
Much like Gorton had done, he acknowledged that the timing was right for the new management to be able to do what they are doing right now. The combination of that “perfect storm” against the team and the resulting fans (and media) readiness to be a bit more patient has allowed them time to lower expectations as they are getting younger, with crowds not expecting immediate results.
With that being said, it doesn’t mean that Hughes agrees with fans and some media members when it comes to throwing games, losing on purpose or “tanking” as some call it. In fact, he (and Nilan in the interview) are completely against it.
“I hear a lot of chatter that we’re going too fast, we need to get the number one pick for Connor Bedard”, continued Hughes. “It’s funny, Jeff [Gorton] said Hockey Gods last year, I feel like if you were intentionally tanking, the Hockey Gods you would make sure you didn’t have the first pick. And [by not tanking] good Karma, we ended up getting it last season.”
The next part, I found very interesting. The drafting is similar. The concept of keeping their top rounds picks – even piling them up – is similar to what has been done since 2018. The biggest difference between the two management groups, however, has been the emphasis on player development. Bergevin did make important changes in 2018, firing Sylvain Lefebvre as coach of their AHL affiliate, an overdue move, in my opinion. He also revamped the scouting and hired former players to help with development of young prospects.
But what this current group is doing is well beyond what has been done in the past. Hughes and Gorton have put together a network of people to help develop not only their prospects, but their current players.
“I think as a bigger piece to me in terms of this year is we have these young players”, said Hughes. “Their development is critical and I think probably the biggest shift we’re trying to bring here is the focus on development.”
While true, it goes beyond that. Everyone is benefiting from the new philosophy and that is refreshing to see.
“Developing hockey players and that’s not limited to young hockey players”, explained the Canadiens’ GM. “We’re working with Josh Anderson on parts of his game. You hear Marty talk about Gally [Gallagher] modifying his game.”
Even he, as the General Manager, is involved in the player development.
“When I’m watching games, if I see something player-wise, I’m texting Adam Nicholas and say hey, so-and-so, we gotta try to work with him on this”, he added.
The Gorton/Hughes duo is not messing around with player development. They know that between Bergevin and their own drafting, the prospects’ cupboards are full and the Canadiens currently have 11 more picks at the upcoming 2023 NHL Draft. And that number will likely increase by trade deadline. They are investing more on player development than any other management group before them in Montreal.
“So you gotta coach a team but I also think you gotta coach players and Marty does that. And we’ve given him enough support around, both with the coaching group are all very good teachers. Trevor [Lestowski], Bur [Burrows], Robi [Robidas] are all really good”, claims Hughes. “And then we’ve got the staff around them and we’d like to continue. We’ve got Marie-Philip Poulin, you got Adam and you got Scott Pellerin and all these guys are on the ice. And we got our development guys like Ramer [Ramage] and Franky [Bouillon] and Nick Carrier that our out talking to guys every day with the prospects.”
It is refreshing to hear the Canadiens’ GM talk about development and fans should be excited about it. In retrospect, when analyzing Trevor Timmins’ work with the organization since 2003, one can definitely question how much of the issue was actually the players drafted, and how much was about the development aspect.
Developing more than prospects
“I guess we’re really focused on saying we’re going to draft these players, we’re going to bring them in the organization, we can’t assume they’re finished products and every player can continue to get better”, said Hughes.
Without being probed for additional information, the Montreal native volunteered a concrete example of the kind of development they’re doing with current NHL players.
“Like we’ve looked at Andy [Anderson] and said okay… Andy is pretty good of the rush but with his size and physique, we think he can be better at extending plays, protecting pucks and doing those types of things”, explained Hughes, confirming that one example is cycling the puck in the offensive zone. “Andy’s very fast. Even though he’s very big, my guess is Andy escaped with his feet a lot when he was young”, he added. “And when you have that escapability, you just escape all the time and you don’t learn that aspect of the game the same way. But then you get to the NHL, other than Connor McDavid and a couple of others, there aren’t many that escape.”
So while scouting and drafting is relatively similar, this management group has put a much more detailed and extensive plan in place to get the best return from not only the draft, but trades as well. We are seeing an example of that with Kirby Dach, whom Hughes still sees as a center down the line, by the way.
I want to close this article with one quote from Kent Hughes, responding to the slight controversy by the language police in Montreal, criticizing the quality of his French. It speaks to his mindset.
“I’m not the subject, I’m the object of that story.”
One could not put it in better words. Those who thought that he was hired to be Jeff Gorton’s puppet, better think again. This is a quality hockey man who knows what he’s doing, and he’s bringing a lot to this organization. The team is in good hands and the future is bright, both on and off the ice.