By JD Lagrange – Have you ever noticed how fans (and teams, to a point) often look at the last Stanley Cup winners to determine what it takes to build a winning team? It’s not a concept that’s recent, as it’s been a regular cycle for decades now.
In the 70’s, the Big Bad Bruins and the Broadstreet Bullies were terrorizing their opposition. That’s until the Flying Frenchmen came about, beating them with speed and making those teams pay for getting into the penalty box.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, the days of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek, everyone claimed that you could not win without a top notch goaltender. Then came the mid-90’s Detroit Red Wings who won with Chris Osgood in net. So much for that theory.
Then the story line became Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer… and the same people claimed that you couldn’t win without a true dominant defenseman able to play 30 minutes a game. And then came Sidney Crosby.
At that point (still somewhat holding true today), you needed a two-headed monster at the center position, like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Every team tried to load up on centers, good quality top-end centers.
But since the Tampa Bay Lightning were swept in four games by the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, a hard-working, grinding team, the Bolts added grit to their line-up and went on their winning way. I’ve been stating for a long time that the Toronto Maple Leafs were lacking grit, particularly their top players, and they can’t take the next step because of it even today.
So today, teams need gritty players who will pay the price and up their game for the playoffs. What will it be tomorrow?
Here’s the only true fact: there is no single solution to winning in the NHL. You can win with a top-end goalie. You can win with a top-end defenseman. You can win with quality centers and you can win with grit in your line-up. What it takes is a good team, good balance, good coaching but mostly, a group of players who believe they can win and are willing to do what it takes, to put themselves second, in order to achieve a team goal.
It is blatantly painful to read on social media how difficult it is to some to give credit (any credit) to Marc Bergevin during his time in Montreal. At times, the attack on the man are so personal that it feels like the guy slept with their wife or mother! Yet, what he and his right-hand man Trevor Timmins started with their Reset of 2018 is starting to pay off. And this new management group, led by Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes, has acknowledged that in more than one occasion. They are simply continuing what previous management has started, with a better focus on developing those young prospects better.
No matter whom you want to give credit to doesn’t change the fact that this Montreal Canadiens’ team has some great pieces to build around in order to become contenders in a not too far future. While some fans will mistakenly read too much in player comparisons, the intent when doing so isn’t to say that player A will become player B, but to give an idea of the style of a young player. Player A will be his own version of player A. Clear?
So here are some of the core players and prospects, and whom they remind me of.
NICK SUZUKI – Philip Danault was the first one to make the correlation with the Bruins’ player but to me, Suzuki is a mix between Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly. A great two-way center, a leader, the team captain who has learned that aspect of the game from one of the greatest leaders, Shea Weber, with whom he still consults from time to time. You win with guys like that.
COLE CAUFIELD – Don’t look too far for this one as to me, he is almost a spitting image of his current coach, Martin St-Louis. And the comparison goes beyond his smallish stature. He’s intelligent, has good speed, and he knows where the net is on the ice at all times. Better, he relates and understand his coach, and unlike Jesperi Kotkaniemi who thought he had it all figured out, Caufield is keen and willing to learn more each day.
JURAJ SLAFKOVSKY – When the Canadiens made him the very first pick at last year’s NHL Draft, it surprised fans and media members. But when you ask NHL executives, it wasn’t a shocker. Kent Hughes has said from day one that the big Slovak is a project and will need time to reach his full potential so they won’t get discouraged by one season. When I look at Slafkovsky, I think that he will be in the mold of Chris Kreider and in spite of the history with Habs’ fans (the Carey Price injury), who wouldn’t want a Kreider in their line-up?
KIRBY DACH – Dach has taken a big step last season with the Habs but what I like most about him, is his reply to a question at the end of the season. When asked if he had broken through, he acknowledged having taken a step forward but said that no, he hasn’t broken through yet. This tells me that he knows he can be better and will work towards it. Skills-wise, I see a potential to become like Mark Scheifele (with a better head on his shoulders).
KAIDEN GUHLE – I’ve said it when he was junior, I’ve said it since. I’ve watched a young Shea Weber play for the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL and I’ve seen a few games of Guhle, also in the same league and the similarities are astonishing. Guhle doesn’t have the shot or the physical toughness of Man Mountain, but he’s a better skater and stick handler than the Canadiens’ former captain. He is the type of guy you win with.
LOGAN MAILLOUX – Watching this kid play this year has been more than a pleasant surprise. Considering that the young man had only managed to play 31 games in the past two seasons combined, for him to be this dominant this past season is not only remarkable, it speaks of his immense talent. And doing this while being under everyone’s scrutiny makes it that much more impressive. From his size, skills’ set and style of play, he reminds me a lot of Brent Burns.
LANE HUTSON – Much has been written and said about Hutson since the Canadiens selected him at last year’s NHL Draft. He’s had an incredible season at all levels and the future is bright for the young man. He still has some maturing and developing to do n the NCAA next season but his skating abilities, his vision on the ice and his play in general has opened the eyes of many in the hockey world. Living in BC, I can see a lot of Quinn Hughes in him.
I haven’t watched enough of the follow players to be able to have an educated assessment of the following players, but they are showing great things:
- Riley Kidney
- Joshua Roy
- Owen Beck
- Sean Farrell
- Filip Mesar
- Adam Engstrom
- Emil Heineman
- Petteri Nurmi
So that’s who the Canadiens are building their team around. A mix of speed, character, talent, skating… With a coach like Martin St-Louis, who has so far done well in bringing up young talent, the future is indeed very bright for the Habs. And watch Hughes go at this year’s NHL Draft. Not only who he picks at number 5, but the trade(s) he will likely complete. He doesn’t want to wait another 2-3-4 years before becoming competitive. Something tells me that he will pull another Kirby Dach out of his hat…