By JD Lagrange – Since being named General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, Kent Hughes has been in the limelight. More than what he’s used to. He probably feels like he’s living the lyrics of an old song from The Police: “Every breath you take, and every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you!”
Right now, Hughes is still at the honeymoon stage of his relationship with Habs’ fans. Everything he does is applauded and praised, particularly by a portion of the fanbase who simply couldn’t wait to see the previous management gone. But here’s the reality: he has made some great decisions, yes, but he also has greatly benefited from that same previous management and their decisions… and getting credit for it.
He is able to focus on the GM duties only, since Geoff Molson made the correct decision by separating the V-P of Hockey Operations (giving it to Jeff Gorton) and the GM job into two distinct positions.
Here are some of the good moves that he’s make, on his own (or with the help of Jeff Gorton). These moves have nothing to do with Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins and he should get all of the credit, or shared with his V-P of Hockey Operations.
- Hiring Martin St-Louis came out of left field. A coach without any professional coaching experience would normally be frowned upon, but the fact and the matter remains that it seems to have paid off. He commends respect with what he has done on the ice. Time will tell but St-Louis appears to have the necessary qualities to be a successful bench boss at the NHL level.
- While the hiring of Chantal MaChabée as the V-P of Communications was Geoff Molson’s decision, Hughes (and Gorton) seems to be involving her in hockey decisions to a certain level. Chantal is well respected not only by fans, but by players who have had their dealings with the sometimes good, often bad Montreal media members.
- When it comes to on-ice trades or signings, trading Jeff Petry is Hughes’ biggest and most difficult move thus far. With half a season playing his worst hockey of his career, Petry bounced back under St-Louis, which helped his value. But seeing teams having to pay a hefty price to unload salary cap, Hughes did very well in getting Mike Matheson in return, a very suitable NHL defenseman. Further, he did not keep any of Petry’s salary in the trade. Job well done!
Then, there are some opportunistic moves. Those are decisions based on the situation that he has walked into, things that he knew about when taking the job. The fact that the Canadiens were amongst the worst teams in the NHL was a huge contributing factor, opening the door to some rare opportunities.
- We have known that Shea Weber’s career was all but over. Bergevin informed everyone after the Cinderella playoffs’ run. So trading his contract for cap space is likely something that any management would have done. Timing was such that the Vegas Golden Knights were desperate to find ways to get around their horrible cap situation and Hughes had to take Evgenii Dadonov and his $5 million contract. Still, although opportunistic, good job overall.
- Trading the pending UFAs at trade deadline and the value in return is directly related to the position of the team at trade deadline. A record-breaking amount of man-games lost to injuries and COVID, unhappy players, too little rest, were all factors making the decision to trade away the pending free agents a slam dunk.
- We’ve touched on this in the past, but if you compare the prospect pool that Bergevin inherited to the one Hughes got when he took the job, it’s night and day. The picks and prospects he inherited, due to the 2018 Reset, is as deep in both quality and quantity as I remember seeing in five decades as a fan. This speeds up the re-whatever-you-call-it process by adding instead of building a new prospect pool.
- He was handed the first overall pick. I’m not going to debate if choosing Juraj Slafkovsky was the right choice or not, as I was one hoping that he would pick the big Slovak. But it’s not only the first overall. It also means the first pick in each round. Fingers crossed that it wasn’t a lost opportunity but as a glass-full type of person, I’m hopeful.
Canadiens’ fans are lucky, particularly after a long time of conservative GMs. For a second time in a row, they have a General Manager who is not afraid of making moves, and taking hard decisions. Hughes has made a few decisions that we can qualify as “gutsy”.
- Trading Toffoli and Lehkonen were decisions that took a bit of nerve. Toffoli had great chemistry not only in the dressing room, but with young star Nick Suzuki. He was one of the team’s best offensive producer. Further, he has one year left to a very affordable contract. Lehkonen had been a fixture on the Canadiens, a defensive specimen, a leader who was loved by his teammates. He was scheduled to become a restricted free agent. But Hughes knew that it would have been difficult to pay him his worth.
- Another very bold time for the Canadiens’ GM was at the Draft. In Montreal, with a vast majority of fans wanting Shane Wright (some were sporting Wright t-shirts), he wasn’t phased by it and selected his guy, Juraj Slafkovsky. That in itself took a lot of nerves.
- But he wasn’t done… He then proceeded to trade Alexander Romanov, who was well liked by Canadiens’ fans. He added some draft picks and when the dust settled after two trades, he landed 21 year-old Kirby Dach, whose development has been slowed down by serious injuries. Basically, Hughes stole the show at the Draft in Montreal, at least in the first round.
- Other bold move was taking on Sean Monahan and his contract, just to get a first round draft pick. Even with the news of Carey Price being unable to start the season and the possibility of him not returning all year, the acquisition of Monahan, who had not one, but two hip surgeries and hasn’t been the shadow of himself, put the Canadiens right back against the cap, after being able to unload Petry. Time will tell how good that was.
True test coming
Those who thought that Hughes was coming in as Gorton’s puppet better think again. He is an excellent hockey mind who isn’t afraid of thinking outside the box. The hiring of St-Louis is a prime example, as is trading for Monahan. But the true test is coming.
For one thing, Hughes took a gamble at center by acquiring salary and not one, but two injury riddled players. Then, he has a few more hurdles ahead of him. What will happen to Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman? There is a huge gaping hole on the right side of the defense, a crater created by Weber’s situation but also by Petry’s departure. The goaltending situation with Price out of commission is a big question mark. And then, Cole Caufield’s contract will need to be renewed. No time to rest Kent. You have your work cut-out.