When Montreal Canadiens President and CEO Geoff Molson announced the firing of Marc Bergevin in November of 2021, he indicated that the organization needed a fresh start with greater emphasis placed on player development. He acknowledged the team’s growing prospect pool and the need for them to become impact players in the NHL. The days of high draft picks ultimately becoming failed projects are over.
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In the year since that declaration, the Habs have revamped their player development department and are already seeing notable progression in many of their young players at every level. It’s an important step in the right direction with a long way still to go.
Rookies on Defence
The Canadiens have played much of this season with more rookies than veterans on defence. Kaiden Guhle has already established himself as a top-four mainstay on the blue line for years to come and he’s on the fast track to becoming Montreal’s best defenceman, if he isn’t already. The extra year he spent in junior with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL) in 2021-22 did wonders for his game. Meanwhile, Arber Xhekaj wasn’t even supposed to make the opening night roster and now he’s a fan favourite who has quickly made a name for himself because of the uniquely exciting brand of hockey he plays. Jordan Harris has been steady and doing so many little things well. Waiver pick-up Johnathan Kovacevic has fit in nicely and solidified the right side of the defensive group. These rookies were supposed to struggle yet, despite some growing pains, they have risen to the occasion in the face of adversity.
At forward, Kirby Dach has been somewhat of a revelation, and he has thrived under head coach Martin St. Louis, taking his game to a whole new level since being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks. The 21-year-old has already established new career highs in goals, assists, and points. Whether he plays at centre or on the wing, he’s proven that he makes his linemates better no matter who he plays with and his potential to eventually be a dominant force down the middle is obvious which makes him a key pillar of the Canadiens’ future core.
Support From Laval
The Habs’ rash of injuries has opened the door for some call-ups from the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League (AHL) for Justin Barron, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Anthony Richard, and Jesse Ylönen. All four players are on the cusp of finding a permanent NHL chair and have shown more consistency along with noticeable flashes of their abilities.
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Barron and Harvey-Pinard have especially stood out given the considerable impact they have had in most of the games they’ve played for Montreal. After being a surprising cut from training camp, Barron has renewed his confidence which has allowed him to play with more poise and make better, quicker decisions with the puck. Against his brother Morgan and the Winnipeg Jets a few weeks ago, the defenceman put up two assists and was named the first star of the game. As for Harvey-Pinard, his hard-nosed style makes him perfectly suited for a bottom-six NHL role, not to mention that he now has something else in common with Brendan Gallagher beyond the way he plays.
St. Louis has made a point to commend Jean-François Houle and the Rocket coaching staff for having their players ready to step in when called upon because they have instilled NHL habits, words that managers of a rebuilding team want to hear.
It seems that Habs’ prospects are being singled out every week for their standout performances with their respective teams. Lane Hutson, Sean Farrell, Owen Beck, who did not look at all out of place during his surprise NHL debut on Jan. 28 against the Ottawa Senators, Joshua Roy, Emil Heineman, Oliver Kapanen, and the list goes on.
Sure, Juraj Slafkovsky’s rookie season with the Canadiens was underwhelming, but it’s easy to forget that he’s only 18 and it’s going to take some time for him to reach the height of his powers. The 39 games of NHL experience he gained this year will prove to be invaluable going forward. The key will be finding ways for him and Guhle to pursue their growth despite being injured to help make up for lost time, something the Habs are better equipped to accomplish now than in the past.
It’s no secret that player development cannot be a one size fits all exercise and each player will carve their own path. The fact that the Habs are seeing positive early returns from their refreshed, more modern approach bodes well for the future of a storied franchise that is trying to reinvent itself while also striving to regain the same sustained success and perennial contender status that characterized so many eras of Montreal Canadiens hockey.