Canadiens Focus on Development, Not Wins in 2022-23

Lowered Expectations is not just a MAD TV sketch. It is what fans of the Montreal Canadiens will need to live with this season as general manager (GM) Kent Hughes continues to rebuild the franchise. That is asking a lot of a fan base that saw their team finish 32nd in the league and select first overall at the draft for the first time in 42 years.

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Every offseason breeds hope for the upcoming season. However, that hope needs to be tempered as the success the franchise will be looking for will not be in the standings but in how thy continue to develop its culture and young prospects.

Canadiens’ On-Ice Expectations

In the first half of last season, the Canadiens suffered the worst statistical performance in franchise history, with an 8-30-7 record under former head coach Dominique Ducharme. The players seemed to have given up, losing several games by five goals or more. Then Hughes went outside the box and hired Martin St. Louis. In the 37 games with him behind the bench, the team improved to a 14-19-4 record.

Under St. Louis, the improvement was not a mirage. The players had newfound motivation and started playing with pride. Their special teams improved, the younger players found the confidence to play more offensively, and the team made great strides, finishing with a big win and a standing ovation to end the season, despite being in the NHL’s cellar.

Martin St. Louis Montreal Canadiens
Martin St. Louis, Montreal Canadiens head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For the 2022-23 season, expectations shouldn’t be high. With a focus on player development, the team’s overall record will suffer, which is all part of the long-term plan:

“I don’t like to lose, but do I want to win in the short-term mindset goal, so to speak, at the price of not developing the young guys that are going to help you win for years? No. I don’t want to risk that. I want to have the young guys, the prospects, the players that are here now reach their full potential.”

– Martin St. Louis (from “Canadiens St. Louis places focus on winning, development,” Montreal Gazette, 1 June 2022)

Last season’s .434 points percentage should give fans a reference point. Development is the main goal, and that will be helped by being competitive. Fans should expect for St. Louis to get the team to play exciting, up-tempo hockey that keeps the games close, even against the league’s top teams. The Canadiens will likely be looking at another losing record, winning perhaps as many as 31 to 33 games to land in the bottom 10 in the standings by the end of the campaign.

Canadiens’ Off-Ice Expectations

Management seems to agree with that assessment as they hired more people in the scouting department. To help in their draft decision-making process, Hughes hired an independent scouting group named Team 33. Adding an outside opinion is one way of supporting their staff and adding another perspective. The continued additions to the analytics staff will also have far-reaching effects as an essential tool for both scouting and building individual development plans for the coaching staff to implement.

While adding a former NHL defenceman can help motivate a struggling blue line and even inject new ideas that could turn a weak penalty-killing (PK) unit around, the addition of Stephane Robidas has more to do with player development. Hiring the former Toronto Maple Leafs’ director of player development as one of his assistant coaches is a perfect example of this.

The expectations for this season should be to see improvement in special teams’ contributions from the blue line under Robidas’ tutelage, as there will be several new faces on defence going into 2022-23. As a result, a moderate improvement to the NHL’s 27th-ranked PK and maybe even some new methods of using the defenders during the power play should also be expected.

Such incremental improvements might help Montreal climb out of last place to the bottom third of the standings. However, expectations should be focused on individual improvements, such as the handling of Juraj Slafkovsky, continued help for Nick Suzuki to grow his game while now being the team’s clear-cut top center, and the approach to maintain Cole Caufield’s high-performance level started under St. Louis last season, and if they can be consistent through a full season. All of these storylines, and more, will be followed closely and give fans a better understanding of the future of the franchise.