After what seemed like a long search, Montreal native Kent Hughes was introduced to the public as the 18th general manager (GM) of the Montreal Canadiens in a press conference that used the Bell Center as its backdrop.
He made it clear in that press conference that he shares executive vice president Jeff Gorton’s vision that advanced analytics and understanding how his players perform are important values in his approach to building this team
The time between now and the beginning of the 2022-23 season will be the foundation of his tenure as GM. Make no mistake, there will be large, broad, sweeping decisions to be made on management personnel, development, scouting and more. However, as that work begins, Hughes will need to get to work on shaping the current roster and preparing it for next season.
Hughes spoke of that challenge at the press conference being due to the sudden downward slide the Canadiens took this season.
“My opinion is some of that is circumstance, but there’s no question that there needs to be changes and I’ve got to get familiar with Jeff. We’re going to spend a lot of time together here over the next five to seven days and start to discuss what steps need to be taken.”Kent Hughes
There may be no rush to dive in immediately, but he will have to begin with this season’s trade deadline on Mar 21, 2021, which is fast approaching.
Step 1: Identify if Canadiens Need Full Rebuild
He inherits a team that just played in a Stanley Cup Final in 2021 but is now in a free fall with an 8-25-5 record, good for 32nd overall in the NHL. Before he decides to make any major trades, Hughes said will take his time to familiarize himself with the coaching staff and players and prospects within the organization.
Once he feels comfortable, he will identify who in the organization fits long-term in his plans. He spoke of his vision for the club at his introductory press conference:
“In a perfect world we’d be an offensive-minded club, I envision a team that plays fast, and plays fast with the puck that’s a possession hockey team. But I also understand that you have to build a team around the players you have and that’ll be part of the process as we move ahead. We’re going to create a modern organization that players want to be a part of.”Kent Hughes
Hughes may still decide that he doesn’t have to start from scratch. Despite the terrible season, the organization does have a deep pool of prospects – albeit one that has no future stars – as well as a plethora of picks, 11 total for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. This is the stage where Hughes needs to identify his core players. Beyond Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Alexander Romanov, he needs to decide who else fits that mold.
Once they are identified, he will need to keep their specific needs in mind, such as who remains or should be brought in as veteran support for leadership also, who can be a fit as a complementary player. Beyond the obvious need to upgrade at center and on defense overall, Suzuki will need scoring wingers and Romanov, a veteran defensive partner. Anyone that doesn’t fit, must be added to his trade list with the pending unrestricted free agents (UFA).
Step 2: Habs Trade Deadline
Once Hughes has become comfortable with his organization, he will need to begin shedding the contracts of all of his UFAs. It’s likely that Gorton has already begun the process since his arrival in reaching out to their rival GM. Players such as Ben Chiarot, Chris Wideman and Brett Kulak are obvious trade targets. Their departures will shed salary but also open up roster positions that can be used to develop younger players that have a long-term future in Montreal.
Related: Canadiens’ 3 Keys to a Successful Rebuild
Wideman and Kulak could possibly return mid-level draft picks to the Canadiens, but the big-ticket UFA at the deadline this season will be playoff-tested defensemen. Chiarot is probably going to be the rental player at the top of the list of any team looking for a long playoff run. His acceptable mobility, size and physical style coupled with his defensive ability at even strength and on the penalty kill make him an expensive commodity.
Many teams will have an interest in the big, physical defender. Especially teams like Toronto who need to become tougher and shed their reputation as soft will pay a premium for his services and that will add a first-round pick or even a quality prospect to the organization.
Step 3: Canadiens Coaching Strategy
As mentioned, Hughes’ familiarization period will also include coaching. There is no rush to begin wholesale changes this season as the team no longer has any realistic hope of qualifying for the playoffs. In his press conference, Hughes mentions that he will give current head coach Dominque Ducharme an opportunity to sit with him and explain his vision, his systems and his plans. Essentially, interview to keep his job, but he will need to remember that Hughes has his own vision for the team and what would fit that plan.
“I certainly have beliefs about what a modern day coach should be or have in terms of qualities,”Kent Hughes
The likeliest outcome will still be that Ducharme is let go and Hughes brings in his own staff, but at the very least, he is giving Ducharme the opportunity to show his value as an NHL coach and give himself every opportunity to keep his job or, to show he deserves another NHL position with another organization.
Step 4: Sign Habs Prospect Harris
A key part of any team to play with speed and possession is to have puck-moving defensemen. They not only have the mobility to defend against the highly skilled forwards in today’s game but are also adept at gaining puck possession and playing the fast-break transition game that modern offences now use in the NHL.
Related: Canadiens Face Difficult Choice with Gallagher
Jordan Harris is the Canadiens’ best, most NHL-ready prospect, which fits that style. The captain of the Northeastern Huskies is in his senior season and will be a UFA on Aug 15, 2022, if he isn’t signed. That puts pressure on the Habs to convince him to remain in the organization.
Hughes’ arrival is timely. Not only can his sales skills as a former player agent come in handy in selling Harris on his future role and value within the Canadiens organization but, both of his sons are Harris’ Northeastern teammates which can be a connection that could prove helpful.
Hughes and Gorton have a lot of work to do with this organization to become true Stanley Cup contenders. But with a good prospect pool, several high picks and a young core, they weren’t left as big of a mess as the current team record would suggest. Their goal is to modernize the Canadiens and its approach to team building. For a generation of fans that have never witnessed a championship, it’s an approach to team building they’ve longed for as it is the path every successful franchise has taken in the salary cap era. It will take time and patience to get to that point and it seems the fan base is ready for that step with Hughes at the helm.