The Montreal Canadiens’ official rebuild continues as they inch closer to the March 3 trade deadline. With that benchmark looming, there will be hundreds of pages online breaking down the minutia of every move general manager (GM) Kent Hughes makes leading up to that moment, and beyond.
But what good is a rebuild if the focus is only on one area? Like in any industry, building a winning team or successful business comes down to three main pillars, and how management balances each one. There are essentially three pillars of a team in a rebuild, they are drafting, development, and culture. That balance doesn’t mean everything must be done perfectly, but enough will need to go right for them to reach their ultimate goal.
Not everyone drafted will play in the NHL, and of those that do end up reaching their dream, not all of those selected will end up playing for the Canadiens as there are only 23 roster spots in Montreal. Since the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the Canadiens’ scouting staff has selected 28 prospects. Of those 28, 13 were selected in the top 90 of each draft class. That means they aren’t just adding quantity, but also have the positioning to add quality as well. That will be the case at the 2023 Draft as the Habs hold 11 more picks, four of which are in the top 90.
That is 17 top 90 picks over four draft classes. The odds are that the Habs will have more than enough depth in their system to provide the NHL club with the players necessary to fill roles in support of their core, such as Owen Beck, and even add a few players to that core from that crop. That is the path taken by Stanley Cup champions in the salary cap era. The Tampa Bay Lightning won in 2020 with 13 players drafted and developed in their system. The Chicago Blackhawks are looked to as a benchmark after three Cups in 10 years; the 2010 Stanley Cup was the first of those wins because they had 15 players drafted and/or developed in their system.
This could be a reason why Habs fans are hoping that their team wins the draft lottery for the second year in a row as Connor Bedard is expected to be the next superstar. So yes, high picks are necessary for a successful rebuild, as those teams were led by stars such as Patrick Kane and Victor Hedman.
Developing the Canadiens Way
While drafting as high as possible is necessary, it is also important to have later picks turn into NHL talent, and that can only happen if the franchise balances drafting with a focus on development. There are cautionary tales in the NHL of rebuilding teams focusing more on the draft than on development. The Buffalo Sabres have been rebuilding for over a decade, and only recently have seen a light at the end of the tunnel as they focus on developing and supporting their young core with veterans. But perhaps the best cautionary tale is the Edmonton Oilers who had the top pick four times between 2010 and 2015, which includes a period of three top picks in a row — Taylor Hall in 2010, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, and Nail Yakupov in 2012 — the other top pick in that span, Connor McDavid in 2015.
Despite having an obscene amount of number-one picks, they have not been to a Stanley Cup Final and have only qualified for the playoffs four times since 2010. It could be argued they lacked success because they didn’t focus enough on development. This is likely why Hughes is trying to find a balance in his approach stating:
“This season, at some point, I mentioned to Martin that we’ve reached a stage where wins are good, but up to a certain point, and losses are not good, but up to a certain point.”-Kent Hughes (from ‘Canadiens’ Kent Hughes strikes refreshing tone on state of the team, Arpon Basu,’ The Athletic, Jan 18, 2023)
So focusing on the development of prospects in the American Hockey League (AHL), and even junior hockey is important. But also, a focus on their NHL core group such as Nick Suzuki, Juraj Slafkovsky, Cole Caufield, and Kaiden Guhle, among others, must be considered. The ability to maximize their potential will be crucial in building a team that could win a championship. It takes time and patience, as it can’t be done all at once. Looking back fans can see how head coach Martin St. Louis has worked with these players, providing them opportunities to grow, and placing them in roles they can succeed. All the while player development head Adam Nicholas works with every player individually to improve aspects of their game that reinforces that growth under St. Louis.
The foundation of it all, however, needs to be the team culture. This is another reason why Hughes said that “losses are not good, but up to a certain point”. Building a healthy culture can’t be done if the focus is on the individual alone, there needs to be a desire to play for the team, to play for the others in the room.
Related: Canadiens Bet on Development in Denis Gurianov Trade
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There is also an inward focus on personal growth in their game, which gives them a sense of accomplishment that in turn can feed into an overall positive mindset. That can’t be done if the players’ spirits are crushed by losing game after game with no hope of winning. A rebuilding team is difficult to battle against, but it can be done by focusing on one area that is under the player’s control, their work ethic, and a focus on accountability. That, and keeping spirits up by making it fun as well. It is a game after all.
“I think they’re having a lot of fun, you guys walk in the halls, you can feel it. You hear the music playing and stuff, and I don’t know if, from the stands, you’re able to catch some glimpses of the bench, (but) guys are having fun on the bench. They’re engaged, they’re playing hard for one another, and by no means are we perfect out there. We make mistakes, guys are tapping each other on the pads and next line up is trying to pick the team up or keep doing what we’re doing. It’s a really good vibe, and that’s what you want and that’s what we’re trying to build.”–Martin St. Louis
The culture is also built on the coach’s approach to players. For example, St. Louis doesn’t want to rely on the pre-scouting of new arrival Denis Gurianov. He wants to form his own opinion based on what he sees over the next few weeks and how he builds upon his skating and his shot but also his willingness to engage physically and most of all, his work ethic. Management is taking a gamble on this player and betting on their development team to build Gurianov up. St. Louis is also looking for a team-first approach, saying “By no means we are perfect out there,” the coach added. “We make mistakes, but guys are tapping each other on the pads and the next lineup is trying to pick the team up or keep doing what we’re doing. It’s a really good vibe and that’s what you want and that’s what we’re trying to build.” The joy seen by all when Kaiden Guhle scored in his return to the lineup is a great example of just that.
There is a saying by the famous French author Voltaire, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (The perfect is the enemy of the good.)” In building a team, to be successful, the focus cannot be on perfection in every aspect, there needs to be balance. Each pillar in equal measure, if done well, but not necessarily perfectly, can lead the Canadiens to that long overdue return to the usual parade route.