Expectations for Canadiens’ First-Ever Rebuild

In the 112-year history of the Montreal Canadiens, there has never been a time when they have undergone a rebuild similar to other clubs, especially in the NHL’s salary cap era. In the past, the Canadiens were the ones who innovated; the farm system was by former Canadiens general manager Frank J. Selke, with its unequalled system of feeder teams filled by professional prospects across North America. Then by being the first franchise to use the draft to build a dynasty, as Frank Pollock did in the 1970s.

Since then, the Habs have lagged far behind other franchises in innovation and building a franchise. Today, the buzzwords are “development” and “advanced stats.” But drafting is still king, especially due to the salary cap. Teams are less likely to trade players who are considered elite, especially while they are still young and relatively inexpensive, playing on their entry-level contracts.

So, teams must focus on their prospect pipeline to feed the NHL club and use the cap savings to build around them. Having a plan, and a method to implement it, is vital. It now falls on Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes to choose a team identity that can have success in the modern NHL, and then build a system that will feed players to the club that can fit that identity.

Canadiens’ Identity

The first step is for Hughes to select the identity of the franchise. For the last 10 years under former general manager Marc Bergevin, the team was centred around goaltender Carey Price, some timely scoring generated from volume shooting, and a defence that could support a franchise goaltender. The teams with the most success today have a more offensively oriented team structure. This ultimately seems to be Hughes’ planned identity:

“I envision a team that plays fast with the puck, a possession hockey team. But I also understand that you have to build a team around the players that you have, and that’s going to be a process for as we move forward…. As part of this process, we have to identify and put a team together that fits our identity, fits how we want to play, and choose a coach who’s able to coach those players.”

-Kent Hughes

Hughes’ first major trade points to a planned identity based on speed and possession. In his address to the media after the trade of Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames, he mentioned the reason he and his staff focused on Emil Heineman as the main piece in the trade.

“We love his speed. We love his aggressiveness, and we are going to try to improve our team speed. That’s certainly an area of focus for us.”

-Kent Hughes

Getting the team to buy in takes more than just communication, it also needs a keen eye for talent to identify who can help with his plan. Hughes is adept at these aspects of the game, which is likely why he was a successful player agent for over 20 years, which Brendan Gallagher mentioned in a recent interview.

“You trust that he has a really good understanding. Everything he says makes a lot of sense. He has a plan, he has a vision, he has an idea and he understands our group. There’s a lot of positivity around there, and the things that he notices seem to be similar to the experiences that we had gone through. A very capable, smart hockey mind. Understands the game, understands our team. To get to what we want, we all want the same thing and that’s to win.”

-Brendan Gallagher (from, ‘Stu Cowan, Refreshing Candour Marks Start of Hughes Era with Canadiens,’ Montreal Gazette, 16 Feb 2022)

Canadiens’ Draft Strategy

Drafting is the most important tool for recruiting top talent into the NHL. The team’s amateur scouting staff was mentioned by Hughes several times in his first few media availabilities, who extolled their importance to his plan. As there is no salary cap on staff hires, the Canadiens can use their vast financial resources to help build from there.

Using that finacial clout to run their own draft combines, like they had done in Europe prior to the 2018 Entry Draft, would be advantageous. Under the former head of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens were able to get over 100 eligible players to the combine, and it provided them with additional data that led directly to selecting Alexander Romanov in the second round that year when he was rated as a late-round prospect by most scouts.

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens
Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Another positive step would be increased staffing. According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Hughes has hired a new Head European Scout.

Having more staff in prospect-rich Europe is a good decision. This position staffing hasn’t yet been confirmed by the Canadiens, but it could instead be discussions to fill a role vacated after the firing of Timmins, head of amateur scouting. Nikolai Bobrov has links to executive vice president Jeff Gorton from his time with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Martin Lapointe currently fills that role, but may not remain past this summer’s draft as a holdover from the Bergevin regime.

Related: Canadiens’ Firing Ducharme is First of Many Big Changes

The more the merrier as the saying goes, especially when it comes to drafting; the more eyes on prospects, the better the chances are that none slip past their attention.

Montreal Can Speed up the Rebuild by Adding Prospects

To speed up the process of rebuilding, the Canadiens could acquire more prospects one to two years after their draft year. The added years post draft provides Hughes with more information to project the impact and likelihood the young player could have in reaching their NHL potential. It’s a method that worked well for the Habs when they got Nick Suzuki from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Max Pacioretty trade.

It makes sense that the Canadiens would look to the New York Rangers for prospects, as Gorton is already familiar with those prospects.

Montreal Player Development

Development is just a buzzword — it is in reality a patchwork system that covers nearly every aspect of an individual’s game. It is more than coaching skills and video sessions to build on-ice awareness. It also encompasses improving off-ice skills like mental coaching, nutrition, and training.

Having a two-tiered professional development system, with an ECHL and an American Hockey League (AHL) franchise is essential in providing each player with a suitable level to be able to play their specific role before graduating to the next level. It also gives them options for allowing players to remain with their junior, NCAA, or European clubs before making the leap to professional North American hockey.

As it is now, there are far too few development success stories for the Canadiens, and that is likely a major reason why any team success under Bergevin was not sustained. Fans can point to Jake Evans and Artturi Lehkonen as the only true Canadiens developmental success stories from the last decade.

Artturi Lehkonen Montreal Canadiens
Artturi Lehkonen, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

To improve on that, Hughes has mentioned the use of advanced statistics. Bringing a modern approach will offer the development staff more tools to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual prospects.

All of this is to say, the Canadiens need an assistant general manager to oversee player development and perhaps another one for the advanced statistics department that Hughes will have to build from scratch. Whoever they may be, they will need to focus on using the financial advantages that come with being one of the NHL’s richest franchises to their advantage, which means hiring more staff, including development coaches, skating coaches, and skill-specific coaches.

Hughes has several months of hard work ahead of him to create the foundation for his vision of the Canadiens. He has shared his plan for the on-ice product, now he will need to hire more staff and, more importantly, focus on modernizing Montreal’s entire system to bring it into the 21st century and rediscover its position as an innovator in team building.

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