October 8, 2022
The Montreal Canadiens are set to play their last preseason game tonight in Bouctouche, New Brunswick. That means they will, very shortly, be forced to trim their roster to the one that will play on opening night.
They have yet to win one preseason game and, if you don’t understand that this team is firmly in a rebuild, that might be concerning. Fans and pundits may be calculating how many wins the Habs can pull off this year, but that is entirely missing the point. The success of this season will not be measured in the wins column – it will be measured by the extent to which they maximized development.
What does development mean when you’re in the middle of a rebuild?
In a rebuild, development means touching all the bases.
I’ve been watching a lot of baseball, so I’m going to use a baseball analogy here. In baseball circles you will often hear an old homerun reference. “Touch all the bases on your way around.” The player must touch all the bases for the run to count. It’s also an encouragement to take it all in. You’ve hit the long ball, so slow down and take in every step – there’s no rush now so experience all of it.
Kent Hughes has been immeasurably clear on innumerable occasions. He intends to play the long game. Juraj Slafkovsky is the face in that window. With the first overall selection he picked the player who would bring the most over a career, rather than the player who could bring the most immediately.
There is no rush for any of these guys. The Habs are not contending again any time soon and, in fact, their hopes to contend again at some point depends on the success of their developmental plan. They have to get this right, and that means slowing down to speed up. It’s okay to touch all the bases on your way around.
In a rebuild, development means you take the time necessary to help each player reach his ceiling.
The goal of development in a rebuild is not to help players reach the NHL – the goal is to help each player reach his ceiling. To do that, you need a good assessment of the player’s ceiling, and a deliberate path to get there.
Some have suggested that Jordan Harris and Justin Barron are competing for that opening on right side defence. But they’re not the same player. Most would agree that Barron’s ceiling is considerably higher than Harris’, and that needs to be taken into consideration. It’s possible that Barron would outplay Harris today, and the right call for him would still be to go to Laval and play top pair minutes, while Harris plays bottom pair in Montreal. That would be the right call if you think Laval is where Barron touches all the bases necessary to get him to his ceiling.
Owen Beck is another example. He had a fantastic camp, and probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in a few games in the NHL. But is he more likely to reach his full potential if he dominates in Mississauga for a year?
In a rebuild, development means you don’t cut corners to fix roster deficiencies.
This dynamic defined the Bergevin era. Promising youngsters like Alex Galchenyuk, Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi were all added to the line up too early. The famous retort is that these kids legitimately won their spot at camp. Yes they did – they won their spots because the GM didn’t bring anyone better to camp.
If you fill a hole in the roster with a young player who is not ready, simply because he’s the best option you have for the spot, you are inevitably sacrificing development. You’re robbing the kid of the opportunity to touch all the bases.
The Habs are firmly in a rebuild, and each young player that makes the roster should be there because it’s the best next step in his development, not because there isn’t a better option to fill the hole. That’s why I’d prefer to see Hughes trade for a middling veteran or claim a player another team doesn’t have room for, rather than rush their own prospects.
In a rebuild, the roster won’t be as young as fans might expect.
It’s become a bit of an obsession. Trade all the veterans and play the kids.
The Montreal Canadiens won’t be trading away every veteran. They need veteran leadership, of course, but more importantly, they need placeholders. Hughes has been clear about the D group – his preference is to not ice three kids at once and overwhelm them. I imagine he has a similar number in mind for his forward group.
Every single prospect should have the best development plan for him as an individual. Whether the path is junior hockey, or college, or Europe, or Laval, or a start in Montreal, the focus needs to be 100% directed to how that pathway leads the prospect to his best trajectory.
Doing that will mean there will be veteran placeholders in the line up, while young players gradually develop and are inserted.
In a rebuild, development means the opening night roster won’t mean very much.
If you’re active on Twitter you’ve seen a thousand preferred opening night rosters, laid out in line combos and pairs. Don’t get too attached.
If Arber Xhekaj makes the opening night roster and Jordan Harris doesn’t, should we read that Xhekaj is ahead in his development? Or should we read that the chosen player brings more of what is lacking because Joel Edmundson is injured? Or should we read it’s Xhekaj’s turn first in what will be a year of rotation?
I would suggest we should read very little into the opening night roster. There will be much experimenting, some coming and going from Laval, the inevitable injuries and, I suspect, a trade or two along the way.
In a rebuild, development means you’re focused on the big picture, which is years away. What we’re seeing in the meanwhile is just random paint strokes on a canvas.