January 22, 2023
The 15th week of action in the 2022-23 NHL season had three home games on tap for the Montreal Canadiens. On Tuesday, the Winnipeg Jets were in town and the Habs surprised them with a 4-1 dominant win. The Florida Panthers visited on Thursday accompanied by some poor officiating and the Habs lost 6-2. The Saturday night matchup was against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a depleted team put on a great show in a 3-2 win.
This week was all about culture.
With the Winnipeg Jets in town, a win was the product of a balanced culture.
They are two teams on different tracks. The Jets are having a stronger season than anyone anticipated and playing for a long Spring. The Habs are more focused on the trade deadline, and which Spring-minded teams might come calling to make a deal. The two met with a long list of scouts in the building… from Tampa, Pittsburgh, Calgary, Chicago, New Jersey, and Washington.
What we saw was the product of a culture the Habs have built in some challenging conditions. The score sheet read goals from Dadanov, Anderson, and Hoffman – all guys those scouts might have been there to watch. The fans were watching a couple of other guys. Kirby Dach, whose star we are watching rise, had a strong game and an assist. Justin Barron, acquired at last year’s trade deadline and a future top-4 fixture, had his best game in Montreal and two assists.
It was the kind of game you want to see leading up to the deadline in a rebuild year.
Kent Hughes continues to personify the culture the Montreal Canadiens are building.
On Wednesday, General Manager Kent Hughes met with the Montreal media to provide some commentary at the mid-point of the season. The presser marked an approximate year since Hughes had been hired to shepherd the Habs to a new contention window. In just one year, the Habs are in considerably better shape than the mess Hughes inherited.
It was fitting that the Habs released their list of additions to the injury list to start the event. Juraj Slafkovsky, Jonathan Drouin (again), Joel Armia, and Jake Evans were all added to the walking wounded. When asked whether some players may return earlier than anticipated from injury, Hughes said, “We may need to do better at protecting players from themselves.”
Now THAT is a culture shift. We have watched Brendan Gallagher sacrifice his body for his entire career, and continue to play at significantly reduced capacity way more than was helpful. Shea Weber may have shortened his career because he refused to sit when he should have, and was allowed by management to do so. Correction – was applauded by management for doing so. Remember when we used to call Max Pacioretty “Wolverine”? This week Max returned early from another injury and it didn’t go well.
On Saturday, Hughes was forced to put his money where his mouth was, shutting down their best goal scorer, Cole Caufied, for the season to have surgery to repair his shoulder. Amid questions about contract extension, the new Habs were focused on the player’s health and playing the long game rather than sucking every last ounce out of Caufield before letting him quit.
We learned a bunch of other stuff. Kirby Dach is a centreman. Samuel Montembeault has a future in Montreal. Perhaps David Savard does not.
The most important message Hughes sent is the one he’s been sending for a year about the kind of culture they’re trying to build – a winning culture with a foundation of strong development. “I said to Marty, we’ve gotten to a point where the wins are good only to a certain point and the losses are bad only to a certain point.”
It’s a delicate balance – knowing the value of both the high pick and the opportunities for young players to shine.
The Habs might have lost the game, but won the culture war against the Florida Panthers.
It wasn’t a pretty loss, but not all was lost. In a game where the officials should have been hanging their heads, the young Montreal Canadiens used the experience as a culture-building exercise. The calls were rough and the second period was rougher. The Habs went into the third period with their names missing from the score sheet, unless you looked at the penalties line.
Marty told them to stick together entering the third, and stick together they did. They finished the game with 51 penalty minutes and a loss – and a giant step forward in building team culture, playing for each other, and the jersey, no matter which collection of players wear it on a given night.
In a shocking development none of us would have predicted in August, Arber Xhekaj has become an important face of that culture. When he skated to the penalty box after taking down Adam Lowry, clutching the CH on the front of his jersey, I couldn’t help but wonder when the Habs felt less vulnerable on the ice than they do this year. It matters.
Saturday night was a case study in building a healthy team culture.
Following a loss in Vancouver on Saturday night, in a game where the fans chanted his name, Bruce Boudreau said his goodbyes to his players and had a drink with his staff. He hadn’t yet been fired. Oh, the new guy knows he’s coming and has been busy hiring his staff, but Boudreau has remained behind the bench in what has to be the most disrespectful treatment of any NHL coach that we have seen. This makes Gerard Gallant’s cab ride look like a lifetime achievement party.
Is this the behaviour of a team that wants to build a winning culture?
In Calgary, after a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Darryl Sutter was asked about the play of rookie Jakob Pelletier in his debut. Sutter asked what number Pelletier was, and then read his stats from a game sheet. Then he concluded, “21 years of age, he’s got a long way to go.”
Someone needs to grow up, and it’s not Jakob Pelletier.
The coach values veterans and believes a rookie needs to be well seasoned before he can earn his spot. We get the message Sutter was trying to send, but the only thing I heard on Saturday night was a giant clock ticking on a coach’s shelf life.
In the meanwhile, Martin St. Louis met the media before greeting the Toronto Maple Leafs with a team composed of kids, trade bait, and AHLers – and he nailed his message.
“I’m trying to win this game tonight. I show up tonight, I’m going to try to win the game. Same thing on Tuesday. Are we going to do that? I don’t know. But my job as a coach is to hold them accountable to the standards that we have as we’re building this culture to become a team that can win way more than we lose.”
Sign me up for that. With a culture like that, the Habs will soon have their pick of guys who want to sign up.