Two years ago, coming off one of the worst seasons in Montreal Canadiens history, the leading hockey operators made a conscious decision to steer away from their previous focuses. Size and grit would now be replaced by speed and ingenuity.
After winning the third overall pick, Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins had a plethora of talents to choose from, most notably Keith Tkachuk’s younger son; Brady. A Canadiens team of previous vintages would have jumped at that opportunity. “A big winger with a physical edge and a mean streak, ça c’est la classe!”
But after seeing Michael McCarron slide further and further away from being an impactful NHL player and having had a shocking number of draft picks pan out to nothing at all during Bergevin’s tenure, it was time to try a different strategy. Size is great and physicality can make smaller opponents tremble, but in an increasingly fast-paced game, skating and pace were becoming the league’s new catchwords. Many of the bigger players Montreal had brought into their lineup, either via trade or through the draft, couldn’t keep up with this faster style of play. It just does not matter if you are stronger than an ox if you are too slow to use your enormous frame to run over opponents.
The Habs needed to get faster and more skilled. They also needed to get younger. Apparently, Claude Julien (a notorious old school-hockey coach) agreed with those statements as well. Before the draft, Bergevin cut ties with his very first draft pick as the team’s general manager. It is easy to read too much into that now, over two years later, but there is still some symbolism to that. It was time to admit mistakes, clean house, and hit the reset button. In return for Alex Galchenyuk, the Arizona Coyotes sent Montreal Max Domi; a gritty player with a mean streak, who may be on the shorter side, but in return was both quick and had above-average playmaking skills.
When the draft came around, Bergevin and Timmins selected Jesperi Kotkaniemi, to many Habs-fans’ despair. Kotkaniemi was lanky and inexperienced as a centerman, meaning that he was nowhere near a sure bet. He could play a quick game though. He was smart and creative with the potential to become a future top-six centre. And boy, did Montreal need a center in 2018....
Later that year, Bergevin traded away disgruntled captain Max Pacioretty for another centre prospect in Nick Suzuki, with Tomas Tatar and a second-round-pick as sweeteners. Suzuki was also on the smaller side, but he had a high hockey IQ with playmaking abilities to match.
Over the course of a few months, Bergevin had changed the complexion of the Habs’ lineup, especially with regard to the future, but in the present as well. Montreal would change their style of play to focus more on individual skill and skating pace. With such a tactic, they would create scoring chances as well as huff and puff their opponents into possible mistakes.
And yes, during these last two seasons, Montreal has played faster and, I would argue, better than previous years. However, better play only gets you so far. If you can’t score and have trouble keeping the defensive focus razor-sharp for 60 minutes a night, you will get punished by teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers. These are the teams that rely heavily on the very hockey that Montreal chose to abandon during that makeover two years ago.
In the end, no one will remember that Montreal had the second-highest number of shots on goal per game during the 2019-20 regular season, or that they were leading the Flyers in goals (6-5) after four played games. What matters in the end is to grind out a win, even if it isn’t a pretty one. Philadelphia has defended admirably and deserve to be where they are. My personal hopes are that this young, skillful Montreal team learns from this playoff experience, so that they as well can combine their pace and creativity with the grit that is necessary to deliver the kind of wins the Flyers are posting.
I don’t believe that Bergevin should go out shopping for size and physicality. I believe that he has made the right choice in his change of direction. What we instead need is for the current players to learn what is necessary to win when the stakes are high; for the skillful players the team already possesses to become more gritty and develop a win-at-all-costs mentality.
Great teams don’t need to be perfect to win a playoff series, they grind it out anyway. Unfortunately, this young Montreal team just isn’t at that stage in their development yet.
But maybe next year....