One of the important campaigns that came out of this pandemic is an emphasis and guidance to buy local. It’s something that has dogged the Montreal Canadiens for years, and it came to a head when people were upset that they played a game this season without a Quebec-born player in the lineup when Phillip Danault and Jonathan Drouin were both out.
In this particular instance, it was something that was relatively beyond their control but their moves this off-season have proven that they took that to heart and doing whatever they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
It should be noted that if the team really wanted to, they could have dressed Alex Belzile (like they did a game later anyway).
Of course the goal should be to put the best 20 players available to you on the ice regardless of where they were born. But, there are certain things the Canadiens can do to combine the two. Once you get to a certain point of organizational depth, players are pretty similar. The bottom of most NHL lineups will be built around players that can for the most part be interchangeable.
So when the Canadiens bring in guys like David Savard, Cédric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault, and Jean-Sébastien Dea, they do so with an eye on where they are from (which, in these cases can also be a reason why they chose Montreal as well) but also filling specific roles that needed to be filled by the team. They also did it at (or below) market value so they aren’t paying a premium for local talent, either.
That’s not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the Canadiens are doing this off-season, spurred by the arrival of the ECHL’s Trois-Rivières Lions for 2021-22. The Laval Rocket, the organization’s AHL affiliate, and the Lions have signed 24 players for this coming season. Of those, 22 were born in the province of Quebec. Only Tory Dello and Jake Lucchini were signed to AHL or ECHL contracts and were born outside Quebec.
This, of course, is in addition to a group of young prospects the Canadiens have brought in from Quebec over the last few years: Joël Teasdale, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, and Alex Belzile are among the players brought in, as are 2021 Draft selections like William Trudeau, Joshua Roy, and Xavier Simoneau.
Now the odds that more than a handful of the players listed above become significant contributors for the Canadiens are slim — but that’s exactly the point. Development is unpredictable, so the best way to try and find gems is to have as many chances as possible. Skeptics will say that it doesn’t help the team to find a French Canadian superstar, but at the same time, the best ECHL-to-NHL success story the organization has seen is David Desharnais. Even though he was miscast as a number one centre throughout his tenure, he is the perfect type of local success story this organization is trying to make into a regular occurrence.
There is a large part of the fan base (and even within the organization) that just wants the team to put the best players on the ice, but there’s a way to try and do both and the Canadiens are well on their way to getting the best of both worlds.
Behind the bench, too
The other side of this is the coaching development system that is being built by the Canadiens. Head coach Dominique Ducharme is already a success story. He was brought in as an assistant coach, and worked his way to becoming the team’s head coach. He was identified, developed, and ascended to the top. The same can be said for Alexandre Burrows, who started his coaching career with Laval of the AHL.
People may lament the loss of Joël Bouchard and Daniel Jacob to San Diego of the American Hockey League, but coaches are not players. The chances of a coach spending his entire career with one — or even two — organizations is slim to none. There is a good chance that one or both will eventually make their way back to the organization. The pipeline has continued with Jean-François Houle and Martin Laperrière now in Laval, plus coaches Éric Belanger and Pascal Rhéaume can get pro coaching experience at the ECHL level in Trois-Rivières.
I have never been one to say that the French-speaking requirement for Canadiens coaches and hockey operations staff is a handicap. There are plenty of qualified individuals, the idea would be to identify these people and to provide them with opportunities. That is what the Canadiens are doing, and it will only benefit them in the long run.