It just so happens that the Montreal Canadiens have a three-day break after passing the quarter point of the season on the anniversary that the team changed its organizational direction, firing Marc Bergevin, Trevor Timmins, and Paul Wilson, and hiring Jeff Gorton.
It provides a good time to reflect on what has changed and what we have learned about the organization.
The team is not as bad as they were last season
A year ago on this date, the Canadiens had played 23 games. They sat at a record of 6-15-2. Believe it or not, that was good enough for 29th in the NHL at that time and the team had yet to hit rock bottom. It was also a year ago that the team hired Jeff Gorton. A few months later, Kent Hughes was hired, and a little bit after that, Dominique Ducharme was fired and Martin St-Louis was hired.
The Canadiens finished the season 32nd in the NHL.
There were concerns that players the Canadiens were counting on were just not good enough to be top line players. There were questions surrounding whether Nick Suzuki would be worth his new contract, and whether Cole Caufield could rebound from his very slow start. The early indications are that the team wasn’t as bad as they showed at times last season. Sure, some of that is because of what Hughes has done since taking over; namely the acquisitions of Kirby Dach and Sean Monahan, which have provided this team with a boost of forward depth. A lot of what is behind the improvement, ironically, were pieces brought in by Bergevin and Timmins.
At 11-9-1, the Canadiens are exceeding expectations this year. They aren’t quite in the playoff race — as St-Louis said on Monday, there’s a time to look at the standings and the Canadiens aren’t there yet — but they are firmly out of the battle for 32nd place.
There is still a lot of work to do
There is a lot more needed with this team than to simply wait for the young players to improve. Some of that surely will help, but the lack of secondary scoring on this team is an issue. Nick Suzuki, Kirby Dach, and Cole Caufield are showing no signs of slowing down, but slumps will happen. If that occurs, it’s hard to imagine how the Canadiens will score enough to win games. The veterans have shown signs of improvement, however.
The defence was expected to struggle, but despite being young and missing Michael Matheson and Joel Edmundson to start the season, they exceeded expectations. It’s still not good enough to take to the next level, but it’s perfectly fine for the rebuilding stage they are at right now.
Goaltending has been solid, and even though it has started to trend down at times, the team has been scoring enough to make it work.
The power play is still a work in progress.
The biggest thing with this Canadiens team is that the bad lapses seem to happen in one game, meaning that you get a 7-2 loss to Buffalo followed by two wins, instead of one of those eight-game losing streaks that became commonplace a year ago.
This team can’t rely on internal improvement alone to take the next step. There will surely be multiple moves between now and the trade deadline, and even more before the start of next season but considering where they were less than a year ago, it’s a welcome step forward.
There is a clear vision
Even when Marc Bergevin was at his best and the Canadiens were a playoff team, there was no indication that there was a clear vision. In his last off-season as GM, he seemed to not understand what got the team to the Stanley Cup Final. He let players like Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault go while signing Mike Hoffman. He knew that Shea Weber was likely to never play again, and his big move was to sign David Savard. He mishandled the Jesperi Kotkaniemi negotiations so badly that he and the Carolina Hurricanes were happy to put Bergevin in a corner.
Quite frankly, it was clear that there wasn’t a plan and a slow start sealed his fate.
That all changed under Jeff Gorton. Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis, the two most prominent hires, are on the same page alongside John Sedgwick. Nick Bobrov and Martin Lapointe, one of the few Bergevin administration holdovers with Sedgwick, formed a cohesive partnership at the draft table. Adam Nicholas, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Chris Boucher are all hires that fit together.
In just one year, the Canadiens moved from one of the more old-school organizations to the most modern. Not just in a statistical way, and not just in a player development way, but in a personnel management way. The organization is changing the way they handle the players not only with on-ice development, but with communication and what they are looking for.
It’s not a guarantee to work, but there’s something to be said for making cohesive decisions. They aren’t only making roster moves that interact with each other, but they are also making roster moves that work with (and look to take advantage of) their organizational philosophy as well.