The Montreal Canadiens have more young talent in the organization now than perhaps at any point over the last 10 years. After a few solid years of filling up the cupboards, many prospects are either set to start their professional careers, or have the option to do so.
There is the possibility that within a few weeks, Emil Heineman will be back in Sweden, Kaiden Guhle will be in the NHL, and Juraj Slafkovsky will be in the AHL. There is the possibility that Owen Beck goes back to the OHL while Filip Mesar goes to Laval, and Miguël Tourigny heads to Trois-Rivières.
This is just one scenario of many. Each one of those scenarios will allow people to have an instant reaction that one path is better than the other based on precedent, or their opinion of the player or league.
The new administration of the Canadiens has a stated goal of focusing on modernizing their player development strategy. Between the hiring of a skills coach like Adam Nicholas, bringing in Marie-Philip Poulin part time, or Martin St. Louis saying that he focuses on players’ ceilings rather than their floors, there is a plan in place.
For now, all we have to judge them on are their words. We don’t know how their philosophy will play out in a few weeks, and we don’t know whether it will be effective.
However, the fact that the Canadiens haven’t been able to develop players in the past has no predictive value on the new group.
A little over a year ago, Marc Bergevin spoke to the media. He was asked about a former player who said that he didn’t feel that his development was handled properly by the team.
“We give the same tools to every player in our organization to reach their full potential,” Bergevin said. “Some do, some don’t, some take longer than others. The best way to be able to reach that point is assessing their own games. Sometimes players don’t quite assess their games the right way or the way they are really playing and that causes different perspectives.”
The mindset of this philosophy corroborates the results that we saw in practice. It puts the onus on the player. The player has everything they need, they all get the same treatment, and let the best survive.
This resulted in failures of many prospects or stagnant growth from others. It resulted in a group of success stories so small you could probably count them on both hands.
The truth is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not at all how development works. The ability to push responsibility on the player shows a lack of introspection and a lack of understanding of all the tools they had at their disposal. If you want results, specific players have specific needs. You wouldn’t give Juraj Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield the same workout plan and say that you’re doing a good job, then why would that same philosophy work for development?
In the end, if the Canadiens want to send 20-year-old Kaiden Guhle to the NHL to start the season, and have 18-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky in the AHL, that doesn’t mean that one is being rushed and one isn’t. It doesn’t mean that Slafkovsky is a disappointment. What is right for one player may not be right for another. Every player brings something different, whether it is their size, their skills, or their past experiences. Using the same approach for everyone and expecting them all to reach their ‘full potential’ is a disaster waiting to happen.
Just because one player succeeded on a path doesn’t mean another will one will, and the same thing if another failed and someone else takes that path. Having a hard and set rule sets you up to miss opportunities. Bergevin also used to be fond of saying that the players will dictate where they play, and that is true. However, there needs to be support. While the decision itself can vary, the decision-making process must be consistent. Any decision made must be made with purpose.
The stage was set for this when Hughes spoke at the team’s golf tournament. When he said that a player could be performing well playing 15-16 minutes at the NHL level, but if the team wants him to play on the power play and get 25 minutes a night, they will send him down. That’s the philosophy of a team with a growth mindset. Let’s see players try and reach their ceilings rather than settling for what they currently are.
The player that Bergevin was asked about from that quote in September of last year was Jesperi Kotkaniemi, shortly after the offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes was not matched.
The Hurricanes, regardless of driving motivation, saw an opportunity to acquire a 21-year-old third overall pick discontent with his stagnating usage and development, and decided to pick up a potentially high-ceiling asset.
Kent Hughes might have been watching, because today, it is the Canadiens, ironically, who have a 21-year-old third overall pick who had stagnated with his previous club.
The Habs may not be any more successful than Chicago in unlocking Kirby Dach’s potential, but they’re both willing to try something different and have a plan in mind for the youngster — both of which are a nice change of pace, regardless of the final outcome.