Sometimes development is about getting players to find something they didn’t know they had. Getting them to reach deep within and find a new level.
Other times, it’s about going backwards. It’s about telling a prospect to find what got them to the point they are at, and use that to unlock and move them forward.
Last year, the Montreal Canadiens mismanaged Mattias Norlinder. There are no if, ands, or buts. Norlinder came over for his first North American camp experience, and looked good at rookie camp. He suffered an injury in the NHL pre-season, and missed some time.
When he was healthy, the team decided the rare move to send him to the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket on November 4. Norlinder played six games for the Rocket before being recalled from the conditioning stint.
On December 4, he played his sixth NHL game of the season. In that month, he played 12 games — his first 12 games in the AHL or NHL, without a full pre-season game under his belt, and after being out for over a month with an injury. Also within that month, Marc Bergevin was fired on November 28, and replaced with Jeff Gorton.
In his last NHL game, Norlinder played 8:58. Then, he was sent back to Laval on December 7 due to a clause in the CBA that says that if a European player drafted outside of the first round with a valid contract in Europe is on the NHL roster until December 1, they can be assigned to the AHL.
Norlinder himself admitted that he didn’t know it was a possibility. Nine days later, he was sent back to Sweden for the rest of the season.
The damage was already done. Norlinder suffered a set back with an injury in pre-season. His first games back were in the AHL, trying to get up to speed while everyone around him was in full game shape. Then, he was called up to the NHL despite not being ready for the NHL. He played in the NHL with a coach who, despite the team struggling, thought he was mandated to win games at all costs.
To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t send him back to Sweden as soon as he recovered from his injury. Maybe they wanted to buy time until the December 1 deadline. Maybe they wanted some shiny new toy to distract everyone from the disaster playing out on the ice.
Regardless, the player was not put first. It created a narrative that Norlinder ran away to Sweden because he wasn’t good enough. That is ironic, because as soon as his season with Frölunda ended, he made his way back to the Laval Rocket for their playoff push before another injury ended his season.
The Canadiens, whether it was Bergevin’s call or Dominique Ducharme’s call, threw Norlinder in the deep end. He was drowning. The last thing you want to do when you’re drowning is perfect your butterfly and your breast stroke. All you’re trying to do is doggie paddle and tread water enough to keep your head above water.
When your calling card is offensive ability and puck skills, not having confidence is the worst thing that can happen to you. You’re tentative. You do everything not to make mistakes. You play safe, and lose the abilities that make you special.
You can read this and say that Norlinder was just over-hyped, and that his style of play doesn’t translate to the North American game. I disagree. If you want an example of how confidence can affect a player’s ability look nor further than Cole Caufield a year ago. Caufield, obviously, is at a different level from Norlinder, but no one is expecting Norlinder to do what Caufield does. He just needs to be himself.
Norlinder hasn’t been great this pre-season, but he has steadily improved. He has stepped up in the play, and has been trying things. He’s very likely going to start this season in Laval, and that’s fine. He’s still a 22-year-old, after all.
What the Canadiens need to do is see whether Norlinder’s awful season was just that, or if it was a sign of things to come. Norlinder has to take the trip to the AHL as a development opportunity. He won’t play nine minutes a game in Laval. He’ll likely be in Laval’s top four, and he’ll probably get a chance to play big minutes on the power play.
There are a lot of young players in the Canadiens organization, and most of Juraj Slafkovsky, Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, Filip Mesar, and Jan Mysak could be in Laval with him. The spotlight on Norlinder alone has faded. What happens next will depend on how that confidence is built back up.
It will determine whether he steps back into the picture, or if the spotlight continues to fade.