Changing of the guard: How Montreal is building toward more goal-scoring, with Jack Han
Part four of this series focuses on the Canadiens' offensive philosophies, schemes, and strategies — as well as exploring whether their personnel and prospects fit what they want to implement on the ice.
To better analyze the differences between the current Montreal Canadiens administration, their predecessors, and their competition, Eyes On The Prize reached out to hockey consultant Jack Han. Han, a former assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies, is currently a coaching consultant for ZSC Zurich of the Swiss National League and the Connecticut Whale of the PHF. He has recently published Hockey Tactics 2023, the latest edition of his annual examination of the tactics deployed by each of the NHL’s 32 teams.
EOTP will receive a percentage of the proceeds from a purchase of Hockey Tactics through the above link.
Last time, our conversation centred on NHL coaching philosophies, how to translate defence to offence, and the hallmarks of good offensive teams. Now, our attention turns to the Canadiens within this context. Are they building schemes and systems for the present or the future? Do they have the right personnel for these tactical ideas? Will the current coaching braintrust still be around to reap the rewards of their work?
EOTP: In Hockey Tactics 2023, you note that Montreal’s 2-3 is one of the few that operates from behind the net. Is that something that's done intentionally or is that a constraint imposed by the current roster?
Han: I’m not in the room, so it’s hard to say anything with any sort of authority. But there’s research that suggests that you can create higher-quality chances from behind the net because it’s difficult for the goalie and defenders to constantly keep their heads on a swivel in order to neutralize the pass out. It’s a great way to get the defenders disorganized. The flip side to that is if the pass out is unsuccessful, you’re basically helping the other team break out of its own zone. This is probably why behind-the-net play, whether at even strength or on the power play, isn’t more popular than it is.
Does this system make it imperative to have mobile defencemen?
Montreal has doubled down on players who can skate, whether they’re smaller like Lane Hutson or bigger like Kaiden Guhle or Arber Xhekaj. The Canadiens want their defencemen to activate and compress the offensive zone. This is different than the classic 2-1-2 that the Carolina Hurricanes or Florida Panthers play, where the players at the point expand the zone, spread out the defenders, and take essentially unimpeded shots on net when the puck moves from low to high. Instead, Montreal’s blue-liners look to sit on the opposing wingers and neutralize breakouts before they materialize. This gives the team defensive safety, translating to longer stretches of offensive-zone time and more creativity/risks from your skill players.
If Montreal wants to build a fluid, interchangeable system that takes advantage of individual skill, what does a coach do with more one-dimensional players such as a Josh Anderson or a Mike Hoffman? They’re certainly useful players, but they’re not superstars that you can build entire systems around.
Anderson and Hoffman are two very different players, so you go about maximizing their skill sets in different ways. Anderson is a big guy, a really good north-south skater, but he’s not the most creative player and he’s not the best in tight spaces. He’s at his best when he’s looking for breakaway passes or trying to beat defenders in open space. If you want to maximize Anderson’s offence, it starts with defence. When the team loses possession in the offensive zone, you don’t want Anderson to take risks to keep the puck in. Instead, you want him to backtrack hard through the middle of the ice so that if he wins the puck back, it’s in the neutral zone and he has more space to attack on the rush.
Hoffman is the opposite. He’s a smaller guy who’s not really physical. He’s not really a great straight-line skater anymore, but he sees the game pretty well, he’s got a great shot, and he’s really comfortable as the high forward in the offensive zone. Theoretically, Hoffman is perfect for the 2-3 because he can score from the high slot, he can walk downhill and push into the slot proper, or he can make a play from that central position. So with Hoffman, you want to sustain as much offensive-zone time as possible so that he doesn’t have to skate all that much, and you want to get him the puck in good areas so that he has space to work with from the get-go.
That description of Hoffman sounds like it could also apply to Cole Caufield.
Yes, Caufield is a similar type of player to Hoffman in his prime, but Cole is better in every way. He’s quicker, he’s better off the rush, and he’s still getting better every day. He’s 22, which is an age where he’s going to improve rapidly. Now, that improvement isn’t going to be his speed or shooting power or anything like that, it’s going to be in his ability to get off the wall, his ability to win puck battles, to protect the puck down low, his ability to get and keep pucks in bad areas. If you look at Auston Matthews, what he normally does is dig a puck out and win a battle along the wall, passes off to someone (usually Mitch Marner), and then looks for open ice to receive a catch-and-shoot. That’s what decides whether Caufield is a 30-goal or 50-goal scorer — how often he can win pucks for his teammates so that he can eventually get it back in good scoring positions.
Assuming that the Canadiens want Kirby Dach to be their second-line centre, do the Habs have a third player who ticks all the boxes to play next to Caufield and Nick Suzuki?
It has to be Juraj Slafkovský. If Slafkovský turns out to be the player that the Habs thought was worthy of the first overall selection, then he’s a perfect match. He has all of the qualities that Suzuki and Caufield don’t. That said, I wouldn’t worry too much about that right now. By the time the team is done rebuilding, a lot of the current roster simply won’t be here. I’m willing to bet that by the time the Habs are good, the only holdovers are going to be Suzuki, Caufield, a few other forwards [like Dach and Slafkovský], and a couple of the [younger] defencemen. It’s going to be a vastly different team with different potential lineup combinations.
Given that the roster will be dramatically different, is the coaching staff laying a foundation for something that the roster can grow into, or will all the current tactics be ripped up and re-drafted five years down the line?
I think Montreal is well on its way in terms of building the foundation. Last time, I mentioned that the underlying stats are bad because the team can’t execute consistently, but when the Habs do get it right — when they execute what they’re supposed to do — they’re playing really good hockey. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They’re just not there in terms of experience and player personnel. The Buffalo Sabres are a really good example of what the Habs could be. The Sabres have struggled for many years, but [head coach] Don Granato has managed to build a foundation over the last two years, they’ve integrated some young players into their lineup, and this season they’ve become an above-average team at generating offence for the first time in a decade. In the same way, I expect Montreal to be below average next year, but if they stick with it through years two, three, four, and five, they’re going to get much better.
So you don’t think that Martin St-Louis is just keeping the seat warm for someone with more experience when the team becomes ready to contend?
St-Louis has just completed his first full season as an NHL head coach and we’re already seeing glimmers of what this team is supposed to look like. He’s going to get better too. We’re going to have a different St-Louis in year five as compared to year two. As long as the head coach keeps growing with his players, and as long as more good players keep joining the franchise, I think the Canadiens are in good shape.
Finally, do you see anything that the Habs need to address to meet their short-term objectives with regard to strategy/tactics implementation?
I don’t see anything glaring. My biggest worry would be if Lane Hutson and Sean Farrell don’t become full-time NHLers. Of the prospects, those two are the only ones with next-level hockey IQ, and Montreal needs more of that element. I personally see Hutson as the natural successor for Mike Matheson when it comes to running the power play from the back end, and if he doesn’t pan out, the Canadiens will have to acquire someone from the outside. That said, those players are available on the market, but they’re not available at will. You have to be very deliberate in terms of targeting them or developing them.
This is the fourth article in a multi-part series where Jack Han will break down the Canadiens current on-ice systems and discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and where they might go in the future. In the next article, we turn our attention to puck retrieval in the offensive and the neutral zone.
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The previous articles in this series can be found below: