Changing of the guard: An analysis of the Habs' systems and philosophy, with Jack Han

A discussion of what the recent personnel changes in the Canadiens organization have meant for the play on the ice and approach to development.

Changing of the guard: An analysis of the Habs' systems and philosophy, with Jack Han
Photo by Maurice DT / Unsplash

The Marc Bergevin-era Montreal Canadiens were not at the forefront of strategic and tactical innovation, something that stifled team performance and frustrated fans. This lack of emphasis on tactical innovation also led to a cathartic reaction when Kent Hughes and Martin St-Louis assumed their positions, with pundits claiming that the new head coach is someone who knows how “modern hockey should be taught and played.

To better analyze the differences between the current administration and the Canadiens circa 2012-2021, 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, 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.

For many hockey observers, effort level is the be-all end-all ingredient to success. What is the role of systems-level coaching in a sport that is as fluid as hockey?

Much like with businesses, well-run teams are keenly aware of their strengths, their weaknesses, their opportunities, and their threats. Even though hockey is a fairly simple sport — ten skaters chasing a puck around and two goalies trying to keep it out of the net — there are many ways to tilt the ice in your favour. Not just tactically, but in everything, the league is so competitive that teams need to cultivate specific advantages to set themselves up to contend year in and year out.

If you look at the good teams in the NHL right now, they all have their own very specific tactical signature. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes are the best team in the league at pressuring the puck and taking away time and space, albeit perhaps at the expense of finishing some of those chances. If you look at the Florida Panthers or New Jersey Devils, they’re two really fast teams that create a lot of shots off the rush. They’re a little suspect defensively, but they create so much offensively that they’re able to have good results. These signatures can change with time too. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a really clear example of this. They started with a very skill-oriented game, with a lot of great talent at every position, and over the years, they’ve re-oriented a little bit more around team toughness, defensive soundness, and simplifying their game — while retaining that ability to make high-end plays at any given moment.

What has kept the Habs outside of the NHL’s top tier since the last lockout?

By and large, this franchise has had a very run-of-the-mill practical approach to hockey. It’s very difficult to look at the Therrien years, the Julien years, or the brief Ducharme period, and say that Montreal was ever on the cutting edge of anything, whether tactics, scouting, player development, or overall managerial practices. For them, success was just about trying harder and executing better than the other guys. This created a “business as usual” atmosphere, where the Habs would put together this mediocre team, sneak into the playoffs, and maybe win a round or two. Instead of investing in the future — whether six, twelve, or eighteen months away — the team was always trying to scrape by in the present. What happens there is that you’re always harping on the same things, and you don’t see as much growth in your players because they never learn how to push to the edge of their capabilities and master that. They’re just trying to stay within this comfort zone, with simplified aims, and that, in the long term, stunts your growth.

A lot of this “business as usual” atmosphere stems from a local atmosphere that expects the Habs to win without necessarily understanding why they won. I played organized hockey in the Montreal area from ages 7 to 18, and the vast majority of my coaches — as you mentioned earlier — believed that winning and losing was a matter of effort. This isn’t entirely false, but as I spend more time at the higher levels of the game, the more that I see that there’s way more to hockey than just effort. Everyone in Quebec is looking for another Guy Lafleur, another Patrick Roy, another Doug Harvey. But today, you can only develop these sorts of extraordinary players if you have an extraordinarily good developmental process — at junior, amateur, and professional levels. Everyone focuses on Lafleur, but remember that it took an extraordinary stroke of managerial genius, plus some good luck, for Lafleur to end up in Montreal. If you limit yourself to focusing only on finding generational players, then you overlook the coaches and scouts and managers and the entire process behind them. I think people have lost sight of what actually made the Habs unusually dominant over the years.

How are the current Canadiens different?

What’s really interesting about the Montreal Canadiens currently is that they are not only embracing a lot of what other teams are doing — moving towards a possession game and emphasizing player development — but they’re also interested in doing some big picture things in a slightly different way.

The team is way more interested in investing in individual players than before. What does that mean? Well, how do young players get better? First, they have to play with and against good players. Second, they have to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and this innately means making a lot of mistakes. I look at this team now and see a team that tries to find future positives in these mistakes rather than focusing on the immediate negatives. Martin St-Louis is way more interested in letting his players express themselves, and I think he would rather see good process than get a good result.

I would even go so far as to say that this team hasn’t shown its final tactical identity yet. Instead, it’s something that will organically fall into place as the players grow into their roles. If you look at the team’s advanced metrics, they’re not very good. But if you maintain this approach for 12 or 18 months, I think that the metrics will naturally improve as the players executing the system improve and grow more accustomed with each other.

Would you say that this Habs team is aiming to build a team that focuses on defence through offence, rather than a team that tries to shut everything down?

I think so. If you look at the teams that are consistently successful, many of them — the Colorado Avalanche, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins — have looked to control the outcome by controlling the game offensively. You can see this in Montreal’s drafting decisions, where they’ve put a premium on skating ability alongside size, rather than fixating on, say, production or hockey IQ. These bigger players, whether Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle, or Juraj Slafkovsky, once they learn how to play a possession style, how to defend up-ice, their natural strength and reach is going to give them an additional competitive advantage versus a team that, for example, went all-in on just getting the highest junior point scorers.

The two driving factors behind possession hockey is event frequency and event success rate. Basically, you can get good results by either getting the puck to a more dangerous place more often, or you can convert your chances at a higher rate. Montreal, right now, can’t do either. But if you give these players more reps along with personalized instruction, whether from St-Louis or Adam Nicholas, they’ll improve in both of these areas. All of a sudden, even though we haven’t made wholesale roster changes, the tactical outcomes become dramatically different. This isn’t unprecedented by any means. I think the Buffalo Sabres are on that path, and New Jersey — who we see as legitimate contenders — is probably about a year and a half ahead of Buffalo right now.

Is there a gap that Montreal should be trying to fill right now?

I understand the question, but I don’t necessarily agree with the premise. I think the main thing that this team needs is time. Time will allow the team to discover what will work out and what won’t work out, and give them the opportunity to course correct. This is a very young team, from players, to coaches, to scouts, to management, and even the support staff. Although he’s been an assistant to Pierre Gervais for a number of years, it has to be said that this is equipment manager Patrick Langlois’s first year in charge. With this influx of new people in new roles, it’s important to build a good process that can survive the daily or weekly ups and downs — that can gradually correct when faced with obstacles.

The biggest question facing the Canadiens is “how can we grow as an organization at all positions, on and off the ice? How can we get to a place where all of us are unusually good at our jobs?” If the Habs can get there, then their processes can be better than those of others, and their results will hopefully follow suit. The challenge will be sticking with it, as there are many pressures on a daily or weekly basis to pursue immediate results.

This is the first 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 will break down the Canadiens’ approach to generating offence at even strength.

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