Habs Trends: Building The Foundation Early (& Often)

Ever changing constants are an intriguing oxymoron and one that the hockey world lends itself to, whether it realizes that or not.  The Montreal Canadiens have been a visible case in point of just that in their first small handful of showcases to start the young season.  Early and often are the keynotes and they lend themselves to promise for times ahead.


Persistent accusations in recent years continue to be answered, perhaps most recently in the form of the “character” driven team possessing far too little of such.  Last season, the Habs locker room knew that they were going to be a dismal team and one by one as the season went on and wound down, players began to show that in their body of work on the ice.  Certain stars were accused of being mentally fragile, taking shifts or entire games off, not showing up when the team needed their best players to be their best players and all around softness.  Through this, the coaching staff of said era was guilty in equal parts of unwillingness and incapability of adjustment or proper communication.


The Habs attitude era bears more character in these four games than the team showed over the last three years combined, “boasting” two seasons that ended by mid-April and one season that would have ended two weeks sooner than it did if not for the superhuman efforts of Alexander Radulov.  Thus far, the Canadiens are seldom outshot in an entire game, let alone seemingly a single period; perhaps due in part to something the arch rival Leafs admitted: that the Habs make the opposition feel like they have multiple guys on the opposition at all times and leave little space for them to work.  This coaching staff and much of the team brass is smarter, sleeker and gaining in perception and a contemporary approach that has come to perhaps the most noteworthy benefit of the already great yet continuously evolving Victor Mete and the seemingly renewed (and most improved player since last season) Mike Reilly.


The overall uplifting sense around the franchise comes with good reason: having superior building blocks all around and no true losing scenario on a night-by-night basis.  If the Habs win, it will be because they displayed exponentially more speed than last season and will have outworked their opponents, even if such occurs by the same circumstances of The Tortoise & The Hare; if they lose, they will have likely worked hard enough to deserve the win but perhaps end up one loss closer to obtaining yet another stellar draft pick and top level prospect.


That said, there is a note of concern.


No, the concern is not that young players will look like studs one night and be wearing the horns the next night.  Wisdom is wasted on the old as they can do nothing but part with it and giving these kids as many opportunities as possible to obtain such is paramount in a time like this.  Noah Juulsen has looked like a stud through much of this young season as he has thus far in his young career and wearing the horns for a far less-than-stellar showing whilst playing host to the Pittsburgh Penguins is far from the abandonment of hope to all ye who enter here.  The truth is that nights like that are every bit as vital as his usual performances and the same goes for any other youngster looking to be part of the rest of the attitude era.


Would the kids really listen to the coaching staff if they were in the midst of a winning streak spanning double digits worth of games?


The concern here pertains to Jesperi Kotkaniemi.  No, it has nothing to do with his performance but rather the lack of opportunity to perform.  Jesperi is entering the halfway point of those noteworthy nine games that he was essentially guaranteed with his strong showing in camp and preseason and he is playing them for a reason but that reason seemed lost on Claude Julien on Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.


The cavalcade of excuses ran roughshod within Montreal for years as to why young hopefuls could not be afforded more time or opportunities: they need to be sheltered, their confidence needs to stay high, these are meaningful games for a team that is looking to be competitive or to contend, they lack the experience in these situations that these veterans have, etc.


The easiest answer will be provided first.  How can one gain such experience without first being put into the situation in question? There is no other way to know what to expect from the player in question nor is there a chance to teach said individual the necessary lessons without placing him into said scenario.  This is not at all a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.


What does Kotkaniemi need to be sheltered from? If he is not being put into those situations in these first nine games, how will the team have full perception of how to proceed thereafter? If his confidence needs to stay high, should he not be shown confidence with –oh, who knows…– a single shift/second of ice time in overtime? It is unlikely that anyone sits on the bench in a critical moment thinking “Thank mercy I’m not out there.  I feel SO much better now.”


If a kid is put out for one high pressure scenario, crumbles and never recovers, guess what? It would be more beneficial to find out sooner rather than later as opposed to stumbling through year after year of growing pains, only to find out that they will never truly end.  Players and coaches alike will stress the need to sometimes have very short memories and failure in such a position would constitute one of those times.  Give the kid a shift in overtime for the love of all that is the future.  It will not kill his confidence and it will not kill any team’s chances to give him that shot.  He went wide and zipped right around everyone before nearly tying the game with a seemingly effortless shot that rung off the crossbar and sounded like the loudest doorbell in Montreal not long before regulation ended.  That might just be the kind of player that could make a difference with open ice and a pressing need to put pucks in the net.


Athletes are proud individuals and might just gain some of that confidence by being entrusted with such an assignment, knowing that the coaching staff has invested in them the same way that the team seems to have invested in what Claude Julien, Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme are selling them.  Let the kid have a little return on his investment.  He may or may not be in Montreal (this season) for as long as everyone else.  He needs these chances and he needs them now because if not now, then when? It will be too late before long to send Kotkaniemi elsewhere –if need be– without burning a valuable and affordable year off of his entry level contract.


As far as meaningful games or contendership goes, the pressure to do so is at an all-time low in La Belle Province which means that there is now a rare opportunity to have the fullest extent of the freedom to take beneficial risks.  The reason for optimism and generally just feeling better all around about the Montreal Canadiens is knowing that proper steps are being taken to ensure the success of the long term future of the team.  It may be coming a touch later than most would have liked but it is here now nonetheless.  Taking the chance and losing now may happen but it will lead to a greater likelihood of a greater chance in the future and the kind of success everyone hopes to realize from it later.


It is rare to see less of a superstar presence on a team from the preceding year and yet have reason to feel so much better about the state of the franchise as it stands today but this is exactly what is happening.  The reason why is simple: a mansion is not as attractive to purchase when its foundation is stabilized at random points by a couple pieces of wood and a handful of bricks.  Sure, it had some nifty features but the decorations and furnishings were also covering up some damage that would require major renovations and expensive ones at that.  The house that the Montreal Canadiens are building now is merely in its concept stages; the interior is not just bare, the walls may not even be up yet.  However, the land looks good.  The soil looks fertile and the foundation appears to be visible thus far.  That said, when the time comes for the walls and the floors to go up, one would be best advised to have the tie rods all in place before building anything else.


One would be best advised to put them in sooner rather than later and they come in the form of giving each kid every chance that he could ever possibly need.

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One Response to Habs Trends: Building The Foundation Early (& Often)

  1. You are not the only one to question player usage from last night. Here are some things I think CJ did right: he got the team to get back to it’s new identity and have a glorious second period. This after suffering a double-tap in the first period against the Kings in which they reverted back to last year’s team (a lot of harmless shots from periphery).
    Second, he got Drouin going. A good thing for the team and good thing for the player, who was getting lit up by the fan base after three meh game performances.
    Third, he got points at the start of the season. Habs needed a good start to the season against a tough schedule (besides Detroit) to sustain any success.
    Kotkaniemi may have already shown CJ enough to keep him. Now he can be used similar to Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier last year, who showed up in conversation in the second half of the season after being brought along slowly. It’s a grind and we are early yet.

    David Kerr October 14, 2018 at 10:49 am Reply

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