Montreal, a New Hockey City (2)
How MTL hockey can get its soul back
Four months after a fairytale run to the Stanley Cup finals, the Montreal Canadiens are in second-to-last place in its division, ahead only of the COVID-ravaged Ottawa Senators.
Partial observers can point to a confluence of factors.
Top shutdown center Philip Danault signed a massive UFA deal with LAK, leaving the still-developing Nick Suzuki exposed to the toughest matchups.
Captain Shea Weber played through so many lower-body injuries over the years that his mangled ankles and feet probably won’t allow him to skate again.
Playoff MVP Carey Price has been away from the team in order to get his mind and his life right.
Rookie coach Dominic Ducharme can only get better as he gains experience.
If you believe that the 2021-22 Canadiens are a good team, you can stop reading now.
I’m not here to convince you of what this current edition is. Instead I’m proposing a vision of what this team could be.
How to fix this team, then?
Winning teams have lots of good players. So maybe the best solution is to get more and better players?
It’s not that simple.
Plan 1: Get Good Players at the Draft
In 2022 the Canadiens may well tank for a shot at first-overall pick Shane Wright.
But what if Wright isn’t enough to single-handedly turn the franchise around, like Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo?
What if the lottery pick is not the very first one? How much can we really do with a third overall pick like Alex Galchenyuk or Jesperi Kotkaniemi?
How many top-10 picks will we need before things improve? Edmonton had nine of them in a decade (Hall, RNH, Yakupov, Nurse, Draisaitl, McDavid, Puljujarvi, Bouchard, Broberg), and they still might not be enough to make the team a winner.
As cap-era repeat champions Pittsburgh and Tampa illustrate, drafting good players early is just part of the solution.
Plan 2: Get Good Players via Trade or Free Agency
Savvy trades and signings can certainly help a team go from good to great.
2019 champs St. Louis got playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly in a lop-sided deal with Buffalo.
The L.A. Kings did well to acquire second-line center Jeff Carter on the cheap after he demanded a trade from Columbus.
Yanni Gourde went undrafted and was signed to an AHL deal by Tampa before establishing himself as a difference maker.
Marian Hossa, his eyes on the prize, signed a big one-year deal with defending champion Detroit and fell one game short in 2009 before winning with Chicago the following year as a UFA.
A counterpoint is what’s happening in Vancouver right now.
Elliotte Friedman @FriedgeHNICHearing VAN owner Francesco Aquilini to meet with GM Jim Benning this afternoon. Neither individual will comment, but from what I understand, this is a meeting to understand why the team is losing and address it, not to make a change at the position.
The real problem emerges when we stop thinking about players and start thinking about the people who work with the players.
Plan 3: Fire the Coach
And replace him with who?
Are we sure that the problem is merely tactics, or merely motivation?
Plan 4: Fire the General Manager
And replace him with who?
Are we sure that the problem is merely that the wrong people are leading the front office, instead of there not being enough people in the front office?
Expanding the front office is a management-level decision, and it is a long time coming for a team that has made so little investments (relatively speaking) in player development, analytics/R&D and other types of support staff.
Plan 5: Expand the Hockey Operations Department
Mirroring the recent player exodus, longtime MTL staffer Pierre Allard - the team’s Director of Sports Science - left the team to pursue an assistant coaching job in Germany’s DEL.
Aside from naming Allard’s replacement, MTL hasn’t made publicised other additions to their undermanned hockey operations department.
For MTL to become a competitive NHL team, it’ll need to double the number of hockey ops support staff, triple the number of player development coaches and start hiring some R&D analysts who they won’t be ashamed to put on the club website.
Now the heat is getting uncomfortably close to the ownership level, and we’re not done yet.
I have no opinions on whether MTL’s ownership group needs to change.
But I do have very strong opinions on who needs to be added to that group.
Owning a fading team with a rich French-Canadian history and its associated baggage means doing things better, but also doing things never done before.
Soccer’s mythical F.C. Barcelona might be the Canadiens’ closest sporting equivalent.
Based in a linguistic enclave (Catalonia) with a distinct language and culture, the team has achieved success throughout its history by being mes que un club (more than a club) for its community. It’s fabled La Masia youth academy has produced franchise cornerstones, value-added transfer players and future first-team coaches and staff members.
From 1946 to 1964, former MTL GM Frank Selke established a Canada-wide list of sponsored teams that fed C-form players directly to the NHL team. By investing cheaply in junior and minor-pro teams, the visionnary Selke was able to gain control of hundreds of young players, some of whom would eventually have their numbers retired by the Canadiens.
The CAHA-NHL agreement only allowed for the NHL clubs to each sponsor a pair of Junior A teams but it also allowed minor pro (WHL, AHL, CPHL/EPHL/QHL) teams to sponsor junior teams in their own right, and Junior A teams to sponsor a pair of Junior B, Juvenile or Midget teams in their own right.
Through the Joint Affiliation Agreement between the NHL, AHL and WHL the NHL clubs would gain de facto control over their minor league affiliates' sponsors as well. This pyramid of affiliations and sponsorships would allow NHL clubs to retain exclusive playing rights of hundreds of boys and men.
Take the Montreal Canadiens as an example. In the 1965-66 season they sponsored the Montreal Junior Canadiens and Peterborough TPT Petes of the OHA Jr. A league. The Canadiens also had affiliation agreements with the AHL's Cleveland Barons, Providence Reds and Quebec Aces, and the WHL's Seattle Totems and CPHL's Houston Apollos. The Barons sponsored Jr. A teams in Kirkland and Verdun, the Reds sponsored its own pair of Jr. A teams, the Aces sponsored the Regina Pats, the Totems sponsored another pair of Junior teams, and the Apollos sponsored a couple Junior B teams.
Several of these Junior A and B teams in turn sponsored other Junior B, Juvenile and Midget clubs. All in all the Montreal Canadiens had 21 Junior A, Junior B, Juvenile and Midget clubs under its control. The Canadiens could place up to 18 players from each of its sponsored clubs on a list of sponsored players, a list of players which no other professional team in North America (since the NHL exercised control over the other leagues) could touch.
In effect the Canadiens could direct the careers of over 300 young players.
The NHL Entry Draft, established in 1963, at first conferred a number of droit acquis clauses designed to appease the Canadiens. MTL was able to keep all its prospects already under contract via the C Form, and until 1969 had priority on the first two French Canadians eligible to be drafted.
In 1970 the grandfather clauses ran out. The expansion Buffalo Sabres, picking first overall, selected all-time great Gilbert Perrault from the OHA’s Junior Canadiens. MTL would never again have a top-flight French Canadian center. Its last dynasty ended a decade later.
Plan 6: Make the Team More Than a Club
Speaking of the Junior Canadiens, it’s about time for such an entity to return to Montreal, but in a different form - not as a QMJHL team, but as a grassroots organization designed to galvanize the city’s youth.
Imagine the following:
Any Canadiens fan worldwide under the age of 18 can sign up for a fan club called the Junior Canadiens for a nominal fee, let’s say $200 CAD annually
Each young fan will receive apparel (let’s say $100/yr’s worth) so that they can show off their attachment to the team
All members will be entitled to one guided tour of the Bell Centre per year and two tickets to MTL’s AHL and ECHL affiliates
Older members (14+) will be entered in a monthly drawing for different job-shadowing experiences designed to show them the various facets of an NHL franchise:
100% of profits from the Jr. Canadiens will be reinvested as hockey scholarships, split between underpriviledged elite minor hockey players living on the island of Montreal and Quebec-based young adults pursuing hockey careers in juniors and minor-pro leagues
If 10,000 U18 fans across the world sign up for the Jr. Canadiens, then each year the team will have $1 million to give, no strings attached, to promising athletes coming from poor Montreal families and promising coaches/scouts/analysts/equipment managers working their way up in a not-always-welcoming hockey world.
This plan is not for the faint of heart.
The GM and owner who implement it may not be around to see it to fruition.
The Canadiens may keep losing for three, five, maybe even 10 years.
But in Year 11 and for every year after that, they will again be much, much more than a club.