The Montreal Canadiens are focused on development, and as evidenced by Juraj Slafkovsky on Thursday night, sometimes that process requires results and a whole lot of fun.
Despite the desire from fans to see the team secure the fewest wins possible en route to a high pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis, proper development can and must intersect with winning and garnering results on the ice.
He used the example of Juraj Slafkovsky, who had shown visible growth in his even-strength play during his first four games in the NHL, and was eventually rewarded with his first NHL goal. For St. Louis, that’s all part of the club’s developmental philosophy.
“As an organization, as we deal with players, we’re very process-focused, but the result is important for the confidence of the group as a team. Winning has to be part of the process,” said St. Louis when juxtaposing development with winning. “Now, individually, that has to be part of the process too. He scored tonight, he feels good. Does he take a step in his game? I assume he will, because he gains confidence from this. As much as you want to be process-driven, the result really helped the process.”
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) October 21, 2022
Although Slafkovsky was noticeable prior to scoring his first NHL goal in the second period, scoring said the goal seemed to propel him even further and he came close to adding to his offensive stat line a few times in the third period. When the game was all said and done, Slafkovsky was voted the first star of the game, and the Montreal Canadiens’ faithful showered him with cheers and appreciation for what he had just accomplished.
Connecting with the fans and performing under that immense pressure is part of the overall growth St. Louis and co. are hoping to see from their youngsters, most notably their 1st overall pick.
“I’m happy for the kid. It’s a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old. To play in Montreal. The fans showed him a great sign of respect by encouraging the youngster after scoring his first goal,” said St. Louis on the support the Montreal faithful showed Slafkovsky during the game. “I expected nothing less. We have amazing fans.”
I can’t stop 😂🤣 ..Xhekaj and Slafkovsky are killing me 🤬 pic.twitter.com/VCecDPRe7H
— JeSuisCH🇺🇦RIPGuyLafleur (@HabsHappy) October 21, 2022
However, Salfkovsky wasn’t the only youngster to step up in recent games. Kaiden Guhle has looked like the club’s No. 1 defenceman, Jordan Harris has been quietly gaining in ice time and Arber Xhekaj is just punishing people on the ice, whether they like it or not.
That young core of players that have jumped into the NHL all at once have quickly become tightly knit and are growing in confidence together, and that includes sticking up for each other when the going gets tough. That’s exactly what Xhekaj did when he saw Coyotes defenceman Josh Brown clip Slafkovsky a little too high for his liking, prompting Xhekaj to pinch deep into the Coyotes’ zone to clobber Brown against the boards and create the turnover that ultimately led to Slafkovsky’s first goal.
St. Louis may not always agree with Xhekaj’s methods, but has also warned that coaches don’t need to overcoach. Rather, he liked the show of emotion and camaraderie, and believed these were the types of plays that coaches need to allow for the growth of confidence, both individually and collectively.
“I like when our defencemen pinch, but that was a little deep for a pinch (laughs),” said St. Louis on Xhekaj’s pinch to plaster Brown against the boards after clipping Slafkovsky. “It didn’t hurt us, and it surprised the (Coyotes’) defenceman, who wasn’t expecting it. It’s one of those things, as a coach, where you just look the other way.”
The Montreal Canadiens may not make the playoffs when all is said and done, but the culture change and the new developmental process showing strong signs of improvement would already be a massive win for the organization. In the end, St. Louis believes the secret to achieving both is to gain confidence by having fun on the ice.
“I’m happy they’re having fun and that they have confidence on the ice,” said St. Louis. “It’s the NHL. It’s a serious league, but you need to have fun too and the boys had fun tonight playing the game. It is a game, after all. The youngsters gained confidence tonight and it’ll help us collectively moving forward.”
It’s a refreshing shift in approach that has allowed Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield to take off offensively dating back to last season, and now we’re seeing those teachings being imparted onto the next wave of youngsters.
Their success will be detrimental to the Montreal Canadiens’ rebuild, and St. Louis is focused on ensuring they stay razor-focused on the task at hand; with a pinch of fun.