The Montreal Canadiens are writing a new chapter in their glorious epic.
But unlike past chapters, this one is not laden with legends, superstars, and Stanley Cup parades.
The team is undergoing a legitimate rebuild for the first time in franchise history.
And with it comes a slew of fan anxieties born from past events.
General manager Kent Hughes was not responsible for causing the longtime issues, however, he is tasked with fixing them.
It’s a difficult climb, but the path forward is becoming clear, and consequently, fan anxieties are slowly starting to fade away.
For the longest time, Montreal was known as a ‘must-miss’ city.
Beyond the endless stream of construction, the media attention, the high taxes, and the cold winters, the team simply did not have the foundation in place that would have convinced players there’s value in signing long-term deals with the organization.
Players are well aware they have a limited shelf life, which mitigates the chance they will sign with teams that lack a long-term vision.
When it comes down to it, players want to win.
Everything else is secondary.
And though they enjoyed some success in the playoffs thanks to Carey Price’s excellent post-season results, it was rather hard to project the Canadiens as a team that would enjoy sustained success. There was simply no long-term vision at the club.
However, the arrival of Jeff Gorton and Hughes has changed things.
Not only are the Canadiens taking the right approach to building a strong franchise, but they’re also changing the perception of Montreal around the NHL.
“It’s the best place to play,” said newly signed forward Cole Caufield. “For me, every night feels like a Saturday no matter what day you’re playing. It’s a special city, but the fans are the best part.”
Notice that Caufield did not add the caveat we often heard in years past when players were discussing playing in Montreal, which usually comes shortly after saying it’s a great market; ‘when we’re winning’.
Caufield stated that win or lose, he wants to play in Montreal, full stop.
There was a sense of urgency when it came to signing Caufield, but not necessarily because time was running out.
Many Habs fans still remembered the tension and frustration involved in attempting to re-sign some of the team’s best players. Players like P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Alexander Radulov, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
For the better part of the decade, the Canadiens were known as a team that approached contract negotiations with a steely demeanour.
On the surface, it’s a rather wise approach.
But the reality was that the Canadiens were salting the earth each time failed to communicate with players on their roster.
Any manager worth their salt understands the importance of open and clear communication.
As long as you treat someone with respect, which means looking at them in the eyes while discussing their future, as well as making sure they know they’re a valued part of the team, difficult discussions can take place without either side feeling like they were ill-treated.
Simply put, the games should only be played on the ice, not at the office.
Hughes’ experience as a player agent has ensured that even the players who are leaving the organization feel heard. Feel valued. Feel respected.
And those who are set to enter contract negations understand that the process will unfold in a methodical, professional manner.
It’s no longer an ‘us vs. them’ situation.
Work To Be Done
With the players around the NHL and those within the organization suddenly feeling much better about the prospect of signing a contract with the Canadiens, Hughes and Co. have solved two of the biggest issues facing the club.
But there’s more work to be done.
Thanks to the poor development curves from Kotkaniemi and Alex Galchenyuk, Habs fans are quite nervous about the prospect of Juraj Slafkovsky not reaching his potential.
And rightfully so.
If anything, Slafkovsky’s rookie season only added to the anxiety, seeing as the team preferred to keep him in the NHL while he was struggling to produce.
To make matters worse, the team failed to provide consistency, both in ice time and regarding his teammates.
For many, it was simply a Kotkaniemi redux.
But despite the questionable decisions regarding Slafkovsky’s usage, it must be said the team has invested heavily in building a proper development team, something the franchise lacked for a few decades.
If the team decides to give Slafkovsky consistent ice time with quality teammates, a bounce-back year would certainly go a long way in convincing fans that Montreal is no longer a city where top prospects slowly fade away into obscurity.
And the Canadiens can take it one step further this summer at the 2023 Draft by focusing on drafting a player who is overflowing with natural talent.
A player such as Leo Carlsson, Will Smith, or Matvei Michkov.
Of course, it’s much too early to crown Hughes and Gorton as the saviours of the Canadiens.
But all signs point to their roadmap stopping at the key junctures to fix pre-existing issues, and that alone should help the franchise to return to glory at some point in the relatively near future.