Canadiens notebook: Depleted roster creating opportunities for younger players

Montreal Canadiens right wing Cole Caufield (22) and Nashville Predators defenceman Dante Fabbro (57) vie for the puck in front of Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski/AP)

BROSSARD, Que. — You don’t need to look much further than the NHL standings to see how different things have been for the Montreal Canadiens since they appeared in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, but one look at their practice roster ahead of their first game against the team they lost to last summer really drives it home.

On Monday, 31 hours before welcoming the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Bell Centre, only four Canadiens forwards and three defencemen practising had played for their side in the Final.

Roster turnover from year to year in the salary cap era is an inescapable reality, but this is something else.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said after practice. “It’s not what we planned for, that’s for sure. ... Every day we’re losing a guy or two. Hopefully, at one point, it’s going to stop and everyone comes back healthy.”

That day doesn’t appear to be coming soon.

The players who have been out the longest won’t be back in action for some time. Ducharme said Carey Price, who checked into the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program before the season started, likely won’t be back before Christmas.

Price left halfway through rehabbing from off-season knee surgery and returned in early November to get back to the process, but he has yet to step on the ice in goaltending equipment and there’s no timeline in place for him to do so.

Joel Edmundson suffered a back injury just before training camp started and — despite finally getting into a full practice last week — likely won’t return this month. Doctors have ruled out surgery, but Ducharme said he’s back to Square 1 in his recovery.

Also sidelined for weeks: Josh Anderson, with an upper-body injury.

And on Monday, Tyler Toffoli was given a similar prognosis, also for an upper-body injury sustained on Saturday.

“It’s looking like he’s going to be out a while,” said Ducharme.

Who knows how long it will be for Joel Armia and Jeff Petry, who both missed Monday’s practice and are considered doubtful to face the Lightning.

We know Brendan Gallagher and Sami Niku won’t play. Both are in quarantine for several more days after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

Shea Weber, the team’s captain, may never play again. This downhill slide for the 6-17-3 Canadiens began with off-season news that he was too injured to continue his career.

Things got worse with the departures of Phillip Danault, Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and now the team that faces Tampa on Tuesday bears no resemblance to the one that dressed for those games back in July.

Play the kids

Ducharme said he hasn’t yet been given any directive from new executive VP of hockey operations Jeff Gorton to give more opportunities to the young players on his roster, but it’s not as if he has a choice.

The injury situation has necessitated it anyway.

Ryan Poehling, 22, has already taken on more responsibilities at centre, 21-year-old Alexander Romanov played 24:24 against the Nashville Predators on Saturday, and 20-year-old Cole Caufield is likely to get elevated after registering two assists against Nashville.

Ducharme will have plenty of incentive to give 23-year-old Kale Clague a significant opportunity against Tampa.

The Canadiens claimed the young defencemen off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, giving him a chance to take a step towards a full-time NHL job.

“It’s an interesting project,” said Ducharme. “He’s still young, too. He has good qualities: he skates well, has good vision, skates with the puck and moves it well. So, he has good tools, now it’s up to him. He has an opportunity to show he can contribute here and make a place for himself.”

Clague estimates he’ll do that by relying on his skating, his puck movement and his power-play ability.

There’s certainly some offence in this player. While he’s still looking for his NHL goal, he’s produced 11 assists in 33 games at this level. But if Clague wants to cement his place in the league after bouncing back down to the AHL a few times since being drafted 51st overall by the Kings in 2016, he knows it’ll have to be in also proving what he can do defensively.

“I think when I first got to L.A., it was always just wanted to get better in my defensive game from the hash marks down,” said the six-foot, 177-pounder who also acknowledged outmuscling players wouldn’t be his method of defending.

“I think I’ve taken huge strides in that area and I think when I have the puck on my stick, I think my game is really effective. Just want to stay focused on the defensive side and making sure I’m breaking up a lot plays and then get the puck in my hands and get it going to the forwards as fast as I can.”

That’s the key for any defenceman with his skill set.

Mattias Norlinder has a similar one, but he’s having a hard time showing it at this level. And while many will point the finger at Ducharme for that — Norlinder played just 8:58 against the Predators — it’s really because the player has appeared as though he’s just trying to survive his shifts.

This is a normal thing for any 21-year-old defenceman playing on the North American ice surface for the first time and doing so in the NHL of all places. That Norlinder missed several weeks with an injury he suffered early in training camp certainly didn’t help his adjustment.

Still, there’s no denying he’s gained valuable experience already. From just spending this much time in Montreal, getting acquainted with the organization and new teammates and practising and playing in the NHL, this experience will serve Norlinder well as he continues his development.

But we’ve reached the point where he’s not likely to gain much more valuable experience in Montreal this season. And we don’t think more ice-time in games with the Canadiens is the solution — it would probably be even more detrimental to his development to put him in over his head.

“I think Jeff (Gorton) will have some discussions with him and we’ll see what we’re going to do,” said Ducharme.

What they should do is obvious at this point: It’s time to send Norlinder back to Sweden, where he can play big minutes on Frolunda, which currently ranks as the top team in the SHL.

How to build an analytics department

We asked that question to Meghan Chayka, who founded data and analytics company Stathletes 11 years ago and now oversees a massive operation and staff.

“I think that totally depends on personnel, how much staffing you have in other departments and how much they can do in terms of understanding and interpreting data sets and be able to action amongst their group,” Chayka said. “And I just say that because I know when I work with other leagues, whether it’s NBA or MLB, some of them have analytics departments that are up to like 20-30 people that interface and have different touch points with data, with data scientists, data analysts and data engineers.”

We don’t foresee the Canadiens going from zero to 30 employees on the tech side, but Chayka’s point about having all types of different people within an analytics department resonates.

As she pointed out, there’s too much data and too much that needs to be done with it to have just one or two people on staff make a tangible difference.

“No one’s an engineer and a data scientist and a data analyst and a translator all in one,” Chayka added, emphasizing the need to have several people designing software and front-end solutions scouts and other members of the organization can use as tools to input information, the need to have others to experiment with the data and analyze it and, last but not least, people in place to translate conclusions to upper management and coaches.

When it comes to getting the most out of creating a staff dedicated to analytics, having someone high up the chain in hockey operations serve as a translator feels like a must.

“It’s typically someone who has a lot of knowledge on both ends,” said Chayka. “I have a lot of reps dealing with agents, dealing with scouts and managers and players, and you come to understand the problems from those peoples’ perspectives and learn the language they speak. If you have enough technical knowledge to explain how certain models or applications work and how they can use them to the best of their ability without being misled, it’s important to do it in their language.”

We asked her if she’d be interested in doing that, but she seemed to have bigger ambitions than that.

“We have a very great group,” said Chayka. “I head up over 100 people. Unless the Canadiens have a department that’ll be much bigger than I think it will, I already have a job that’s more fulfilling in terms of my skill set. I like being an entrepreneur, I like building, I like the tech side a lot. I think I have so much more to accomplish right now, but I’m always interested to hear what’s out there.

"I think, knock on wood, there should be more women not only running departments but being assistant GMs, GMs and presidents. I’m actively looking to build networks up so that women not only reach those levels but stay at them.”

Would Meghan want to become the second Chayka (brother John ran the Arizona Coyotes from 2016-20) to become a GM in the NHL?

“I’m incredibly interested,” she said. “I work alongside agents and players and trainers. But I think you need a lot of reps to be really successful in any sort of area, so for me to get touchpoints in all these different areas is key. I wouldn’t want to step into a role before I had a slam dunk in terms of understanding how I could be successful.

“But I haven’t set my objectives in terms of that’s my only goal. I would just as much want to be Prime Minister of Canada as that sort of thing. I see my career as fairly fluid, and I think that’s what makes it exciting.”

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