Canadiens Notebook: Justin Barron eager to make strong impression on new team

Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13), Dallas Stars defenseman Joel Hanley (44), Avalanche defenseman Justin Barron (72) and Stars center Tyler Seguin (91) converge on the puck during the second period of a preseason NHL game in Denver, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. (AP/file)

BROSSARD, Que. — Justin Barron isn’t a player in need of a clean slate, but that’s what he’s getting with the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s a fresh start for the big right-handed defenceman, and it’s coming without prejudice.

He was drafted 25th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2020 and has since authored an impressive rookie debut in the American Hockey League, scoring five goals and 20 points in 43 games and showing the type of versatility that piqued the Canadiens’ interest. And it’s not as if the Avalanche watched him play his only two games with them this season and said, “Let’s get him out the door.”

They wanted Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen, and paid a heavy price – Barron, who’s a highly touted prospect, and a 2024 second-round pick – to acquire him. He wasn’t on the block, despite his name circulating in rumours due to the Avalanche being Stanley Cup contenders and in a position to shed prospects or draft picks for established players.

After Colorado GM Joe Sakic pulled the trigger, the buzz on Barron’s game went around.

“He’s a really good skater,” said one scout I spoke with.

“He’s good defensively and has some offensive upside,” said another. “Could become a solid No. 4.”

“I think some guys with Colorado were OK with letting him go,” said a last one I touched base with.

I wanted to know why.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think they were unanimous about him,” the scout responded.

I can’t tell you much more about Barron than I would about Ty Smilinac or Emil Heineman, who came over to the Canadiens in trades that sent Ben Chiarot and Tyler Toffoli out of town. I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know on players I haven’t seen live. I don’t form strong opinions based on small samples at the World Junior Championships and YouTube clips.

It’s good that Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis has a similar perspective.

“I definitely watched video,” he said after coaching Barron through his first Canadiens practice on Wednesday. “I watched a little bit, so I knew he was a righty (laughs). I knew he played defence. And I already have an impression of the kind of game he plays.”

But the coach is going to let the player do his talking with his play, and form a real opinion from there. He even said that in running drills at practice, he didn’t watch enough to form any kind of real idea of what Barron can do.

That’s something the player, who’s only 20 years old, will unquestionably appreciate –especially after checking out what people have had to say about him in the 36 hours since his life was dramatically altered with this trade.

I asked him to comment on one thing said about him that he believed to be accurate and one thing he felt to be inaccurate.

“I think for accuracy, I’m a good kid, a nice person, a good teammate that comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face and competes and looks to get better,” Barron responded. “And as for the other, people have said my game can be inconsistent at times, but I guess it’s something I’m trying to improve on and I think my game is pretty well-balanced.”

He’ll get a chance to prove it soon enough.

Perhaps as early as Thursday, when the Canadiens take on the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre.

William Lagesson, who came over in the trade that sent Brett Kulak to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, will also get that chance. In his case, he’ll have to show that he can play a steadier and more consistent defensive game while providing a bit more offence, and he’s excited to have an opportunity to do that.

“I think it’ll be a good fit,” he said. “I’m excited to be here and show what I can do.

“I would say I play tough down low, win my battles, keep the game fairly simple, move the puck quick and (have a) strong defensive game.”

If Lagesson can display that with the Canadiens, it will help him do what he wasn’t able to do in 57 games with the Oilers since being drafted 91st overall in 2014 – secure a regular spot in the NHL. As a pending restricted free agent due a $725,000 qualifying offer this summer, he’s hoping to get into as many games as possible.

Canadiens transparency not an empty promise

For 24 minutes on Tuesday, Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes did a live Q&A moderated by Chantal Machabee. They took questions from Canadiens fans on the spot but weren’t particularly revealing of much more than their personalities in their responses.

But perusing social media right after they did it, the comments were overwhelmingly positive.

A good friend of mine, who’s been a diehard Canadiens fan for over 30 years, quickly reached out with the following text, and I thought it perfectly echoed what we’ve been hearing from the majority of the fan base since Machabee was appointed vice president of communications.

“I have never felt more connected to the team,” he said, “and that’s with them in last place in the NHL.

“I just feel like there’s been a veil lifted here, that the communication has been clear and open, that the plan has been communicated. It’s reassuring. It just feels like the organization is reaching a new level of humanity and connection.”

I’ve been covering the Canadiens for 15 seasons, and, despite the short sample size, I sense that too.

I also see it in the way the team is being covered.

When was the last time you turned on the radio, or the television, or opened up what someone on the beat has written and noted even a hint of negativity?

Granted, the storyline since St. Louis landed as head coach nine days into February has been positive.

But, as my friend pointed out, the team hasn’t really budged in the standings. The Canadiens may have the 16th-best record in the NHL (9-6-3) since then, but they’ve still lost as many games as they’ve won, and nobody’s said boo about it.

The positivity – and openness – from the players has been unanimous, as well, which is a big part of why it feels like a dark cloud has been lifted.

And what’s been coming out of the coach, even after tough losses, has set the tone.

After taking a 2-1 lead in the third period Monday against the Boston Bruins and then losing 3-2 in overtime, St. Louis came into the press conference room generally upbeat.

I asked him if that was by design or authentic.

“It’s a little bit of circumstances, I think,” St. Louis said. “I lost my first three games, we were trying to change a few things. And even if we lost those games, I felt like we were in those games. And since we lost those three, I think we went on a nice run. We didn’t win all of them, but 90 per cent of them were games that were real close.

“I feel confident. I expect to win every game. I feel like we have a style of play, guys are bought in. And I know you say I’m positive, but to me it’s a little bit of circumstances too coming in, new coach, and (with) the situation we’re in it’s about building relationships right now and gaining trust and convincing them how we’re going to do things. And I think the guys have bought in. And you can see it in the product on the ice.

“Am I disappointed we lost tonight? Yes. But with the circumstances of today (the trade deadline) and what we’ve gone through, I thought it was a really, really good effort by our team.”

All of that makes sense.

But it also stands to reason the way key people in the organization are talking and acting is a function of how communications are being handled. To me, it’s all connected.

Hard times will come. The coach and his players will make mistakes, and they’ll be criticized for them. And the people who were skeptical anything would change when Machabee was hired will be waiting in the shadows to say, “See, I told you so,” when the pressure mounts and collars tighten.

But I don’t think this is just a honeymoon phase. I think the Canadiens have a good pulse on how they’re being covered and how their fans are reacting to their transparency, and I see them carrying that forward and opening up even more.

We’re already getting extensive daily updates on injuries and illnesses, with Machabee alleviating the coach from 40 per cent of the questions previously being fielded in press conferences. And, on Monday, special advisor to hockey operations Vincent Lecavalier was made available after Hughes’ post-deadline press conference because “it’s his first time here in person and we wanted to give you the opportunity to talk to him,” Machabee said.

Nobody made a request for Lecavalier, but there he was, answering questions for 20 minutes despite the Canadiens’ running against the clock to get from Brossard to the downtown Bell Centre for the game against the Bruins.

It wasn’t long ago that assistant coaches Alex Burrows and Luke Richardson were requested, and there was no hesitation to make them available.

There have seemingly been more interviews granted with upper-management – Gorton, Hughes, St. Louis and even Groupe CH executive vice president and commercial chief officer France Margaret Belanger – than ever before. If you can believe it, some requests have been denied, but not without cause and proper communication. These are big changes, and there’s more coming.

I don’t see a downside to any of this. And I can’t imagine the Canadiens do, either.

Quick hits

Carey Price was home sick on Wednesday with a non-COVID illness.

• Brendan Gallagher has recovered from his non-COVID illness, but is still ailing from a lower-body injury. He didn’t practise Wednesday and is doubtful to play Thursday.

Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin took maintenance days on Wednesday and St. Louis wasn’t able to say whether or not either one (or both) will be missing in action against the Panthers.

• Barron is wearing No. 52 because the number was assigned to him. He’d have chosen No. 20 if Chris Wideman weren’t wearing it.

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