BROSSARD, Que.— It’s a little past 10 a.m. at the Montreal Canadiens’ south shore practice facility and Adam Douglas, who oversees the team’s sports science and performance department, is up in the press box, waiting for a collection of prospects to join him.
He’s looking down at the ice, where the second group of the day is hanging on every word coming out of director of hockey development Adam Nicholas’ mouth.
“What do you think of him?” I ask.
“He’s fantastic,” Douglas responds. “Adam and I talk every day, and we think about things the same way, and we are really building something to win. Everything we do is geared towards winning and giving ourselves more chips at the table.”
There is no bigger visual representation of this than seeing 12 development coaches on the ice with Nicholas.
Strength in numbers.
The visual itself underlines how much the Canadiens have done in such a short period of time to address what has been their biggest weakness for over a decade. Since Jeff Gorton came on board as executive vice president of hockey operations in November, and since he hired Kent Hughes to be general manager in February, the development department has become, well, an actual department.
And it’s one thing to have Douglas and Nicholas there, and another to have Chris Boucher overseeing analytics in the front office, and one more to continue to lean on good people who were already in place — Francis Bouillon, Rob Ramage and the AHL coaching staff.
But can you imagine what it was like for Canadiens prospects to step on the ice for their first training session with the team and be greeted by the world’s greatest female hockey player in Marie-Philip Poulin and a former Stanley Cup-winning superstar in Vincent Lecavalier? To have those icons sharing insights and instructions?
“That was unbelievable,” said Lane Hutson, who was taken 62nd overall at the Bell Centre last Friday.
Douglas watched Hutson and the other players ramp up the intensity. He fixated on the work being done 60 feet below.
“We’re building something here — everyone working together and on the same page, and it’s exciting,” he said. “We’re building plans for our players, and we’re heading in the right direction and the same direction. Good to have everyone finally together.”
The time is ripe.
There were 11 players drafted to the Canadiens last week. They were added to a handful of good prospects acquired by the team prior to the trade deadline and to another group of players that had begun their professional development in a far less robust system, and the success of the team’s rebuild will depend on all of their progress.
The process takes on heightened importance this week.
All eyes on Juraj Slafkovsky
The first-overall pick in 2022 took his first strides as a Canadien with management and the coaching staff observing — and with hundreds of fans crowded around the glass looking on.
Slafkovsky, at six-foot-three and 227 pounds, stood out. As did his skill.
But the kid wasn’t thrilled with himself afterwards.
“In my opinion, it didn’t go that well for me,” Slafkovsky said, “but I’m sure it will get better tomorrow and Wednesday.
“It was a bit tougher to start — still a little bit tired from (going first overall and the excitement that ensued), and I got all new gear. It was tough,” he added. “But that’s not an excuse. I have to be much better.”
When I spoke with Canadiens co-director of amateur scouting Nick Bobrov after the Draft, he talked about how they challenged Slafkovsky and picked apart his game.
Bobrov said the Slovakian took it all in stride, calmly stated what he agreed and disagreed with and really impressed in the process.
I asked if Slafkovsky was genuine in his responses or if he might have just been telling the Canadiens what they want to hear.
I’m paraphrasing, but Bobrov said, “That’s not who he is. He doesn’t have that in him.”
You can see the appeal in that for the Canadiens.
They see an honest, realistic and driven player. And Slafkovsky gave us a glimpse of that in assessing himself as he did on Day 1 of development camp.
Sean Farrell stands out
The 20-year-old, who posted 10 goals and 28 points in his first season at Harvard after torching the USHL with 101 points in 53 games in 2020-21, looked like the best player on the ice on Monday.
The skill is so obvious. The smarts, too.
And it was impossible not to be impressed by the maturity Farrell displayed in stating after practice that he remains committed to returning to Harvard in the fall.
Never mind that he put up three goals and six points at the Beijing Olympics or that he had another six points in 10 games at the world championships. Farrell still feels there’s plenty for him to continue learning at the college level.
“I think for me, I just want to try to be a leader and kind of be a guy that they can lean on to win our league, win the Beanpot and hopefully compete for a national championship,” he said.
There were more than a couple of people in the Canadiens brass who, judging by what they saw on the ice on Monday, believe Farrell will achieve that.
His peers were impressed, too.
“Aside from the big guy, he really caught my attention,” said Hutson, who competed against Farrell in the USHL and admires his skill and hockey sense.
Oh, and just getting back to the question up top about what it must have felt like for players to be on the ice with Poulin and Lecavalier, Farrell was blown away.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Those two are such legends in the game of hockey and just to be able to be around them and Marty St. Louis at this camp is really special.”
Canadiens walking the walk on Respect Initiative
Go back a little over the year, to when the Canadiens damaged their brand by choosing Logan Mailloux 31st overall in the draft after the prospect renounced himself once it was discovered he had been charged in Sweden for distributing a photo of a sexual encounter.
On July 1, 2021, Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said, “I have no doubt we disappointed a lot of our fans. But I also have no doubt we disappointed a lot of people who maybe aren’t our fans, who have been impacted by this type of thing. And this is where the Montreal Canadiens should be better. And I take full responsibility for that, and we will be better.”
He said the Canadiens would engage local experts and build a comprehensive plan to raise awareness and educate people about respect and consent, and promised to use the Canadiens’ platform and resources to “turn a decision that hurt many people into one that brings meaningful and impactful change.”
Molson tasked Genevieve Paquette (director of community engagement for the Canadiens foundation) with heading up a task force dedicated specifically to these initiatives.
On Monday, Paquette invited Sheldon Kennedy, from the Respect Group, to come address Mailloux and the rest of Montreal’s prospects at the development camp.
Kennedy doesn’t do this with all NHL teams. It’s not part of his group’s partnership with the NHL.
But he said he was impressed by the Canadiens’ commitment to becoming leaders in changing hockey culture, in progressing themselves, and he was happy to oblige.
Kennedy said, “They’re walking the walk.”
“I’m here because I see leadership and I see an organization that wants to be the best it can be in this space,” he added.
Kennedy wasn’t the only one in attendance. He was joined by Bruno Gervais — the former NHLer who works with Respect Group — and another guest who works specifically with victims of sexual abuse.
The players are being given baseline training on respect, consent, abusive language and behaviour, and what is and isn’t acceptable in everyday practice. Paquette told us the training was interactive and required their participation.
“They have to know how serious this stuff is, and it’s not just by listening that we learn,” she said.
The Canadiens are among teams in Canada undergoing training mandated by the NHL on all these issues. The managers, coaches and players are all receiving it.
But going beyond that and engaging Kennedy and Gervais (among others) was an important step that speaks to how serious they are about changing their own culture. And there’s a good chance — even with their brand damaged by last year’s actions — they’ll inspire others to do the same.
That’s a sliver of progress, but it’s still progress.
– Slafkovsky didn’t choose the No. 60 he wore on Monday. It was assigned to him, and he said he will switch it if he can when he makes the Canadiens one day.
– Defenceman Corey Schueneman is back with Montreal on a two-way contract worth $750,000 in the NHL and $275,000 in the AHL.
– Fourth-line grinder Michael Pezzetta went from being the guy no one thought would ever play in the NHL to a guy who got a one-way deal from the Canadiens on Monday. He’s guaranteed $750,000 no matter where he plays, and that’s a heck of a payoff for what he brought to the team last season. Well earned.
– Qualifying offers were extended to restricted free agents Kirby Dach, Nate Schnarr, Joel Teasdale, Samuel Montembeault and Cayden Primeau. The team left Josh Brook, Kale Clague and Rem Pitlick off the list, enabling all three players to become unrestricted free agents come Wednesday.
On Pitlick, here’s why the skilled winger, who scored nine goals and 26 points in 46 games with the Canadiens last season, wasn’t tendered an offer.
– Lastly, the Canadiens won’t be buying out any contracts before the window to do so closes.