Canadiens’ management determined to keep injuries from halting momentum in rebuild

Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes. (CP)

BROSSARD, Que.— This can be considered a really good season for the Montreal Canadiens if it’s the only one of its kind under Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton.

Because what the general manager said, with the team’s executive vice-president of hockey operations sitting beside him during Friday’s end-of-season press conference, was undeniable.

“We can have all the greatest plans in the world,” Hughes started, “but if we don’t find a way to improve what’s going on from a medical standpoint, we’ll never build a winner here.”

This is the top priority for the Canadiens this off-season.

It’s not the only one—Gorton said they’d do everything they can to use the draft capital they’ve accrued and leverage the appreciation of their assets to accelerate their timeline of becoming competitive, and that we should expect them to pursue deals like the one they made last summer for Kirby Dach in that aim—but it is by far the most important one, even if the injury situation this season actually worked to their advantage.

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While it seems counterintuitive to say the Canadiens benefited from the number of injuries they suffered, it’s still true. Several young players had their development accelerated exponentially by the situation, several other players proved up their worth and seized opportunities they’d have otherwise never had because so many regulars were hurt, the culture grew by leaps and bounds—in part—because of the amount of adversity the team had to overcome, and top-five odds in the draft lottery were secured because they couldn’t possibly overcome all that adversity.

But something like what happened this season can’t happen again during this rebuild if the Canadiens are going to get to where they believe they’re headed.

And they know it.

“Next few days, we’re sitting down with everybody in the organization,” said Gorton. “We understand we led the league in man games (lost) last year, I think we broke the record this year. We’re pretty mindful of it and we’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out where we’ve gotta get better and it’s definitely something not lost on us.”

And it’s not something Gorton and Hughes will address without consulting with some top-flight medical experts outside of the organization throughout the process.

Not that they’ll need to lean on those people to understand that several patterns must be broken and many processes and protocols will need to change.

To hear Brendan Gallagher divulge how he broke his ankle blocking a shot in the 13th game of the season and then played eight more games on it before finally resting for a month revealed to what extent things are being mishandled.

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Sure, Gallagher said he downplayed the severity of the injury to keep playing and added that the medical staff could only do so much to treat him without having all the information, and he’s right about that. He acknowledged he needs to change and “be smarter,” and he’s bang on about that as well.

But for Gallagher to somehow end up back in games a month later, after suffering an injury that requires one to avoid weight-bearing activity for six-to-eight weeks for it to properly heal, suggests something in the team’s process is off.

That Gallagher couldn’t say with certainty whether or not he broke his ankle again (three games into his return) or that it simply hadn’t properly healed the first time suggests several things in the process—from diagnosis to recommended treatment and implementation of treatment—are completely off.

He’s one of several Canadiens who went through strange experiences.

Cole Caufield told us in January about how he dislocated his shoulder, popped it back in himself, dislocated it again, had it popped back in by the staff and then kept playing until a surgeon outside the organization stressed to him he was risking far too much. Sean Monahan admitted on Friday that playing on a broken foot led to a season-ending groin injury. And Mike Matheson didn’t want to get into how a core injury suffered in training camp resurfaced and caused issues in December and January.

But those are three cases, along with Gallagher’s, that highlight how urgent reform is.

The rest is up to the universe.

“When you have this many injuries,” said Gorton, “I do think luck was not on our side here.”

No one would argue with that.

The Canadiens have to hope fortune turns the other way for them as early as next season because that will be critical to them continuing to build on what they accomplished over this one, especially with opportunity being as ripe as it appears.

Hughes said that, regardless of how the draft lottery plays out on May 8, the Canadiens are confident they’ll be adding at least one player of impact this coming June in Nashville. You won’t find a draft analyst who disagrees.

The Canadiens will also have opportunities to add several other impact players, be it through the draft or trade or free agency, with several assets to dangle and a few contracts coming off the books to clear space.

“I would expect that, wherever possible, we would try to use cap flexibility to our advantage, as long as it didn’t tie us up long term,” said Hughes. “If we can improve the team one way or the other by taking a contract, we’ll do anything that’ll further our objectives here.”

He and Gorton said they’re firm in their plan to build the Canadiens methodically, committed to not getting lured in by moves that would put them closer to the playoffs but further from Stanley Cup contention, but both also said they are excited about the opportunity to build on the momentum already gained.

They’re thrilled with Martin St. Louis and the coaching staff and feel the progress made by them and the players is an important step forward.

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“I believe in this group, I believe in these players, I think we have a lot of good things happening,” said Gorton. “We’re going in the right direction.”

Now they must remove the biggest obstacle on that path.

“It’s about looking at every injury and what procedure was followed,” Hughes said. “Did we miss symptoms that perhaps would’ve led us to say, OK, we should get an MRI or an X-ray? We’re going to look at each case with a lot of detail to determine if we have to make changes either to personnel or procedures and how we went about dealing with injuries.”

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