Canadiens Notebook: Healthy culture has made tough season move fast

Montreal Canadiens right wing Jesse Ylonen, left, celebrates with defencemen Johnathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris, right, after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the third period of an NHL hockey game. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP)

MONTREAL — I can only speak to this from my perspective as NHL reporter who’s been working the Montreal Canadiens’ beat for 15 years, but the league’s schedule always seems to have the same feel to it.

Whether the Canadiens are experiencing a good and exciting season, a bad and boring one, a blend of those two realities or something totally in between, for a reporter, training camp feels exhaustingly long, the first 20 games of the regular season seem to flash by in a blink, you get to Game 30 and think, ‘I can’t believe there’s 52 more of these,’ and then, after running through the sprint to and from the trade deadline, you wake up and realize you’re down to weeks and just a dozen games to go.

You’d imagine players at different stages of their careers experiencing it differently from each other, or from their coach.

But speaking to one rookie, one veteran and one young coach of the Canadiens Monday, I thought it was interesting to hear about how much overlap there was on the theme of this season going by fast.

It was Jake Allen, the veteran goaltender in his 10th season, who I believe best summed up why he, rookie Johnathan Kovacevic and coach Martin St. Louis have all felt this way.

“Just the way the guys have bought in, and the effort, has made all the difference,” Allen said. “We’ve laid a couple of eggs out there, but that’s going to happen no matter what. But just in terms of the effort and culture we’ve established as a group, for me, and if you’re watching on the outside, it’s been great.”

It could’ve been completely different with the Canadiens leading the NHL in man-games lost and owning the fifth-worst record in the league.

But, as Allen said, “It hasn’t felt as heavy and long as last year did under similar circumstances.”

“There’s a lot of different aspects, but the culture that’s starting to be established here has lightened that load for a lot of guys in here,” Allen continued. “It could’ve really gone the other way. Some guys could’ve taken it harder than others, especially with some youth that we have in our locker room. To be able to say we only have a dozen games left and that it’s gone fast doesn’t feel as heavy as it would under similar circumstances results-wise.”

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For Kovacevic, it’s been the thrill of a lifetime, the type of amusement park ride he’d want to remain buckled into for as long as possible.

Of course, the culture of the team has offered him the best environment to enjoy the experience and feel like it’s only natural it’s going by fast.

But Kovacevic spent three full years in the AHL earning this opportunity, and he can’t even believe how quickly it’s flashed by.

“That’s been the biggest transition for me, even from the AHL to here, is that the schedule is so quick,” the 25-year-old said. “In the AHL, you have a lot of back-to-backs, then two, three days off, then more back-to-backs—and they’re in the same city because you want to save on travel. Here you’re travelling basically every other day for a large chunk of the schedule. When you’re doing that before games, you’re trying to prepare for the game to have all your energy for that 7 p.m. puck drop. You’re almost on autopilot, so it just flies by.

“It’s been my first year, and it’s gone by faster than I could’ve imagined. It seems like maybe a month ago that I got picked up on waivers and came to Montreal. It’s been five or six months now. I’m so locked into game-mode. Everything’s so new to me that every game, I’m almost like, ‘Wow, I have a game in the NHL today.’ It’s still like that, I don’t know what you call it, but like that magical aspect of it where I’m so in the zone. For me, it’s just been flying by.”

It’s been St. Louis first full season behind the bench, and the way he described it Monday made it sound like he’s barely had a moment to catch his breath.

“I feel it’s kind of the life cycle. You hit a certain age, it’s like life goes like that,” St. Louis said, snapping his fingers. “All of a sudden you’re 60 and you’re like…*snaps fingers again.* When you’re young, the season’s like that too. It seems like when you’re young you have so much in front of you, and then it’s gone. I’m amazed we only have 12 games left. Since the break, how fast it’s gone, it’s amazing. I think, as a coach, you really have to stay on top of things and stay on your toes because things happen so fast and you don’t get do-overs.”

In one respect, I’m sure Dominique Ducharme experienced a bit of that last season before losing his job and being replaced by St. Louis.

In another, it must have felt interminable as the effort appeared faulty at best and the culture completely broken through the first half.

It’s all seemed to move at the same pace for me, though.

Each season is long. At times, it feels like it’s rushing by and, at other times, it feels like it’ll never end. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the finish line is in view.

Brendan Gallagher, Kirby Dach, Jake Evans a step closer to returning

When I tweeted those three were donning non-contact jerseys at practice—for Gallagher and Evans it had been months, while it had been weeks for Dach—the responses were a mix of derisive, sarcastic and angry.

But they were also ignoring a couple of critical realities.

The first of which is considering what returns for at least two of the three players mean for the Laval Rocket.

Montreal’s AHL affiliate is currently two points behind the Rochester Americans for the final playoff spot in the North Division and, in this season dedicated strictly to development, the Canadiens want it to make the playoffs.

The Rocket only have 11 games remaining to Rochester’s 13, and the team is going to need some reinforcements.

Earlier in the day, prospect Emil Heinemann was sent from Europe to Laval. Late last week, Jayden Struble was signed out of college to join the Rocket.

But the Canadiens can’t get Jesse Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard there before two of Gallagher, Dach and Evans return to their lineup, and it’s something they would like to be able to do soon.

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The other important thing, which St. Louis spoke to, is for these players who have missed a ton of time to get back into games and carry some positive momentum into summer.

“Listen, hockey players want to play, and it sucks when they’re out of the lineup,” the coach said. “The wait is difficult, and summer is long. The process is you train and you prepare for the following season, but it’s a lot easier to prepare when you finish on a positive note. And for injured players to return before the end of a season is positive.”

Whether or not they have a positive effect on results is anything but guaranteed

“The way those players play isn’t as important as them finishing the season healthy,” said St. Louis. “If they give us good hockey, that’s a bonus.”

As for the risk of further injury, none of them are rushing back.

All three of Gallagher, Dach and Evans have been slowly brought along to ensure they return at 100 per cent.

Balance is key

It is the St. Louis concept we hear most about, often defined by the coach as wanting to see his players spread out in all three zones to ensure they aren’t duplicating tasks and making it easy for the opposition to either defend two players with just one or attack one player with two.

I like the way Kovacevic defined it earlier on Monday.

“I’m trying to describe balance without using the word balance, but I guess being supportive of the puck but also being spread out enough to allow your other teammates to play with the puck or to move in space is what it is,” he said. “So we want to be moving, we don’t want to be stationary, just five guys on the die. We want to be moving but at the same time filling different space on the ice so the guy with the puck has as many different outs.”

Five guys on the die? Like dice?

“Sometimes when you defend, a coach might say five on a die because that’s how the five on dice looks (spread out and balanced),” Kovacevic said. “But you don’t want to just look like a stationary five on the die; you want to be moving, filling lanes.  Balance would look different in different zones, but the concept behind it would be having guys in space being able to make plays, hopefully, with speed.”

It was most interesting to watch a drill the Canadiens performed towards the end of Monday’s practice, which aimed at creating that sought-after balance, both offensively and defensively, as quickly as possible.

“It starts with a 4-on-4 and, whenever there’s a change of possession, that team has an extra player coming in,” St. Louis explained. “So now that fifth player has to help us get balanced right away. As soon as that team loses possession, that player’s out, so the other team gains a player and it creates chaos. You’re trying to make it muddy for them to really find that balance (and find it) quick.”

One of the reasons it stood out to me today was because the Canadiens had previously done this drill many times this season, but just at 4-on-4, which made it harder to decipher the objective.

It became clear what it was really about when a fifth player rotated in, especially after I heard St. Louis tell his players, before running it Monday, “It’s about getting where you need to be at the right time, and think about balance when you’re the guy coming in.”

“We used to do that drill just 4v4,” St. Louis confirmed, “and I felt it was hard to attack on the inside. So a lot of our drills kind of evolve because I feel like we’re not getting enough of what we want. So we try to make it better over time, and today was the first time we added a fifth guy to help us find that balance and to have an opportunity to attack more and just solve really the issue in a chaotic environment. I feel we benefit from that.”

Every drill the Canadiens run incorporates that element of chaos because, as St. Louis and director of hockey development Adam Nicholas have explained several times, they want to simulate games as much as possible and games are chaotic.

This particular drill the Canadiens ran on Monday was chaotic, but you could also see how effective it would be to work on the concept of balance that St. Louis feels is so vital.

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