BROSSARD, Que. — His voice is booming as he addresses a group of five players before running them through an offensive-zone rotation drill.
From behind the glass that walls in the press box at the Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility, we can’t quite make out what Adam Nicholas is saying. It’s fitting because there’s been a veil over what he’s been doing since he was hired as the team’s director of player development back in early March.
There’s much to discover about the 37-year-old—beyond what Google searches reveal about his philosophies on the game and his background. Which is why it’s exciting that Nicholas, along with the rest of Montreal’s expanded development staff, is expected to be made available to the media this coming week.
Surely, we’re not alone in wanting to get a much better sense for how he’s approaching the all-important mandate he’s taken on.
It appears to be all-encompassing. Nicholas isn’t solely guiding the maturation process of the team’s expanded prospect pool but is also, in harmony with coaching staffs in both Montreal and Laval, building out development plans for every player in the organization.
One of the more cerebral ones gave us a quick peek behind the curtain when we caught up with him on Friday.
Rem Pitlick, the 25-year-old the Canadiens claimed off waivers in January of last season, is a self-proclaimed student of the game. He showed it in the way he played through 46 games with the team by scoring nine goals and 26 points—most of them a product of his strong hockey sense.
Pitlick is a fast skater. He’s got good hands and a quality shot, though he’d be the first to admit he can continue to improve all three assets.
But, as the Ottawa native explained, he’s spending more time on his hockey sense and the mental part of the game than any other aspect he’s working on.
When Nicholas was brought into the fold, Pitlick was quick to seek out his guidance.
“I love hockey,” he said. “I’ve been in hockey my whole life. My dad played, my cousin plays, my brother plays, my mom was an athlete, I work with (Hall of Famer) Adam Oates as well in the summer. I think I’ve just been blessed to be around certain people that care about the game, and they look at it with attention and awareness. Adam Nicholas falls into that group.
“He’s a lifelong learner. He sends me random stuff that he’s reading or looking at, cross-referencing different sports. I think he brings a really creative element in there, and he’s worked with a lot of top-end guys. So, he’s experienced with what he brings, and he’s a personable guy. He can kind of mesh with an old-school guy versus maybe a young guy like me. I think he can kind of mesh with different personalities.”
Pitlick and Nicholas have meshed well.
In early conversations, they identified two areas of focus.
The first was shot volume. While Pitlick impressed by scoring 15 goals in 66 games split between the Minnesota Wild and Canadiens last season, he scored them on just 65 shots and knows that a shooting percentage of 23 isn’t going to be sustainable moving forward.
Considering the NHL’s best shooter, Auston Matthews, scored his 60 goals last season on 348 shots for a shooting percentage of 17, the point is reinforced. Pitlick is far from the NHL’s best shooter, and he will have to focus on pulling the trigger more often.
But getting himself to places where he can do it from is where his work with Nicholas will guide him, which brings us to the second area of focus.
“Just creating a little bit of speed differential in the o-zone—coming up and then coming back down with speed to get pucks,” is how Pitlick described it.
He also said that knowing when to skate those routes comes down to awareness and vision and explained how Nicholas helped him think about those things on a deeper level.
“He sent me some soccer videos of guys just scanning,” Pitlick said. “I like how he cross-references sports. The scanning—there was a guy in the field, I can’t remember his name, but it was how many times he’s looking at space and where he’s kind of positioning himself relative to space. I think that’s a concept that he talks a lot about, and that’s kind of what came to my mind.”
It was a theme discussed with scoring winger Cole Caufield, as well, though not explored further with him through videos of soccer players.
Instead, Nicholas isolated shifts from Auston Matthews and Colorado Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon for Caufield to analyze.
“I think that’s the easiest way to bring it into your game is just watch what other people do and kind of find those things,” said the 21-year-old, who scored 23 goals in 67 games last season. “You don’t really need to work on it too much; it’s not really about skills, it’s more about how can you find and create more space for yourself and make the game easier for yourself?”
Caufield said Nicholas is all about that and that he approaches his job with an enthusiasm that’s contagious.
“He comes to work early in the morning like it’s 7 p.m. of a game-night, and it’s great,” Caufield added.
We’ll learn a lot more about how Nicholas does what he does when we speak with him.