Canadiens Road Trip Takeaways: Mental strength of young defence nurtured by coaching staff

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Johnathan Kovacevic, right, knocks the puck away from Seattle Kraken forward Jordan Eberle during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Seattle. (AP)

MONTREAL – About that first NHL goal, but not the one scored by Shane Wright: Think about what it meant for Johnathan Kovacevic to record it on Tuesday, as part of the first Montreal Canadiens win against the Seattle Kraken, five years after being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets.

Kovacevic spent two more seasons at Merrimack College before spending three full seasons in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose, building up his stock for an organization that finally signed him to a three-year, $2.3-million contract in July before waiving him on Oct. 7. He landed in Montreal on Oct. 8, with four games of NHL experience and a challenge to prove himself to an organization that would’ve taken a chance on just about any pro defenceman with a right shot and a coach who admitted he knew absolutely nothing about him.

Now fast forward to Monday night in Vancouver, when the Canadiens were barely holding on at 6-5 after blowing a 4-0 lead, and Kovacevic was holding his breath in the penalty box after tripping J.T. Miller to give the Canucks a 6-on-4 advantage.

You’d think it would’ve devastated the 25-year-old defenceman to see Andrei Kuzmenko tie the game seven seconds later, and it would only be natural to assume he lost some sleep after watching Elias Pettersson win it 13 seconds into overtime.

But Kovacevic bouncing back in Seattle hours later, scoring a goal he’s dreamed of scoring his entire life, gives you a sense for his ability to keep things in proper perspective.

Now, I can’t say for sure what he was thinking because I wasn’t at Climate Pledge Arena on Tuesday, but if he finally got some rest between the games against the Canucks and Kraken, it might have had something to do with reviewing his career-high 22:49 in Vancouver and realizing he played an excellent game outside of that one small mistake.

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But before I was at Rogers Arena taking in that wild spectacle, I was in Edmonton, speaking with Kovacevic from the visiting dressing room at Rogers Place after the Canadiens lost 5-3 to the Oilers, and he said something that gave great insight into the way he thinks.

Kovacevic was asked if being scratched two nights prior in Calgary – and being a part of the defensive rotation the Canadiens had going before David Savard was unable to play in Vancouver and Seattle – was affecting his rhythm.

“I think if you let it, it’s going to be harder,” he responded. “But I think there’s definitely ways that – I think I’ve said this before – you can use it to your advantage. I didn’t play last game, so I should be the freshest guy out there on our team. That’s the way I’m looking at it. You could say that the flow of things might be tougher but, at the same time, I think you could make the argument that I’ll be fresher and more ready to play. It’s about how you approach it mentally.”

This is a guy who’s strong in this department, not a guy who gets rattled by mistakes, and everything else he said last Saturday in Edmonton supported that.

But the game Kovacevic played in Vancouver, after he and Kaiden Guhle made a clear mistake that cost a goal late in the second period of the loss to the Oilers, seemed like more evidence, in spite of the penalty he took on Miller. And bouncing back with another solid game and his first NHL goal against the Kraken after that late penalty in Vancouver confirmed it.

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Mental strength of young Canadiens defencemen nurtured by coaching staff

That mental strength that Kovacevic possesses isn’t unique to him; we’ve also seen it in Guhle, Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris.

That it’s been on exhibition since the start of the season has much to do with training-camp injuries to Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson opening the door for all of them to take on bigger roles than anticipated with the Canadiens.

But you can’t take anything away from these kids in evaluating how they’ve handled the opportunity.

Still, a huge part of them thriving is how they’ve been nurtured by the Canadiens’ coaching staff. That they’ve all made several mistakes and been given so many opportunities to bounce back from them – both within a given game and from game to game – has put them ahead of the curve.

Before the Canadiens took to the ice in Seattle, Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis spoke with reporters about how valuable that is in the big picture.

“If you asked me this summer if I thought we’d be where we are in their development, I would’ve paid a lot of money for that,” he said. “You can’t speed farm development, and those guys have taken a huge step in a short amount of time. Is it the amount of reps they get to have because of the early injuries we had? Is it the style of play we allow them? Is it the brand that we play?

“I don’t know. I think it’s all a combination of everything, but it all starts with them.”

But it doesn’t end with these young defencemen.

St. Louis added “there’s constant communication with them” and “constant teaching,” and that has to be the case if you’re going to use the NHL as a development league at any position, but especially on defence, where mistakes often lead to goals against and are therefore magnified.

There’s probably no better example of how St. Louis is fulfilling his mandate than how he’s handled his young defencemen.

When Matheson returned and it became necessary to rotate Kovacevic, Xhekaj and Harris in and out of the lineup, St. Louis made a point of saying that it was up to each individual to maintain their own confidence. And each player has responded in turn.

Think of Kovacevic rebounding, as explained earlier. Think about how the others have done the same.

Xhekaj sat out of the 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks before the road trip, returned to play just over 11 minutes in Calgary, and scored a big goal and played over 17 minutes against Edmonton. Harris was scratched against the Oilers and had the first multipoint game of his career against the Canucks.

He made costly mistakes in that game, but he bounced back with a strong performance in Seattle.

And then there’s Guhle …

The 20-year-old defenceman is a cut above his young colleagues on the Canadiens, and it’s plays like this that show it.

Seeing Guhle separate Matty Beniers from the puck gives you a glimpse of how well he’s adjusting to playing his off-side, and his overall game is turning heads all around the NHL.

“I can’t believe we were ever debating whether or not to draft this kid,” said one scout in attendance at the Canadiens-Canucks game. “The more we watched him last year, the more he showed he’s got all the tools.

“And he’s nasty. He’s got that physical nastiness to his game that’s only going to show more.”

There were questions about Guhle’s offensive abilities before he was taken 16th overall by Montreal in 2020, but those are no longer being asked.

“That was one of the biggest benefits of him returning to junior last year,” said another scout during the game in Vancouver. “He wasn’t even on the power play much the year before, and then he got put in all those situations and worked on that part of his game.”

It’s shown in the goal and 10 points Guhle has posted in 26 games with the Canadiens.

But there’s so much more to him creating offence for the team than what shows on the scoreboard.

The hit on Beniers led to the rush Rem Pitlick finished for a goal, even if Guhle didn’t get a point on the play.

His ability to close down the rush, the hard passes he makes and the smart plays he comes up with through the neutral zone regularly lead to chances and momentum gained.

That’s a big part of the reason, despite what the analytics say, Guhle hasn’t looked at all out of place, averaging more than 20 minutes per game and playing against the best forwards in the world on a nightly basis.

But another factor comes back to his mental strength, and his maturity.

Ahead of Guhle’s first NHL game in Edmonton, we asked him how many times – while he was playing toward the end of last season at Rogers Place as a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings – he dreamed up the scenario he was about to live there (playing against Connor McDavid).

Guhle’s answer was anything but surprising.

“Not once, actually,” he said. “I was just kind of focused on that year to the end and focused on that run we had in Edmonton there, and just trying not to look too far ahead.”

Without calling him “an everyday guy” – something St. Louis has said he wants all of his players to be – the Canadiens coach described Guhle as exactly that to explain why no challenge seems too big for him to meet.

“I think Guhle’s focus is on every day,” St. Louis said. “His good is very good, and his bad is still very good, and there’s consistency in his game because of that. But it’s an everyday thing, and I think he understands; I think he comes in, doesn’t take anything for granted, puts in the time, and I’m sure he worked extremely hard this summer to prepare himself. He’s a confident kid, but I think confidence comes from preparation – and it starts so far from the actual ice surface, and that’s very mature for a young player.”

Quick hits

Nick Suzuki had five points over this four-game road trip and got at least one point in each game he played. In 14 road games this season, he has 15 points. If we’re looking for one of the bigger areas of growth in his game, this is it – especially with every team circling his name in the pre-game meetings and owning the matchup advantage during the games to try to stop him.

Suzuki began to build in this department last season, when he posted 29 of his 61 points over 41 road games. But he had a long way to come from the 2020 season, when managed only 15 points in 28 road games.

It’s not just the scoring this season, it’s the consistency of it. Suzuki has only been held off the board four times on the road.

• With his 15th goal of the season, scored in Seattle, Cole Caufield is on pace for 47 goals.

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