When Jeff Gorton signed on to become the Montreal Canadiens’ new executive vice-president of hockey operations last fall, the two pillars he wanted to improve were hockey development and analytics.
The Canadiens headed into the first training camp of Gorton’s and general manager Kent Hughes’s era with a retooled hockey development team. New to the team are Olympic gold medalist Marie-Phillip Poulin as player development consultant, Scott Pellerin as hockey development consultant and Adam Nicholas as director of hockey development.
Player development coach Francis Bouillon was already on board before Gorton’s arrival and noticed that he walked the talk, quickly adding more resources at their disposal.
“I think it was clear when Jeff and Kent came in, they met [director of player development Rob Ramage] and I and they told us that they wanted to surround themselves with more people,” Bouillon said. “That was the first meeting I had with them and that’s what they’ve done pretty quickly. They wanted more people in development and they hired Marie-Philip, Adams and Scotty.
“For us, we were happy because we were everywhere. I was doing Laval and two days later I was doing the OHL. At some point, if you want quality you have to put the right things in the right places.”
Nicholas, who previously served as a skill development consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is adamant on building a player’s hockey sense through the environment they play in.
“It’s not about being able to shoot 21 one-timers in a row, it’s just not about that,” said Nicholas.
Skill development, Nicholas says, can only occur if you prepare players to be “cognitively ready” to perform and react on the ice.
“You show them how they move away from the puck, that’s really where the true pure gold is,” he said. “You have to know what the principles are to actually teach that. You have to know what those principles are to actually be able to teach during those games that you guys are seeing us play.”
With an important influx of young talent coming to Montreal, including 2022 first-round picks Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar, along with two potential first-rounders next year, Nicholas is looking forward to working with each player.
Nicholas will study them on video extensively to find their “instance rates” before even meeting them in order to make sure what exactly they need to work on.
“You can have player X and you want to work on a drag shot, you know, how most players score in this league with a drag and then they shoot it, right? But what if a player doesn’t put themselves in that spot? How are they ever going to use that tool, right?” he said.
“So that’s where I have to understand what their instance rates are around on the ice so that then I can best foster a plan early and I can best foster a plan for that player to actually help them get to the next level.”
Director of minor league affiliates and professional scout Nick Carriere will be at every home game of the Laval Rocket, the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate. Carriere, who has coaching experience in the NCAA and the AHL, explained that he and the hockey development team understand the intensity of stepping from the college system and junior hockey to the professional. Their job will include trying to alleviate the pressure for young players and coaches.
“For the players that come from the NCAA or the juniors it’s a very different step,” he said. “Just to get support from us to come in and speak to them in a different way. Being on the ice to try and help them and also in life situations about how to be a professional.
“I think that’s a part where we can help the young players accelerate their development and just to get them a little extra support because sometimes it goes fast and maybe they don’t have time to do everything they’d want. I think this is where we can help them.”
Ramage also believes that hockey development is a two-way street and that the crux of their work will rely on player-staff relationships. The Canadiens have given themselves a better chance to develop their talent amid a rebuilding process but players will need to buy in and make the necessary steps in order to return to winning ways.
“If you don’t get that trust factor, no matter what we say or bring to them, it’s gonna be futile,” Ramage said. “Once that is attained, it’s bringing and communicating all the resources.
“And not just bringing that information, those resources to them but make sure they use them. You know, we bring that horse to the water. We’re going to make sure that these players are drinking that water.”