Priming The Numbers: The Montreal Canadiens Winning Formula

BOSTON, MA - JULY 13: Albert Einstein is depicted as a wax figure at the Dreamland Wax Museum on July 13, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Dreamland Wax Museum is slated to open in late July 2017 and will include all of the United States Presidents, a re-creation of the White House Oval Office, more than 100 figures and is located adjecent to Boston City Hall. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 13: Albert Einstein is depicted as a wax figure at the Dreamland Wax Museum on July 13, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Dreamland Wax Museum is slated to open in late July 2017 and will include all of the United States Presidents, a re-creation of the White House Oval Office, more than 100 figures and is located adjecent to Boston City Hall. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images) /

Following a basement finish in the 2021-22 season, the Montreal Canadiens record to date of eleven wins, nine losses, and one overtime loss seems a randomly dramatic improvement.

However, it is actually the refined consummation of a roster-building formula whose groundwork was laid long ago. The framework of the organization’s formula lies in the careful distancing of nostalgia, or sentimentality, from the on-ice product.

The Club de Hockey Canadien appears to be steeped in tradition, regularly honoring its heroes in tasteful ceremonies. But it has a keen understanding that marketing, branding, and cultural matters are social in nature, while the squad itself is aesthetic and athletic, and as such its guiding principles are merit and performance.

Therefore, while the Canadiens front office is primarily French Canadian, the team has become increasingly less so. In fact, in one game from the season before last there were, for the first time, no French Canadians in the line up (Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault sat out with injuries).

In Montreal, there is always the temptation to politicize the roster by ensuring the employ of francophones; a mixing of politics, sentimentality, and sport which the Habs quickly temper when the occasion arises. For example, although many were shocked, in the1980 draft Doug Wickenheiser was preferred to Denis Savard.

With respect to player performance, the Canadiens act swiftly and decisively when evidence suggests an athlete is on the wrong side of their career arc. This was made explicit in dramatic fashion in the 1983 playoffs during the Adams Division semi-final versus Buffalo.

I was in attendance at Memorial Auditorium for game three to see my hero, Guy Lafleur, in action. With the Canadiens trailing in the last few minutes, most would have wagered that Lafleur would be sent out for full and double-time duty to work his usual magic.

But, astonishingly, Lafleur never saw the ice. Coach Jacque Lemaire, Lafleur’s former linemate, benched him. It was the ultimate signal to Habs nation (including a broken-hearted me) that politics, sentiment, and nostalgia have no place on the ice. Lafleur’s cultural iconography was relegated by competitive necessity, as was Lafleur the diminished hockey talent.

(We can since famously add Patrick Roy, gone in a flash after disrespecting coach Mario Tremblay and team executives, and P.K. Subban, who couldn’t commit to team systems and broader philosophies).

In a previous article, I touched on how nostalgic lenses can distort perception. There, I focused on the popular reflex that the ‘old days’ were better than today.  However, nostalgic lensing also influences hockey organizations.

Consider what might be the common thread among these players; Eric Lindros, Ron Francis, Brian Leetch, Ed Belfour, Joe Thornton, Mark Giordano, Patrick Marleau, Doug Gilmour, and Wendel Clark?

Is it a Hall of Fame induction? Stanley Cup rings? No and no.

It turns out they were all signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs when they were (very) late in their careers. Toronto persistently conflates nativity (with its myth that locals will be more motivated and effective), hero worship (the wily veteran as a positive influence), and hockey skills.

The privileging of local talent is likely good for marketing, but for the quality of hockey in the long run it can only be detrimental as it fishes from a pond instead of an ocean.

The romanticizing of veterans, however, is where things migrate from the questionable to the ridiculous.

The notion that the presence, experience, and “mentoring” role of senior players is a viable trade-off for their declining skills is mythical, if not fantastic, as is the hope that aged stars will find a second wind and return to their former glory.

In lieu of veterans who are well past their prime, the Montreal Canadiens have gone all in on youth, with a half-dozen rookies potentially in the line up on any given night, often four on defense alone (!).

What is especially interesting is how the Canadiens have, as part of the emphasis on youth, precisely populated its second and third lines.

The current iteration of the Canadiens is uniquely compelling in that the second and third-line players have been signed with the reasonable hope and expectation to return to first-line form.

This expectation is reasonable because Kirby Dach, Sean Monahan, Jonathon Drouin, Mike Hoffman, and Evgenii Dadonov have all put up good numbers in the past (in Dach’s case, as a junior) but they are not older players and therefore there is a good chance they can regain their A-level skill sets.

That is markedly different than signing established second and third liners, who usually come with fairly hefty salaries and predictable performances, or committing substantial portions of the budget to four or five stars and hoping they carry the offensive load while the supporting cast  holds down the defensive fort (see Toronto Maple Leafs).

To summarize the Montreal Canadiens formula:

1. A keen appreciation that the modern NHL is simply too competitive to allow aging veterans to take up roster spots (Dadonov, at thirty-three, is their oldest active player). Whatever veterans bring to the dressing room, they come with the larger opportunity cost of increasingly diminishing performance returns.

2. An understanding that the salary cap era precludes signing more than a small handful of pristine A-listers, thus a creative response is to recruit handfuls of potential  A-listers, established but dormant talent, players overlooked or considered to be “damaged goods” yet young enough to fully recover.

3. A commitment to meritocracy, not personal, social, or political circumstances (recall the drafting of Mailloux and signing of Hoffman despite their regrettable personal issues).

So, how have the players in question been doing this season?

Monahan has looked like his old self since the get-go. Dach has improved and impressed to the point of securing a first line assignment. Hoffman was exactly on his historic goal scoring pace (and even on a hot streak before he was injured). Drouin has had his moments and even became an important part of the powerplay before his injury. Dadonov, meanwhile, has been very slow out of the gate but is moving the puck well and starting to register some points.

The rookies and other youngsters (Michael Pezzetta is in his second year) have certainly held their own and more, and when there have been lapses they have shown that they are coachable and able to adjust (in the last two games they have been especially strong defensively).

With all the above supporting Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, it can definitely be said that the Montreal Canadiens master plan has worked in establishing some quality and depth, as evident in their slightly above .500 record.  While this is about average in terms of the NHL standings, the trajectory from last place a few months ago to middle of the pack now is promising, for it is charted by a method allowing only for positive outcomes, a winning formula that should be impossible to erase.

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