(Laval) “I know everyone would like to hear us say the P-word…”
Jeff Gorton, vice-president of hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens, quickly set the table. The “P-word” is “playoffs”, or playoffs in French. From the second minute of his speech on Monday morning, on the occasion of the traditional golf tournament launching the new season, he made it clear that he would not say it.
And he kept his promise, never mentioning the new hated term in almost 14 minutes on the microphone. Club owner and president Geoff Molson, general manager Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St-Louis have maintained the same reserve, escaping here and there but never committing to making it a goal.
The overall message, however, could not be clearer. The 2023-2024 campaign will take place under the sign of “growth”, a word which had obviously been chosen to explain (or not) where the Habs are in their reconstruction process. For another season, at least, we are calling on the “patience” of the supporters.
We will try to improve every day. I know it’s cliché and I’m sorry, but that’s how we move forward. That’s what we want.
Jeff Gorton, vice-president of hockey operations of the Canadiens
During his end-of-season review last April, Kent Hughes explicitly indicated that his “expectations” were going to be raised for this fall.
We can understand why. The CH has just finished at 32e then at 28e rank in the general classification. The reconstruction process has been clearly named – more than ever before, underlined Geoff Molson -, so much so that the Gorton-Hughes duo has been carrying out a cleaning from the cellar to the attic for a year and a half, both among the players and within franchise staff.
However, the notion of expectations remains abstract.
Geoff Molson: “Our team will be young, fast and very talented. I want to see it develop even further. When they (the players) are ready, we are going to have a very exciting team. »
Kent Hughes: “I can’t make any concrete sense. I said, at the end of last season, that we would not arrive here saying that we will miss the playoffs, that it is already settled and that we will play without competing. Players have expectations of themselves. Me, I expect them to show up every game to win. »
The CEO qualified his speech by conceding that victories and defeats could not be completely removed from the equation. However, he is careful not to establish objectives which would become a “burden” for the players, which would take away any room for maneuver. “Matches are played for a reason. We’ll see where this takes us. »
Taking up a well-established credo, Martin St-Louis for his part recalled that “success is every day”.
“You have to win the day,” he said. When you win a match, you think that you have won the day, but sometimes, this small victory is a (mirage), since you perhaps did not play your best match. It’s a band-aid when you need an operation. »
By approaching situations with “honesty” and focusing on player development, “success will be a side effect,” he believes.
The posture of the Habs staff obviously makes sense in the context in which the team operates. In a ruthless Atlantic division, the idea of reaching the playoffs is almost utopian, barring extraordinary performances from the Canadian combined with a simultaneous collapse of all his opponents.
“Most of our players are under 25 and have not reached their full potential,” recalled Kent Hughes. This youth, above all, appears in key positions. Let’s think about the club’s three best attackers, Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach. To Juraj Slafkovsky, youngest player in the league last year at 18 years old. To the attackers Alex Newhook, acquired during the summer, and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, a revelation in the second half of the season. Or to defenders Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron and Arber Xhekaj, who have all been part of the regular rotation in 2022-2023.
All these young people arrive with a heavier baggage of experience than last year, noted Martin St-Louis. And all will be given more responsibilities than before, confirmed Kent Hughes. The latter recognized that asking players at the start of their careers to almost exclusively put collective interests before their individual interests represented a challenge.
Jeff Gorton nevertheless expressed a wish. In training camp as during the season, “we have to have players who push, push, push.” “We have to be competitive every night,” he said.
All the managers also underlined their amazement at having seen around forty players converge on the Brossard training center in August, without the organization forcing them to return to town. If the players did it discreetly, it’s pretty obvious that their bosses wanted it known.
“It shows their enthusiasm and their commitment,” analyzed Gorton.
“Enthusiasm can take us far,” added Hughes.
But to what extent? “The answer is on the ice,” concluded Geoff Molson.