In general, hockey is a sport that is filled with very conservative thinkers. I’m not implying politics here. I’m talking about people who do not readily embrace change.
Old school thinkers tend to forget that success in sports is not only the result of getting bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled – it’s also about getting smarter. Historically, very few hockey executives have embraced the “smarter” end of the game in terms of creativity and innovation. Most have been reactive rather than proactive in this regard. Like, most NHL franchises, the Montreal Canadiens have been industry followers rather than leaders and this needs to change. 1993 called. It wants its managerial system back.
In the past, the majority in the hockey community rejected video analysis. I still remember how Roger Neilson was derisively referred to as “Captain Video” for bringing this now essential tool into hockey. Old schoolers wrote off European hockey players as being “soft” and kept focusing on drafting big, beefy CHL prospects. They missed out on drafting the next wave of Soviet and communist country players entering the NHL. Most were fixated on slow, big, hard-hitting players. Right up to just a few years ago, most felt that having a fourth line filled with goons was a better option than one with skilled speedy forwards. Today, many GMs still continue to ignore the use of analytics – all to their peril.
Why are most hockey executives like this? I’m no psychologist but I believe that they are products of the hockey environment that they grew up in – an environment that was and remains very structured.
That is, most hockey executives were former players with long junior and NHL careers where they lived very regimented lives. Everything from what they ate every morning to when they took their pregame naps to visiting the same hotels year in, year out, attending structured team practices and the like; everything was highly predictable. They all played under unwritten “codes” and never backed down on any confrontation.
From this environment, you can see how it could mould a person like GM Marc Bergevin to become a creature of habit- a person unaccustomed to and thus resistant to change or innovation. One could also argue that the same “old school” dogged determination that kept him in the game for so many years, has now become his Achilles’ heel as this one-time character strength is now sometimes being expressed in the form of stubbornness.
In this piece, I am not trying to bash Bergevin. He, like many old-school thinkers, has a number of positive traits. In my experience, most former hockey players are fun, grounded, salt of the earth type people who thrive in team environments. No wonder so many of them, when their playing days are done, become highly likeable firefighters. They tend to understand the importance of comradery and most definitely motivation.
On this specific matter, that is motivation, I’m totally convinced that the psychological component in sport is one of the most important keys to athletic success. If a player feels “energized” he will do some incredibly remarkable things. One only needs to look at the Vegas Golden Knights and their amazing inaugural season as clear proof of this.
Based on his actions of late, Bergevin certainly gets this principle through his recent hiring of coaches and prospect development personnel who are known to be good communicators with today’s hockey players. These moves were welcomed – particularly in the area of development.
I distinctly recall an interview with Michael McCarron back in April in which he sounded both in his body language and tonality like a defeated individual. I don’t know what was going through McCarron’s mind but he certainly did not come across as being anything like the confident young man whom I saw back in June of 2013 when he was drafted. A lot of ex-Habs traded away or let go had the same look and tone prior to leaving this franchise. Some of them have thrived elsewhere.
What McCarron needed was a “player whisperer” along the lines of Habs’ goaltending coach Stephane Waite who has done wonders with most of the goalies in Montreal’s system. For a while, Carey Price and Antti Niemi also looked dejected during interviews and then turned their games around thanks to Waite’s influence. Hopefully, Bergevin’s new hires will restore McCarron’s confidence in the same way and positively impact all of the new draftees and young prospects now in Montreal’s system. Perhaps Waite should advise in this capacity.
So it is great to see that the issues in the area of psychological motivation through better interpersonal communications are now starting to be addressed. Maybe Bergevin is not as stubborn as some of us have characterized him as being. These moves though are definitely not enough. The Montreal Canadiens also need an injection of bright, outside of the box, creative hockey thinkers working in this organization. People who offer-up new, contrarian, and innovative ideas for management, coaching, scouting, and prospect development.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that it would be a bad idea to go full science here. You’d get the Arizona Coyotes’ model of management which is not working. At the same time, you don’t want an exclusive “ma and pa” approach either. The two need to be blended together as running a first-rate NHL franchise is both an art and science.
The Canadiens will never become a better, faster, stronger, more skilled and smarter hockey organization if they continue to ignore creativity and innovation. This franchise needs to enter the 21st century and go beyond. Creativity/innovation should not be feared. It needs to be explored, sifted through and properly harnessed.
Rather than discuss anything in the area of “soft/people skills” which Bergevin now gets, here a few suggestions that would help bring the Habs back to the future.
Board Of Advisors Or President Of Hockey Operations
Everything begins and ends at the top of the pyramid. If the Canadiens have a mediocre general manager at the helm (because he has ignored the innovation end) then they will get mediocre results. In a previous piece, I discussed in detail the idea of Geoff Molson having a board of advisors to help Marc Bergevin. This would be the most creative and best solution. Likewise, I’ve suggested ways to increase the pool of quality Francophone general managers and coaches.
At the very least, the Canadiens and Bergevin desperately need an experienced hockey mind as Team President who will compensate for some of the General Manager’s deficiencies.
Bergevin Needs A “Geek” Translator
One quick fix that might bridge Bergevin’s reluctance to embrace some of the ideas in the area of analytics is to seek and find someone who can clearly explain what all these numbers terms actually mean in a non-intimidating fashion. Sadly, most analytics people tend to be fast talking, quick thinking, head spinning individuals. Some can be quite testy and impatient. Their minds run at such an incredible pace that they can overwhelm us mere mortals. If the Canadiens can find a middle person who can clarify the information to both Bergevin and his old school scouts, then perhaps they will no longer just outright reject the “geek talk” that these “outsiders” seem to be speaking.
Hiring Personnel Beyond Gut Feelings
And while on the subject of hiring personnel, especially coaching and management candidates, this organization should use aptitude testing during the process. Enough of the overreliance on “gut” feelings. They need to go beyond this.
Taking this next step is not that unusual. The Canadiens already psychologically test players they are considering to draft. Why not then do similar things for those hired to guide this billion dollar plus corporation?
Montreal should definitely consider getting consulting help from major human resources firms. A booming multi-billion dollar off-shoot industry in HR involves the use of analytics in selecting personnel. This business is rapidly growing because giant corporations are finding significant success in recruiting by using these types of firms.
Any additional tool in the area of recruiting is a good idea. It might help put in check some biases in hiring decisions. It could also point out some red flags – including resistance to change, poor business acumen, and the like.
Stop Being Copy Cats
Since April, it seems as if the Canadiens have been trying to copycat the Maple Leafs’ management style but just like the taste of imitation cola is not as good as the real thing, so too have been their moves thus far. Yes, the Habs – just like the Maple Leafs have done over the last few years – woke up and smelled the coffee and loaded up on quality players for their AHL squad. But again, where are the NHL-experienced coaches who will guide the Laval Rocket?
No offence to Joel Bouchard and his team but for the most part, the Canadiens have hired a promising but green staff to oversee the development of their precious prospects. If you ran a business, would you only want smart but partially experienced people at the helm learning on the fly? Wouldn’t you also have some seasoned personnel? Especially when EVERYTHING begins and ends with the successful cultivation of prospects.
Given the Habs’ abysmal record in prospect development, is this the best way to prepare future talent? Bouchard is stepping into new territory here. As good as his pedigree is (and it is impressive), he still has a learning curve here and as such, he will make rookie mistakes. These mistakes could impact Montreal’s prospects. For these reasons then, his hire is a bit risky in terms of player development. He should have had a mentor working alongside with him. The Leafs cultivate promising coaching and managerial talent but they also back them up with experienced support.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bouchard is being groomed for management but again, there are better ways to do this. If you have time, please read here to see how.
A More Creative Use Of Salary Cap Space
Then there were Montreal’s moves in terms of taking advantage of their huge cap space. Some fans and media thought that the GM showed some Toronto style savvy with the Joel Armia acquisition which bought out Steve Mason’s contract with the Winnipeg Jets. I’m not so sure.
I would argue that it ate up an unnecessary amount of Montreal’s cap space. The several million dollars that the Canadiens are now going to spend over the next two years for this transaction could have been used on replenishing the team’s depleted scouting staff. Several people were let go prior to the draft. With an extra few million dollars in this area, the Habs could have poached some primo scouts from other organizations.
Alternatively, this money could have been deployed towards building a leading edge analytics department or for the hiring of first-rate skills coaches. These actions would have provided more blast to Geoff Molson’s buck. These are things that Toronto does. Man, I hate using them as a template!
Yes, I realize that Molson is fabulously wealthy and can afford to spend money on both Joel Armia and infrastructure but you have to ask yourself, is someone who has the upside to be a solid third liner worth both his salary plus the money that is being spent on Mason?
This team is not likely going to make the playoffs. The extra cap money that is available should not be spent during these lean years just for the sake of spending. Staying below the cap will offset the loss of playoff revenues. Clearly, Montreal gets this. However, some of this money should be diverted to infrastructure including scouting, analytics, and player development. Bergevin should instead have convinced Molson to spend what he did on Armia on these badly needed shopping items.
Significantly Upgrade Skills Training
The Montreal Canadiens need to centralize the offseason training of their players – particularly those 24 and under. I believe that there are no issues in the area of conditioning. My top concern involves the skills component of the game.
The Habs exited the playoffs in April. Why are so many of their prospects training on their own and not in Montreal under the guidance of the best skills coaches that money can buy?
April to September is five months. That’s almost half a year. During this time period, if someone is weak at faceoffs, shouldn’t he be doing thousands and thousands of properly supervised draws to improve in this aspect of his game? If someone is a poor shooter, shouldn’t he be taking thousands and thousands of shots and deflections with an expert on hand during this same time period?
What about specialized training from psychiatrists to improve the speed of a player’s thinking and reaction timing? Such training is especially essential for those in their early 20s who have not yet reached their full development.
What, for example, is Jacob de la Rose doing by working out and practicing with Filip Forsberg? Forsberg is a great player and all but come on. Is it any wonder why this prospect with great defensive instincts has not become a minimum 15-20 goal scorer? Where are the skills coaches? What a waste of five months of development.
The legendary Chris Nilan, a garden variety goon, became a decent goal scorer by practicing his shooting over and over again under the watchful eyes of Claude Ruel. If Nilan could be a better goal scorer than so too could de la Rose. Skills coaches make a huge difference.
Getting in great cardio shape away from Montreal is fine but academy style training during the first 4-6 years after being drafted is more important. They are in the most formative development years of their hockey lives. Let me give you the following example of Michael Jordan to illustrate my point.
When Jordan first retired from basketball, he tried to take up baseball but did not succeed. Experts claim that the reason behind his failure was that his window of opportunity to learn how to react to a 100 MPH fastball had come and gone. Jordan’s brain simply could not process the information fast enough. This is analogous to reaching a certain age when no matter what you do, you will always have an accent when speaking a foreign language. No matter how hard Jordan worked on his swing (and he worked REALLY hard), the “accent” of missing the ball for a microsecond could not be removed.
Leaving things to chance or hoping that a player learns things from his own personal trainers during these highly formative years is just not a good idea. These young men should be given intensive one-on-one training during the five-month offseason to eliminate their “accents.” Centralized training where progress can be scientifically monitored is the best option.
Of course, this is premised on quality centralized training. So far, Montreal’s best prospects developed their skills away from the Habs’ influence. This has to change.
Also, I realize that due to ridiculous, archaic NCAA rules, this idea is not possible for college drafted players but for the rest, it makes perfect sense.
The point that I want to make here is that creative/innovative change in hockey is necessary. Marc Bergevin needs to step outside of his comfort zone. Being old school has its benefits but on its own, it’s not enough. The million dollar question though is, is he too stubborn to do so?
If he is, then more groundhog-like days lay ahead of him. The choice is Bergevin’s to make.