Basu and Godin: Canadiens players come back to the city, locker placement in the room
A few weeks ago, Juraj Slafkovsky and Arber Xhekaj were talking about finding an apartment and living together this season. In the end, it didn’t happen. Xhekaj and Jordan Harris find themselves sharing an apartment in the Tour des Canadiens, a condo tower adjacent to the Bell Centre where numerous players have been housed the past few years.
As for Slafkovsky, he was placed with a billet family originally from Toronto that now lives in Westmount.
“There’s lots of space,” Slafkovsky said, “the house has four floors!”
Prior to the season, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes told Le Journal de Montréal that he was thinking of having Slafkovsky live with a billet family, but that ultimately he had decided that since Slafkovsky left home at the age of 14 and learned to live on his own, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea.
Hughes and the Canadiens clearly changed their mind.
We’ve already seen Canadiens rookies living with veterans — Brendan Gallagher lived with Josh Gorges for the first few years of his career — but to see an NHL player being taken in by a local family the way we see so often in junior might be a first in Montreal.
Slafkovsky seems happy with the arrangement, especially since it allows him to live close to the Bell Centre.
“Guys actually found places based on the fact we would be doing morning skates in Montreal, because we told them when they were looking for a place that we would be skating here,” said captain Nick Suzuki.
Martin St. Louis mentioned that players approached him last season asking him to hold gameday skates at the Bell Centre as opposed to Brossard. Suzuki and others believed it was important to feel at home under the Bell Centre’s lighting, learning the intricacies of the boards — particularly the corner where the Zamboni comes out — and wearing their game equipment (players have a separate set of practice gear in Brossard).
“I like the thought of being here in the morning, it pushes the other team back a bit, it gives us a chance to be on our ice,” Suzuki said. “It’s definitely not the same building as Brossard, so just being in this environment is big for us in the morning.”
For certain teammates living on the South Shore, living close to the practice facility in Brossard is no longer as much of an advantage as it used to be, and the traffic headaches are sure to get worse with the imminent partial closure of the Lafontaine Tunnel.
But this is a new group of Canadiens players and the ones living on the South Shore in Brossard or Candiac are very few. In fact, only David Savard, Mike Hoffman and Jake Allen find themselves on that side of the Champlain Bridge. Savard is hoping optional morning skates later in the season will allow him to avoid the traffic headaches of crossing the bridge twice.
The Bell Sports Complex in Brossard, opened in December of 2008, was supposed to incentivize players to move away from downtown and all the distractions that come with it. That’s at least what then-GM Bob Gainey was hoping. But one generation later, the Canadiens appear to have come back to square one.
The dynamics of where players sit in the Canadiens dressing room
When Max Pacioretty was voted by his teammates to become captain of the Canadiens in 2015, it was not just the stitching on his sweater that needed to be adjusted.
He also moved from a seat on the fringes to the very middle of the Canadiens’ dressing room.
When Shea Weber succeeded Pacioretty as captain, he already had a central seat in the dressing room, so there was no need for him to move.
There is a new leader now, so naturally Nick Suzuki should also be centrally located in the dressing room, right?
Suzuki is in the same place he’s been for years, tucked in the corner of the room.
“I’ve been sitting here for a couple of years. So, I just kept my locker,” Suzuki said with a shrug. “I didn’t ask him to move. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could have. Me and Eddy have been sitting over here since we’ve been here.”
“Him” is Pat Langlois, the Canadiens’ new equipment manager after Pierre Gervais retired. Coaches came and went, but Gervais was always given the responsibility of arranging the lockers in the Canadiens dressing room.
Langlois decided not to put his fingerprints all over the dressing room layout right away. The only player who asked to move was Rem Pitlick, who simply changed sides and wound up with a locker right next to Suzuki.
“It’s pretty much where they were last year,” Langlois said. “We just kept the same room, really. Rem wanted to be on that side, and then there’s the new guys, but otherwise the room’s the same.”
Suzuki’s decision to stay in the corner was a practical one. Joel Edmundson sits to his right, and to Edmundson’s right is the music. As everyone knows, Edmundson takes care of the music, but in his absence due to injury Suzuki has had free reign of the musical selections.
“I don’t know, I have a nice view from over here,” Suzuki said. “I can see everyone. It’s close to the TV, close to the music, so it’s good for me.”
He’s also just about as far away from Cole Caufield as possible, with Caufield in the opposite corner of the room.
“I spend too much time with him anyway,” Suzuki joked.
When Langlois talked about the new guys, it is always important to note where rookies are seated. Gallagher credits sitting next to Brian Gionta in the dressing room with helping his transition to the NHL as a rookie. When Jesperi Kotkaniemi made the team as an 18-year-old in 2018, he was seated between Gallagher and Paul Byron, taking Pacioretty’s old locker.
This year, Kaiden Guhle and Harris are next to each other, with Evgenii Dadonov, Chris Wideman and Savard to their left. Xhekaj is between Mike Matheson and Corey Schueneman. And Slafkovsky has Christian Dvorak on one side and Josh Anderson on the other.
It’s a responsibility Anderson doesn’t take lightly.
“Anytime a young guy comes into the locker room, no matter who you are, you always want to be there for him and try to help him out as much as possible,” Anderson said. “I mean, listen, he’s coming into a new country, a new team, a lot of older guys — well there aren’t that many, but just different faces. So anything that he needs, whether that’s on the ice or off the ice, I’m here for him. Whatever he needs, I’ll help him out in any way I can.”
The myth of visiting teams with too many free nights in Montreal
Montreal is a popular destination for NHL players. Several teams choose the city to hold their rookie dinners, bars are open later than in most other cities and, as former Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou once said, “Montreal is a city where you can lose your soul.”
Therefore, when a visiting team arrives one night early to face the Canadiens, it is assumed they are vulnerable to the temptations of the city and risk showing up on the ice missing their soul. Watching the Arizona Coyotes last Thursday night after having arrived in Montreal on Monday night would give credence to the theory.
Coyotes coach André Tourigny was watching the Canadiens practice Wednesday morning in Brossard, waiting for his turn on the ice at 1 p.m. The Coyotes were off the day before. Despite that, Tourigny was not expecting his guys to appear hungover and, true to form, they went through an energetic and intense practice.
“Guys don’t go out the same way as when I played,” Tourigny said. “In six years coaching in the NHL, I never felt … let’s just say at the beginning in Colorado, guys had fun without going overboard. But in Ottawa and here, I find the guys are focused. Also, the way you entertain yourself has changed. In my day, if you didn’t go to the bar on Friday night, you had nothing to do.”
Online gaming has undoubtedly changed that dynamic because it is another way for players to be together.
That said, Tourigny is not putting his head in the sand as to what his players did when they arrived in town Monday night, and he approves of it unconditionally.
“The guys have to have fun,” he said. “After the game in Toronto, we got to Montreal at midnight. We didn’t have a game for three days, so if there’s a time to do it, that’s probably it.
“One of the first things I learned about this league, and I learned it from Joe (Sakic), Patrick (Roy) and Adam Foote, is that you have to pick your spots. If you do it when it’s not the right time, you’ll burn out. But if you don’t do it at all, the guys will do it when it’s not the right time. They’ll do it one way or another.
“I don’t expect them to be choir boys. You’re 22, you’re single, we’re on the road, we don’t have a game for three days and we’re in Montreal …”
But is there a real link between how the Coyotes performed Thursday and the time their plane arrived at Trudeau airport?
The cliché is surely based on something real, but it doesn’t really check out.
In the two years prior to the pandemic, in 2018-19 and 2019-20, there were seven times when a team arrived in Montreal at least a day early, getting in either an off day or a practice. The results on those seven occasions don’t really give much credence to the cliché because the road team put together a 5-1-1 record against the Canadiens.
Jan. 12, 2019: Canadiens 3, Colorado 0
March 16, 2019: Chicago 2, Canadiens 0
Oct. 15, 2019: Tampa Bay 3, Canadiens 1
Nov. 12, 2019: Canadiens 3, Columbus 2 (SO)
Nov. 19, 2019: Washington 5, Canadiens 4 (OT)
Nov. 27, 2019: Carolina 2, Canadiens 1
Jan. 9, 2020: Edmonton 4, Canadiens 2
We won’t pretend to think hockey players have become well-behaved boys. It’s just that the level of competition has become so high and the margin for error so slim that a team can’t allow itself to do anything that could put its performance in jeopardy.
A change of the guard on the power play
It’s been crystal clear watching the Canadiens practice who is running the power play.
It is not Alexandre Burrows. It is Martin St. Louis.
It is St. Louis doing all the talking when the power play gathers prior to practice. It is St. Louis stopping things and explaining what’s gone wrong when the power play goes through its reps. It is St. Louis directing the orchestra.
One thing we’ve noticed in practice that has not quite been implemented in games yet is the extent to which St. Louis wants to encourage more movement on the power play. One day last week, the first unit was set up with Suzuki at his usual spot on the right circle, Caufield at the left circle and Jonathan Drouin and Sean Monahan rotating between the bumper and the goal line. By the end of one sequence, Suzuki was at the left circle, Caufield was on the goal line and Drouin was at the right circle, basically a full rotation of the four forwards on the first unit.
We have seen more movement on the power play of late, but not to this extent. But if they are working on it in practice, it will surely show up in a game soon.
Something to watch for.
David Savard is having a block party
Savard has never hesitated to block shots, but this pace is not sustainable. He is blocking 13.97 shots per 60 minutes of ice time, which is a rate higher than any player who has played at least four games has registered since the statistic started being tracked in 2007.
“I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Savard joked. “I think it’s timing. No matter where I am, I feel like the puck just hits me. Even when I’m in more of a passing lane, it’s like the player changes his mind and decides to shoot. But I don’t think I could keep this up all season.”
Savard has learned over his career to make defensive reads based on the probability of a shot coming. By better anticipating how the puck arrives on an opponent’s blade and how far he will be from him when he releases the puck, Savard is better prepared to block shots.
The vast majority of Savard’s blocked shots (27 out of 31) have come at five-on-five, which suggests Savard is spending a lot of time in his own zone. Unless your name is Chris Tanev, those two realities often go hand in hand.
Savard and his defence partner Kaiden Guhle have faced top opposition and wind up defending more often as a result. They often get pinned in their end, and Savard’s team-worst on-ice shot attempt share of 37.4 percent is a testament to that.
From 2013 to 2022, the NHL king of blocked shots was Kris Russell, and he had a shot share of 45.02 percent over those nine seasons. Yes, it would be nice if the puck left the zone more quickly, but there’s also something to be said for keeping the puck out of your own net.
“He had a really good hockey mind,” Savard said of Russell, who was his defence partner when he arrived with the Columbus Blue Jackets. “He knew where the puck was going, he made good reads and had an excellent stick. Once or twice a game, you can also block shots with your stick, it hurts less than always diving in front of big shots. He was also good at baiting shooters by leaving a lane open and then closing it at the right moment.”
There are some players whose value is not well represented by shot share. Nick Suzuki, for instance, has rarely had a good Corsi number. Savard is playing much better hockey than he was at the same time last season, he’s serving as a mentor for Guhle and, frankly, it’s no surprise that the Canadiens’ defence can seem overwhelmed at times.
But for the good of both Savard and the team, let’s hope he’s not in a position to block this many shots for much longer.
(Top photo of Nick Suzuki: Francois Lacasse / NHLI via Getty Images)