Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens GM hopes confidence, patience will pay off

Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens GM hopes confidence, patience will pay off

Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens GM hopes confidence, patience will pay off

“I didn’t take this job to survive,” Kent Hughes says almost two years after getting the job. “I took it to try to accomplish some things.”

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Confidence and patience.

Those are the two characteristics Kent Hughes has that have impressed me the most since he took over as GM of the Canadiens in January 2022.

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Hughes didn’t need this job after becoming a successful and wealthy player agent. When Jeff Gorton, the Canadiens’ executive vice-president of hockey operations, first contacted him about possibly replacing Marc Bergevin as GM, Hughes said he wasn’t interested.

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Hughes eventually changed his mind and shortly after he was named GM. I asked him during a one-on-one interview what made him decide to take the job.

“Why not take the ultimate challenge here and it’s coming home,” said Hughes, who grew up on Montreal’s West Island. “It’s special.”

When I asked him what people might be surprised to know about him, Hughes said: “I guess I’d say I have an unwavering desire to get better — at everything. And I’m not that good at a lot of things, but I keep trying.”

Hughes keeps trying to make the Canadiens better and his confidence and patience in making decisions is a good quality to have as GM of a team in the second full season of a rebuild.

“He’s a good communicator,” head coach Martin St. Louis said after practice Friday in Brossard when I asked him what Hughes’s best qualities are as a GM. “He’s pretty funny, but he’s a go-getter. Kent’s a go-getter.”

St. Louis has as much — if not more — confidence than Hughes and he also doesn’t need the job as head coach after earning more than US$55 million during his Hall of Fame playing career, according to St. Louis is also a go-getter, but he might not have as much patience as this rebuild continues. That’s not a bad thing for a coach.

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“I have patience, but I’m aggressive,” St. Louis said after practice Thursday. “I think everything in life has an expiration date. Sometimes I’m not going to be as patient with some things that I’ve been talking about and harping about for a long time. I have to be fair in what I’m asking for, but I would say I’m not as patient as I was on Day 30 on the job. With that said, I still think I would be fair in what I’m asking (from players).”

St. Louis said his relationship with Hughes, who he knew for a long time before becoming head coach, hasn’t changed since they started working together on this rebuild.

“We’re in constant communication,” St. Louis said. “We talk about the game, we talk about players and we actually talk about a lot of other stuff to stay sane, sort of speak. The relationship is the same. We’re both after the same thing and it’s just to put the Canadiens in a really good spot where everybody is proud of that team. I know that some of the stuff that we do, decisions we make, has a big impact on everything. So we take our job seriously and we’re still having fun doing it together.”

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St. Louis added their discussions can get intense and even emotional, but that they always try to make rational decisions, not emotional ones.

“I didn’t take this job to survive,” Hughes said this week when he was a guest on The Sick Podcast — The Eye Test, with Pierre McGuire and Jimmy Murphy. “I took it to try to accomplish some things. So I’m going to try to do it for as long as they’re going to allow me to do it.”

That’s confidence.

Patience with Slafkovsky

Heading into the 2022 NHL Draft, Hughes told his scouting staff with the No. 1 overall pick he wanted the player who would be the best in the future, not the best right now.

Hughes decided to take Juraj Slafkovsky.

Heading into Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., SNE, Citytv, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM), the 19-year-old Slafkovsky has 2-5-7 totals this season and has gone 11 games without a goal. Going back to last season, Slafkovsky has two goals in his last 50 games.

Hughes was asked about Slafkovsky’s progress on The Sick Podcast.

“From the start of the year, we’ve seen an improvement in him from the prior season,” Hughes said. “We know it’s not a straight line.”

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Hughes recalled sitting in team owner/president Geoff Molson’s office earlier this season and telling him he really liked the way Slafkovsky’s game was progressing.

“I think the following night was probably his worst game of the year,” Hughes said with chuckle. “Nothing like gaining your boss’s confidence in your ability.”

Hughes added Slafkovsky is a “determined kid” who is “wise beyond his years.”

Hughes alluded to this recent quote from Slafkovsky as an example:

“There’s a couple of special young players and now people think that everyone will be like those guys,” Slafkovsky said. “It’s not always like that. Some guys need more time, some guys need less time. Some guys will never figure it out. For me, I know what I want at the end of my career. I’m trying to do everything every day so at some point when I’m 40 or 50 I’ll say: ‘Yeah, I did everything I could. I didn’t want to change anything I did on the way up.’”

Hughes said that long-term view by Slafkovsky will help him in the Montreal market with such a bright spotlight.

“We’re not going to really know what Slaf can be for another few years, in my opinion,” Hughes said on the podcast.

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“There’s more to come,” the GM added. “You can tell he doesn’t fully have his confidence around the net, especially when he’s playing with (Nick) Suzuki and (Cole) Caufield. He’s looking to move the puck all the time. I think that’s all part of him figuring things out, step by step, and we’re trying to be very mindful of not popping 20 things on his to-do list here in terms of needs for improvement because we all know hockey’s such a reactive, instinctive game and we don’t want to take that away from him. I think at parts last year we probably did. I think that was bound to happen one way or the other, but as we progress forward here let’s tackle two things and then move on to the next. That’s why I say I think it’s still another three or four years before we really see what Slaf can be.”

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More patience with Reinbacher

Defenceman David Reinbacher, selected by the Canadiens with the No. 5 overall pick at this year’s NHL Draft, has 1-4-5 totals in 13 games this season with Kloten HC in the Swiss A League.

“David got injured (knee) early in the year,” Hughes said on The Sick Podcast. “Came back, had a little bit of a slow stretch coming back and I think it’s natural when you’re a high pick. You’re trying to figure out what you are, you all of a sudden put added expectations on yourself in trying to do more. It’s one of the things I’ve learned from an agent perspective that I find helpful in the role I play now is making sure players play to their identity. They don’t have to change who they are. They just have to be better at what they are. That is development.

“We can bring a young D in and say: ‘Hey, listen, you want to grow your game, you want to add offence, that’s fine. But you got here because of your defensive prowess. So you want to add to it, great. But if it’s at the expense of what got you here it’s going to get you out of here.’”

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Hutson getting closer to Habs

Defenceman Lane Hutson, selected in the second round (62nd overall) of the 2022 NHL Draft, is lighting it up again during his second season at Boston University.

After posting 15-33-48 totals in 39 games last season as a freshman, Hutson has 8-12-20 totals in 15 games this season.

Hughes said on The Sick Podcast he’d like to get the 19-year-old Hutson signed to a pro contract at the end of this NCAA season. But for now they want Hutson to keep his focus on Boston University and the coming IIHF World Junior Championship, in which the 5-foot-10, 162-pound defenceman will play a big role on Team USA.

“Our biggest hope, to be perfectly honest, was more on the leadership level, maturity level in just being a 19-year-old,” Hughes said on The Sick Podcast about what he’s hoping to see from Hutson this season. “It’s one thing to come in and surprise the world. It’s another to come in where you’re expected to do it and everybody’s focusing on you and how do you handle that additional attention. How do you handle the pressure of being able to deliver up to expectations? So there’s certain things he’s living at BU, albeit at the college level, that in this market you’re going to live it.”

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Struble making most of chance

After the Canadiens called Jayden Struble up from the AHL’S Laval Rocket ahead of their three-game California road trip last month, Hughes told the 22-year-old defenceman he probably wasn’t going to play in any games.

Hughes also told Struble, selected in the second round (46th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft, he deserved to be called up after spending most of the offseason training hard in Montreal and then being the most consistent defenceman in Laval, posting 1-5-6 totals and a plus-4 differential in 12 games with the Rocket. The GM told Struble he wanted him to experience what life in the NHL is like, how players prepare for games, etc.

After the Canadiens arrived in California, Hughes received a call telling him defenceman Jordan Harris would need imaging done on his lower-body injury and would have to return to Montreal. Struble has played in all 11 games with the Canadiens since then, posting 2-1-3 totals and a plus-2 differential while averaging 12:45 of ice time.

“He took it and he ran with it,” Hughes said on the podcast about Struble making the most of his opportunity.

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“I warned him there’s going to be a downfall coming, inevitably,” the GM added. “How do you manage it? How do you handle those things? With young athletes, I really believe so much of that adjustment to the National Hockey League is the mental piece. It is a mental grind for 186 days and then the playoffs, if you’re in them.”

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A proud Papa

Struble’s maternal grandfather, Paul Struble, got him started in hockey when he was only 3 and was also his first coach in Rhode Island youth hockey.

Papa, as Struble calls him, is now in his 70s and is really enjoying watching his grandson play with the Canadiens.

“He texts me to let me know he’s staying up for every game,” Struble said. “He’ll give me his game notes at the end on what I need to work on.”

When I asked Struble if Papa is his biggest fan and also his biggest critic, he laughed and said: “He’s getting too old for the critiquing. It’s more all positive, but he’s on top of it.”

The Canadiens are getting the puck Struble scored his first NHL goal with against the Sabres in Buffalo framed. He said he’s hoping to get it in time to make it a Christmas gift to a family member.

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A supportive grandma

The Canadiens’ Josh Anderson gets a text from his maternal grandmother, Cathy, before every game.

“I usually get it 20 minutes before I arrive to the rink,” Anderson said after practice Thursday. “She still sends me notes to this day.”

This has been a very tough season for Anderson, who has only one goal (an empty-netter) after 29 games. After scoring that goal five games ago against the Seattle Kraken, Anderson spoke about a text he had received from his grandmother.

“It’s funny,” Anderson said after that game. “I had a text from my grandmother a week ago and she said it’s like a flashlight. When the batteries run out you got to recharge them and just keep going. Tomorrow’s a new day and you got to focus on that. Got to keep doing that.”

The support from his grandmother and other family members has helped Anderson stay positive.

“She watches every game,” Anderson said Thursday about his grandmother. “From uncles to aunts, to my brothers, sister, I got a lot of support back home. The amount of feedback that I get constantly from my family helps.”

Anderson’s father, Gary, grew up in Dollard-des-Ormeaux on Montreal’s West Island as a huge Canadiens fan. Former Canadien Peter Mahovlich is the uncle of Anderson’s mother, Michelle, through marriage. Anderson’s father runs the family-owned Turtle Jack’s Muskoka Grill in Waterdown, Ont. Anderson’s three siblings work at the restaurant, along with his parents and cousins.

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“It’s been very tough, I’m not going to lie,” Anderson said about his struggles this season. “Usually every day you think about when you’re going to break out of that slump and start putting it in the back of the net. For me, personally, I just got to keep coming to work each and every day and keep grinding, keep shooting pucks. I keep telling myself eventually they’re going to go in. Still waiting for that day, but I got to keep coming to work and pushing myself each and every day.”

St. Louis is giving Anderson every opportunity to break out of his slump. Anderson is averaging 16:35 of ice time and is still on the power play, although he has been demoted to the second unit.

“If you give up on yourself, then I’ll give up on you,” St. Louis said after practice Thursday when asked about Anderson, adding he still likes the big winger’s attitude, work ethic and engagement.

When told about St. Louis’s comment, Anderson said: “I got a lot of respect for Marty as a coach. He’s played a lot of games in the NHL and for him to still continue to play me the way he’s done, obviously, he’s got a lot of faith and trust in what I’m trying to do out there. For me, I try to put the team before myself. I’m trying to do everything I can to help the team at the end of the day. I’m going to continue to do that, even if I struggle. I’m going to try to be 100-per-cent effort.

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“I’m trying … there’s no question about that,” Anderson added. “It’s how deep you can dig and I’m trying to do that each and every day. Go into each game and try to give a full effort and do as much as I can.”

A memorable autograph

Nick Suzuki’s father, Rob, posted the tweet below ahead of the Canadiens’ game last Sunday night at the Bell Centre against the Nashville Predators, which they ended up losing 2-1.

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Dustin Degree won the tickets when he correctly guessed former Canadiens goalie Jeff Hackett.

“He’s actually my grandma’s neighbour back in London (Ont),” Suzuki said after practice Thursday when I asked him about the autograph. “I have a signed picture of (Hackett) wearing a Canadiens jersey. I got that when I was probably like 5 or 6. It’s probably still around my parents’ house.”

Now it’s kids asking Suzuki for his autograph.

“Kids love it,” Suzuki said. “People will always remember getting an autograph, so it’s cool for us to be able to do that for people.”

Brother act

While a lot has been made about the Canadiens sending defenceman Arber Xhekaj down to Laval, his brother, Florian, is putting up some impressive numbers with the OHL’s Brantford Bulldogs.

Florian, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound left-winger, had 13-12-25 totals in 68 game last season with the Bulldogs, when they were in Hamilton. The Canadiens decided to select Florian in the fourth round (101st overall) of this year’s NHL Draft.

In 27 games this season, Florian already has 11-13-24 totals and a plus-9 differential after finishing minus-17 last season.

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Nick Bobrov — the Canadiens’ co-director of amateur scouting — has described Florian as a “unicorn.

As for Arber, he had two assists in his first three games with the Rocket after recovering from an upper-body injury he suffered with the Canadiens during a game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 16 that put him on the injured-reserve list.

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