LAVAL-SUR-LE-LAC, Quebec — One of the common concerns for a young team entering a new season is a lack of experience. But when you are one of those young teams, it can be important to realize that experience comes in different forms and comes at different times for different players.
Toward the end of last season, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes grabbed Kirby Dach. He had a message he wanted to send to his budding young forward before he left for the summer.
“When you came here, you were still trying to establish yourself as a player in the National Hockey League and you took a big step,” Hughes remembers telling Dach that day. “I’m sure you have expectations individually for yourself as you go into next season, but we also need to grow as a team, and I want you to take your first three years in Chicago and this season in Montreal and think about how certain players helped you along the way, and how certain players maybe didn’t treat you the way you needed to be treated.”
The point Hughes was trying to make was that he needed Dach to become the former, and avoid being the latter. He wanted him to be remembered by the Canadiens players who are younger than him as one of those guys who helped them along the way.
“Take ownership,” Hughes explained Monday at the Canadiens’ season-opening golf tournament, “not just of his own career, but of the success of the team.”
This, in a nutshell, is one of the most important things that will happen for the Canadiens this season. There are veterans around, sure, but the process of transferring that ownership to the younger players on the team will need to begin, because they are vital to the future of the franchise. Captain Nick Suzuki is 24, Cole Caufield, Dach and newcomer Alex Newhook are all 22, born within a few weeks of each other in January 2001. There will be numerous players who will be even younger than them either breaking camp with the Canadiens or knocking on the door in the AHL, major junior or Europe.
And the players who will have the best understanding of what those players are going through, the ones that will have those feelings freshest in their minds, will be the young core. And it seems as though management wants that group of players who are still too young to be considered veterans to act like veterans.
“It’s always nice and comforting to hear from the GM or coaches when they want you to take a little bit more of a step in becoming a leader and helping guys along,” Dach said of that conversation with Hughes. “Going into my fifth year, it doesn’t really feel like it, but I’m a year older or two years older than some of the guys that just played their first year last year, so there’s a lot of things that happen in your career and you want to help guys out along the way.
“You don’t really want to put too much pressure on them or give them too much advice. You just kind of want to be there for them when they need that support. I think that’s what I learned the most, especially being in Chicago with a lot of older guys, was understanding that they weren’t going to come up to you and bombard you with questions or tell you to do this instead of that. They’re just kind of going to wait and see how you feel and be there for you when you need them.”
When Mike Matheson played his first NHL game with the Florida Panthers, he was a week shy of his 22nd birthday. When Dach was a week shy of his 22nd birthday, he played the 195th game of his NHL career. When they say age is only a number, this is what they mean.
Matheson’s career has gone very differently from Dach’s but there have also been similarities. Matheson was a first-round pick, just like Dach, and he struggled to establish himself in the NHL, just like Dach. Matheson was named an alternate captain of the Canadiens on Monday, tangible evidence of the important leadership role he is being asked to play for the team this season. But he can’t recall the moment he made the jump the Canadiens are asking Dach and Caufield and others to make at such a young age.
In fact, he hadn’t made it until very recently.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really made that jump,” Matheson said. “When I got traded here, I think I was 28 at the time, and I was talking to the coaching staff and management and they were talking about my veteran leadership. So all of a sudden, I was on the flip side.
“I was still one of the young guys in Pittsburgh.”
Again, age is just a number. But experience is experience, no matter when it comes, and Dach has had plenty of it.
When he entered the NHL, Dach asked Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook if he could live with him to start the season. He wound up spending his entire rookie year living with Seabrook and his family, driving to practice and games with him every day, eating dinner with his family every evening, playing with his three young kids, just soaking in how to be a professional all day, every day.
And when he was asked at the end of last season what it was like for him to watch Jonathan Toews play his final game for the Blackhawks, Dach admitted he got a little emotional.
“He’s somebody I looked up to my entire life, and then got the opportunity to become teammates with him and really good friends,” Dach said in April. “It’s definitely a guy that’s had a lot of impact on my career and we’ve kept in touch, we talk pretty much once a week even though I’m here and he’s there. The career he’s had and the legacy he’s going to leave behind in Chicago, it’s pretty remarkable, not only as a player on the ice but as a leader in the community and everything he’s done.
So Dach has been exposed to mentors who have won the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold. He has been through a massively disappointing wrist injury just before he was set to captain Team Canada in the world junior championship. He’s had to navigate the pressure of being a No. 3 draft pick in an Original Six city and not living up to expectations. He’s been traded to another Original Six city and had to navigate that same pressure in a new environment and adapt to that as well. All before turning 22.
So, Dach may be young, but he has experience to share, especially with someone like Newhook who is arriving in Montreal under very similar circumstances to him.
“You’re a year older, a year more mature in your career, and you just help out any way you can,” Dach said. “There’s a lot of guys in that locker room that are young and can be leaders and help each other out. I think that’s what’s great about our team, we’re able to grow together and mature as one.”
When Juraj Slafkovský went home to Slovakia for the offseason, he had unfinished business.
He had to finish high school.
Back home, there is a tradition that when kids graduate from high school, they parade around town and collect money from residents and then use that money to celebrate, let’s say, their transition into the world of adult beverages.
But while Slafkovský was happy to be home to graduate in person, he did not take part in that rite of passage.
“No, I went for some TV show, so I didn’t do that,” he said. “It had to be fun for them, for sure.”
Not only did Slafkovský have a TV appearance, but he was already deep into his preparation for the upcoming season, so perhaps an evening of adult beverages wasn’t in the cards in any case.
Slafkovský learned a lot during his rookie season, even if it was halted in January after playing only 39 games. Aside from what he needs to improve on the ice, there is a mental side of managing NHL life that he learned a lot about that he can apply to his second NHL season. One thing is how much pressure he puts on himself and how frustrated he can get when things aren’t going his way, a common issue for young players entering the NHL who are accustomed to being the best player on their team or in their league. Suddenly they aren’t, and that can be difficult to handle.
“Not only me but also coaches have to remind me that I have to be patient sometimes when I get too frustrated,” Slafkovský said. “I think it’s just how I am.”
Luckily for him, he appears to have a coach who understands that.
“I think the biggest thing for Slaf is, listen, he’s the first pick overall, he puts a lot of pressure on himself, and to me it’s pressure versus pleasure,” Martin St. Louis said. “He’s got to have fun out there. He can’t take himself so seriously. I know there’s a lot of expectations, but he’s got to have pleasure. So for us, we want to help him out as much as we can in a timely fashion, but while we do that, we’ve got to be careful of not killing his passion. Because he loves the game. So if we ask too much of him too early and we kill his passion — when you kill somebody’s passion, they stop getting better because they don’t like it anymore.
“So for us, we’ve got to toe that line of pushing him, making sure he’s having fun and not killing his passion.”
But it can’t only be St. Louis and the coaching staff working Slafkovský on that. He needs mentorship as well. And again, luckily for him, he has a teammate who probably has a pretty good idea of what it felt like for him last season.
It’s just that the teammate is only 22.
Caufield’s first full NHL season got off to a difficult start. A player who has scored goals everywhere he’s played had one goal through 30 games and had already been sent to the AHL for two weeks to find his game. He was questioning himself and experiencing thoughts and emotions he had never experienced before.
The arrival of St. Louis as coach triggered a ridiculous run from Caufield that has seen him score 48 goals in 83 games. So he came out of that dark place pretty decisively and surely learned a few things along the way.
“We were in communication a bunch this summer, I think he’s in a good head space,” Caufield said of Slafkovský. “He knows kind of what he’s got to do this year and what he wants to do. It’s just keeping him level-headed, not getting too high or low on himself. He’s a really good player, we picked him first overall for a reason.
“He knows what he’s got to do.”
Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton has a recurring theme he interjects into staff meetings constantly.
“We’re not a finished product. We know that, we all know that,” Gorton said. “I like to say with all our meetings with our guys all the time, what’s next? That’s sort of my phrase I use. And for me, what’s next in the coming weeks is we’ve got a rookie camp, what’s going to happen there? Who’s going to look good? Who’s going to establish himself? How far along did they come? What kind of summer did they have? Are they close to making it? That’s all of the exciting things going on right now. Who’s next? What’s next as we move forward? It’s the growth, it’s getting better, getting better as a team. All these young players, where’s their ceilings, trying to find out who’s going to be here as we get to that next level.”
While Gorton’s What’s Next seems to be dealing with the immediate, what’s next for the Canadiens in a bigger sense seems to be this process of empowering their young players to take ownership of the team. The Canadiens want to be more competitive, but as Gorton said, they are not a finished product and they are playing in a brutal division that will make wins difficult to come by.
But there can be other victories for this group, more big picture victories and the maturation of the young players Gorton was referring to, the players who will be here as they get to that next level, would be the biggest victory of all.
“As a young player in the NHL, you’re really just trying to find your way,” Suzuki said. “I was able to do that, and now pass on more knowledge to the younger guys, what has worked for me and what hasn’t, the mindset going into each and every game has to be at a high level. Those young guys, Kirby and Cole, they’re on their way to being big leaders for us and they’re going to be a huge part of our franchise this year and all the years to come.
“So, it’s an exciting time.”
(Top photo of Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach: Vitor Munhoz / NHLI via Getty Images)