Inside how the Canadiens attack player development at development camp

BROSSARD, Que. — This year’s Montreal Canadiens development camp was not quite what it’s been in the past, where the organization’s top prospects gathered to showcase what the future holds.

Most of the Canadiens’ European prospects were told not to come, which meant there was no David Reinbacher, no Filip Mešár, no Oliver Kapanen and, most glaringly, no Ivan Demidov, who did not have a visa to enter Canada and was very disappointed to relay that information after he was selected with the No. 5 pick of the NHL Draft in Las Vegas last week.

There was no Lane Hutson, no Logan Mailloux, not even Luke Tuch.

Only eight of the 30 prospects invited were drafted prior to this year, and only half of the prospects were drafted at all. The rest were invited for tryouts, many of whom were from Quebec after the Canadiens did not draft a single player from the province in Las Vegas.

It seemed like the Canadiens’ management of their prospect pool had moved to another phase where many of their young players are now being considered for roles on the big club, and therefore a camp like this was less necessary.

No, this was more like an orientation camp, where prospects were invited to get to know the organization and allow the organization to get to know them.

Canadiens player development coach Francis Bouillon, however, didn’t see much of a difference from prior years.

“I don’t think it’s different,” he said. “It’s about bringing these kids, acclimatizing them to this place and letting them experience something, for them to understand the Montreal Canadiens, to feel good about themselves and feel welcomed here in Montreal.”

Last year there were only seven out of 37 players on the development camp roster who were invited as tryouts, a number that more than doubled this year with seven fewer players on the roster. So, with all due respect to Bouillon, there was a big difference.

But one way in which development camp did not change, despite how few of these players are likely to play for the Canadiens one day, was in how the hockey development staff approached the on-ice portion of the week.

Director of hockey development Adam Nicholas led all the on-ice sessions, as he did last year, and the focus was less on traditional skill development than it was developing the hockey brains of the players on the ice.

“We had a meeting earlier today where it was, ‘You can work on your stickhandling, your shooting all you want back home.’ That’s not what they’re aiming to do here,” University of Denver forward Sam Harris said last Wednesday. “Recognizing game pressure and putting us in game-situation stuff, today was very similar to D-zone coverages, where you see the game a lot being played. Being able to read and react — not even react, it’s anticipating what’s going on and being able to almost jump the gun to what’s going on.

“It’s knowing what’s going to happen.”

And on that first day of on-ice practice last Wednesday, Harris was very excited about one thing he learned. It is a skill, but it is so hyper-specific and so game-situation related, it does not fall under the category of working on stickhandling or shooting.

“We were picking up rims off the wall in the first session today,” Harris said. “It was something I’d never done before, but it’s something we’re going to work on again tomorrow, which I’m excited about. It’s picking a puck up off one loaded foot and being able to one-touch it and snap it to the middle to the F3, the guy in the scorer’s elbow.

“I’ve always learned to pick it up with two feet, keep your feet moving and stuff like that. But being able to pick it up with one loaded leg instead of two, with more pressure on the outside leg, and you snap it right to the middle from the wall.”

This is being taught to be able to quicken the process of picking up a puck off the wall and getting it to a scoring area, gaining a second or so of time for the recipient of the pass that is probably not necessary in the NCAA or junior hockey but is most definitely necessary in the NHL. It is something Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis harps on constantly, how efficiency in getting pucks off the wall in the offensive zone can lead to offence.

Here is Harris doing that drill the next day, loading up that inside leg and slinging it to the high slot, and getting some vocal encouragement from Nicholas as he does it.

“One leg allows you to open up your body more, and you’re more free to make a play to the middle of the ice,” Owen Beck said Friday. “It’s just picking up a rim with speed moving into the puck and creating out of it quick with no handle.”

The Canadiens only held two days of on-ice work followed by a scrimmage on Friday, so it was telling that they basically chose to work on three things, the same things, each day. The morning session began with three stations, one of which was this rim drill, the other a side-step maneuver they practiced at centre ice, and the third what Beck called a “no-pressure pickup off the wall” followed by a pass into the slot.

Three highly specific things that apply to game situations, are extremely detailed and are taught in several different ways, with many layers to each of them.

Here is the side-step maneuver, which they supplanted by showing video of Nick Suzuki using this exact move on the power play to create space and suck in defenders to open up passing lanes.

And here is the no-pressure pickup off the wall with Beck and Michael Hage.

Then, on both days, the Canadiens did three-on-three exercises in the offensive zone where each of those skills could be applied. Here is Harris applying that low-pressure retrieval drill in the three-on-three portion of the day.

All of it culminated with the scrimmage Friday, where the hope was these skills would once again show up in a four-on-four simulated game setting. Here is Harris sending a puck toward the high slot to Hage, the only first-round pick at development camp, during that scrimmage.

All of it might seem banal and basic, but the fact the Canadiens chose to focus on these three skills is telling in terms of what they want their prospects to learn and how they want them to recognize situations and pull out the appropriate skill at the appropriate time.

In other words, how they want them to think.

Hage worked with Nicholas a bit during his first season in the USHL with the Chicago Steel, and he recognized that focus on small details that was emphasized during this camp.

“I think it’s just the way he sees the game in general,” Hage said. “I think he sees a lot of things when you’re in the moment that you don’t see, just little ways to find more space is what he’s really big on. When you get those pucks, obviously he wants you to be creative, but just different ways to find space. He likes seeing goals and he wants to find different ways for you to create space and make plays.”

This was Beck’s third development camp. He didn’t have to be there, but he lives so close that he decided to come anyway, and he was clearly the most refined and polished player in camp. His first development camp came at the start of this regime, following its first draft in 2022, and thus he was uniquely positioned to talk about how it has changed and what the priorities have become over time.

“My first development camp was after the re-up of the organization, I guess. A new front office, a bunch of new staff had come in. It’s kind of been the same those three years, but it’s kind of evolved, become more detailed and more developmental over those three years,” Beck said Friday. “I’ve noticed that they take the messages that they’ve been applying for a couple of years now and just refined them and made it more detailed and easier to understand and found different ways to teach it to guys. So I think it’s come a long way and it’s been good to be here these three years.

“We had the skill development that you saw, and we try to apply it into the high-pressure situations. (Nicholas will) stop the drill, talk to us about it, try to work on our hockey IQ, and kind of develops it in video sessions as well behind the scenes. There’s a full range of development here.”

In terms of how these lessons translate to how these players will play games months from now, Beck said the repetition of it eventually starts to sink in to the point you don’t even think about it on the ice — it just happens. That, of course, takes time, but this camp seemed like the first step in the process of making this stuff into a habit.

“Going back and watching my video from this season, that’s more when it clues in to me. When I’m in season I just try to play my game,” Beck said. “Those things might come to me naturally just from repetition, having done them before. There’s times even from that week of practice I’m not even thinking of things we did in terms of a skill or a move or something. After enough repetition, it just becomes muscle memory and that’s what allows me to apply it into a game as opposed to consciously thinking about it. Because, Adam’s told us this week, if you’re reacting, you’re going to be late to make plays. Whereas if you’re pro-active and anticipating, obviously you’re not thinking as much and just playing, that allows you to create more space for yourself and make plays quicker.”

Beck was followed all season by Paul Byron, a member of the player development staff. But what Nicholas’ department does is different; they are specifically called the hockey development department for a reason. They do work in concert with the player development department, but this detailed work, this work on a player’s hockey IQ, is something they are better equipped to teach.

“I work a lot with him in Laval … I’m just learning from him. It’s not because I played hockey that I know how to teach hockey, so I’m just learning from those guys,” Bouillon said. “But the communication’s always good, like when we see something, or I’m going to see a kid on the road, I’ll talk to him to get better feedback on what he should work on in practice, stuff like that.

“The communication between us is really good and we really work as a team, together.”

Last year, the Canadiens had a video monitor set up on the bench to immediately go over video from the drills, recorded on an iPad, with the prospects. That was scrapped this year, even if the drills were still recorded on a tablet; little adjustments to make the week more efficient and more impactful, taking advantage of the little time available to deliver a message that might stick with the future of the franchise.

When you can combine that with a powerful message from the players that are currently with the franchise, it provides a valuable lesson for these players to go home with, and that message was delivered by Suzuki and Brendan Gallagher during camp.

“I think from what they said, it’s all about consistency, you’ve got to show up and bring the same thing each and every day and better. And for them, just the sense that it’s a business,” Hage said. “The guys in camp here, the guys that are trying to make the team eventually, and from what they told us, they don’t want their spot to be taken and guys are trying to come in and take their spot.

“So it’s just how competitive it is, and you start to understand that and you want to be their teammates one day, but you’ve got to fight for a spot eventually. I think it’s just understanding how consistent you have to be and how competitive, how dialled in you have to be away from the rink for that to happen.”

And despite the fact half of this year’s development camp was made up of undrafted tryouts, that message was of vital importance to everyone running the camp. Development remains extremely important to the Canadiens, and the way they go about it continues to reinforce the notion they are more focused on developing a player’s brain than they are their hands and feet.

(Photo of Adam Nicholas addressing Canadiens prospects: Arpon Basu / The Athletic)

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