Canadiens weekly notebook: Kirby Dach and Juraj Slafkovský remain a match despite it all


It is probably difficult to imagine right now, what with Juraj Slafkovský ripping it up playing alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, that there could be a future in which the Montreal Canadiens don’t keep these three young, promising building blocks together on a line.

But two weeks ago, we mentioned in this space a conversation with Slafkovský about Kirby Dach, the help he offered when Slafkovský was struggling earlier this season, how comfortable he felt spending nearly every minute of training camp on a line with Dach as his centre and how Dach’s season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season was a big reason why Slafkovský felt his play dipped and he needed Dach’s advice to begin with.

“I can’t wait for him to be back and (to) just get to play with him again,” Slafkovský said then.

So now, we have Dach’s side of it, and when you hear him talk about Slafkovský, it’s hard not to imagine these two playing together for many years to come.

“I feel like the way we play the game complements one another,” Dach said after practice Sunday. “I think he’s finally found his confidence and his stride and he’s enjoying the game. I mean, you see the passion the kid has, it’s pretty special.”

That passion came shining through Saturday night after Slafkovský had a shot at an open net blocked by Washington Capitals defenceman John Carlson with one second left in regulation and did not deliver in that situation. He was livid. That was passion.

But moving forward, the advice Dach provided during his low points is an important indicator of how compatible these two players are. Dach just turned 23 a little less than a month ago, and already he is acting as a mentor for someone who could be on his flank for a long time, using lessons he learned from Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook and other veterans in Chicago that eased his way into the NHL when he entered at 18, just as Slafkovský did last season.

“To be honest, I saw myself a lot in Slaf,” Dach said. “Big kid, come in, maybe he was ready, maybe he wasn’t, you don’t really know, but I felt like I was kind of in the same situation. You come in, you have a lot of expectations on you, but the most expectations come from within yourself and you want to do good and prove everybody right that you deserve to be in that spot.

“When you see a young guy struggling, you kind of step in and try and help him as much as you can. I had a lot of older guys help me out in Chicago along the way; I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

It says a lot about Dach that he feels not only comfortable doing something like that for an important young player, but that he almost feels a responsibility to do it.

“Not everybody has the personality, the makeup to be comfortable to go talk to a player about his game,” coach Martin St. Louis said. “That’s great to have.”

Thinking ahead, yes, the idea of Caufield-Suzuki-Slafkovský being a line for a decade in Montreal looks like a great place to start rebuilding a team, but if Slafkovský becomes what he looks like he is becoming — a legitimate top-end power forward — then having him and Dach anchoring one line while Suzuki and Caufield anchor another makes a lot more sense from a team-building perspective.

But the other component here is how receptive Slafkovský is to instruction. The coaching staff raves about his desire to get better, St. Louis has repeatedly referred to him as a sponge, and now Dach can say the same, as can Suzuki, for that matter.

“He’s a great playmaker,” Suzuki said last week. “Everyone’s telling him to shoot, and I’m telling him to make plays. You can’t just be set on one thing, you have to be open to any option and I think he’s been doing a really good job of that lately. People, media are telling him he should shoot more, I mean, he’s got a great shot, and we all love when he shoots, but you want to make the right play.”

Suzuki and Slafkovský will have conversations on the bench between shifts where those observations Suzuki has about his decisions on the ice are discussed.

“Yeah, about reading the game, hold on to the puck more, try to make plays,” Slafkovský said. “Of course, shoot when I have a chance. But I feel like I, myself, I know I can make plays, but he’ll tell me things, like if I get rid of the puck too early and he sees I could have made a play, he’ll tell me about that and tells me to trust myself to do it.”

The same evening Suzuki made those comments about Slafkovský, he did this.

Taking a shot would have been perfectly acceptable for Slafkovský there, but he didn’t shoot, he made the right play. He listened to Suzuki instead of listening to all the people telling him to shoot it more — the media, the fans, even his mom.

“Yeah, but that’s Suzy,” he said, “he’s a little smarter than everyone.”

Slafkovský has given fans a lot to get excited about over the last couple of months. But what’s become clear is his ability to take instruction and incorporate it into his game is very strong. Considering he doesn’t turn 20 until the end of March, that is an important quality to have.

Keeping Kirby Dach engaged

Dach has been a constant presence around the team this season. He is present at just about every game. He sits on the bench during morning skates regularly. But the way St. Louis has kept him involved is truly unique.

Every game day, Dach comes to the Bell Centre very early to take part in the coach’s scouting meeting, breaking down what happened in their last game and looking at their opponent that night. It was St. Louis who invited Dach to take part in those meetings, and Dach was all in.

“I think it’s just learning the game, seeing things from different perspectives and different views and understanding why we want do certain things out there and where you want to be in space and make different plays,” he said. “I feel like as a player, when you’re sitting in those meetings in the morning and you’re watching, you don’t really see all the behind the scenes, how many clips there really is to go through. Some mornings are a bit long and it’s a bit early to get here, but it’s definitely been worth it and helped me out a lot.”

What’s unique here is St. Louis values what Dach has to say, his thoughts and observations, which has benefitted Slafkovský but is also benefitting the team as a whole.

“He comes and sits and it’s an opportunity to talk to him about the previous game … an opportunity to get his thoughts on our previous game and also be part of the process of pre-scouting and stuff,” St. Louis said. “Just keep his brain activated and up to date on the stuff that we’re doing.”

It’s not easy for a young player to have his season come to an abrupt end in the second game of the season, especially not for a player who has had as much bad luck with injuries as Dach. It’s difficult for him to watch and not be able to play, but he’s remained engaged, and this initiative from St. Louis has helped immensely in that regard, even if the mornings can be a bit early.

“It’s nice to just feel like a part of the team a little bit,” Dach said. “As much as you are a part of the team when I’m around the guys, but you’re still missing a big part of your life on the road trips, the games and all that little stuff. So it’s just nice to be able to stay connected.”

Some trade deadline foreshadowing?

Last year at this time, the Canadiens were managing the Joel Edmundson situation, his back injury, the trade interest he was generating and the rumours that were swirling around him.

Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes felt the need to have a conversation with Edmundson to give him the straight goods on what was going on.

“He brought me into his office a couple of times leading up to where we are right now (on the calendar), and he just said you probably see what everyone sees online, and he just kind of talked me through everything,” Edmundson said before facing the Canadiens on Saturday with the Capitals, his first trip back to the Bell Centre since being traded last offseason. “He said, ‘We’re not looking to move you, but we’re listening, we want you to be on a contender.’ Just little things like that. Then trade deadline comes, and it was a very nerve-wracking day, but I was very, very excited to remain in Montreal.”

Edmundson had never really faced a situation like that before. But his relationship with Hughes and the way Hughes generally interacts with players meant Edmundson was not surprised he could have such an open, real conversation with him about something so sensitive.

“Every GM’s different, but knowing Kent the way he is, he’s very talkative, he’s always around the guys, so that didn’t surprise me at all,” Edmundson said. “I would be surprised if, say, St. Louis’ GM did that, or just different GMs around the league. I had a good relationship with Kent, so it was nice to have that open conversation.”

Despite Hughes being open with him, it didn’t exactly make the situation easier to handle.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, it was always in the back of your mind so you’re just trying to fight through that and focus on the team,” Edmundson said. “But you’ve got the fiancée back at home, she’s asking you questions, you’ve got your friends asking you, just people asking from everywhere. So it definitely plays a factor in your mind, but you just try to focus.”

The reason we bring this up is that the Canadiens are essentially in the exact same situation with David Savard right now. Edmundson had one year left on his deal last season at $3.5 million a year, Savard has one more year left on his deal at $3.5 million a year. Edmundson is a defence-first, shot-blocking, net-front-clearing defenceman, Savard is the same. The only difference is Savard shoots from the right, which makes him even more valuable.

Just as Hughes told Edmundson, he has said publicly he is not looking to trade Savard. But just as it was the case with Edmundson, he is listening on Savard.

Just like the trade of Elias Lindholm from Calgary to Vancouver created a market crunch for Sean Monahan that Hughes was able to leverage, once Calgary trades the right-shot, defence-first, shot-blocking Chris Tanev, a similar situation could be created for Savard as a defenceman who fits that same profile. Only one team can trade for Tanev, and the ones that don’t get him will surely double back with the Canadiens, just like the Jets did once they were unable to land Lindholm.

Edmundson ultimately got dealt in the offseason. The Canadiens would have preferred moving him at the deadline, but his tenuous injury situation — he only got back in the lineup on March 2 — limited what Hughes could do. Savard, barring something unfortunate happening in the coming weeks, has no such leverage-altering limitation.

Meanwhile, Edmundson could find himself in the exact same nerve-wracking situation this year. The Capitals are pretty far from a playoff spot right now and Edmundson’s expiring contract at just $1.75 million — the Canadiens retaining the other half — could mean he will be on the move again.

“I’m actually not too sure,” he said. “Right now I’m just focused on the next couple of weeks and trying to get this team into a playoff spot.”

It is unclear if the Canadiens have had that same conversation with Savard just yet, but there is no doubt they are willing to listen on trading him by March 8 if a team comes hard after him. So if that conversation hasn’t happened yet, it likely will soon.


Michael Pezzetta has earned the trust of Martin St. Louis. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

Michael Pezzetta’s source of trust with St. Louis

With the return of Brendan Gallagher to the lineup Thursday in New York following the completion of his suspension, St. Louis had a decision to make. Either he scratches Jesse Ylönen or Michael Pezzetta.

He, somewhat unsurprisingly, went with Ylönen. St. Louis admitted that with the puck, Ylönen has a lot to offer. But his problem with Ylönen has long been his play without the puck, which begs the question as to what Pezzetta does without the puck that gives him the benefit of the doubt.

There are some obvious elements of Pezzetta’s game that give him an edge in off-the-puck play, mainly how physical he is. But Pezzetta and St. Louis spent a ton of time on the ice together over the first half of last season while he was consistently a healthy scratch and St. Louis regularly spent time after morning skates working with the scratches.

Pezzetta has probably gotten more one-on-one time with St. Louis on the ice than any other player on the roster.

But more than that, there is the notion St. Louis sees something in Pezzetta that no one has ever seen in him before, and his first meeting with Pezzetta speaks to that belief.

“I remember one of the first meetings I had with him, he showed me a clip, and it was just that in the AHL I was boxed into a role, and when you get in that role you kind of stop thinking of making plays,” Pezzetta said Thursday. “I got the puck on the wall and I just chipped it off the glass to get out of the zone, a guy was slashing, it was an OK play, there was nothing wrong with it. He pulled me in and said, ‘What do you think of this play?’ I said it was a decent play, I got the puck out of the zone, I did my job, you know?

“He said, ‘Yeah, you did your job. But you’re surviving. This is a survivor’s play. You need to start living.’ That was something that was said from the start. I’ll never forget that meeting. He was like, surviving is just going to keep you here for a short period of time, but once you start living, then you really stay here.”

This is how St. Louis deals with his players. He infuses them with belief in something they did not previously believe they can do. And in Pezzetta’s case, it resonated.

“I’ve never had someone tell me not to do what I just did, you know?” Pezzetta said. “The last three or four years I’ve been told to do the exact same thing, you did that, you got off and waited for your next turn to get on the ice. I think that was a breath of fresh air from the start and you just try to grow your game from there.”

Montembeault gets his ring and it tells a great story

So, last week we told you about how St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong delivered world championship rings to Montreal for Sam Montembeault and Justin Barron.

But the rings themselves have a hilarious story attached to them.

“It has my name on the side, the cup on the top and my number on the other side,” Montembeault said. “Inside it says who scored every goal, and then it says WTE.”

WTE?

It turns out that after Canada won the gold medal, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers was asked by a reporter how despite this being the worst Team Canada ever assembled, Canada still finds a way to win. Really.

The team took to chanting that in the room after the win, and hence, the engraving on the ring. WTE stands for Worst Team Ever.

“When we won,” Montembeault said, “the guys were all screaming that.”

Despite Armstrong being a strong contender to lead Team Canada in the upcoming Four Nations tournament to be held in Montreal and Boston, Montembeault did not take advantage of the meeting to pump his own candidacy for a spot on that team.

“No, we didn’t talk about that,” he said.

Winning that gold medal was Montembeault making the most of an opportunity, but this was a case of him missing an opportunity.

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Trevor Zegras is not as problematic as his coach makes him sound. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Greg Cronin busts the narrative on Trevor Zegras

Canadiens fans are clearly interested in the potential availability of Trevor Zegras in Anaheim, and there is clearly a notion that it is his lack of a complete game that has him on the trade market.

His coach in Anaheim, Greg Cronin, therefore took the opportunity of his team’s lone visit to Montreal last week to dispel some of those notions on Zegras.

Cronin went to bat for Zegras, and he did it hard.

“Outside the media, he’s a very team-first, driven player,” Cronin said. “When you watch him, he’s not a driver with how he skates, he’s more of a finesse skater, but he’s using his brain all the time. There’s only a handful of guys that I’ve coached that think the game the way he does. Like, he can tell you who was on the ice, what shot the guy was before he made a play. It’s an interesting conversation.

“I had (John) Tavares in New York and he’s another one of those guys, like, he just sees everything on the ice. That’s why those guys are coveted. You have to draft those players, it’s hard to coach that into players.”

What’s interesting as far as the Canadiens are concerned is the first person Cronin reached out to when he got the job in Anaheim to get some intelligence on Zegras. It was Albie O’Connell, who was coaching Boston University when Zegras was at the United States National Team Development Program with Cole Caufield and recruited him to the Terriers.

“He said he’s a really misunderstood kid, because you’ve got this one side of him where he’s a media magnet, and I think that stems from the acrobatic play he has with the puck and some of those circus things he does that’s really unique and it’s rare, right?” Cronin said. “There’s a handful of guys that can do that in the NHL, the plays he makes. It’s controversial, you’ve got (John) Tortorella saying that doesn’t belong in the game, but then you’ve got the NHL that loves it because it draws in a different crowd. Ultimately, when you shave that away from him and you look at him as a person, he’s really committed, he’s a very high IQ guy, and he’s very coachable.

“For me, when you tell Zegras you’ve got to do A, B and C, he’ll do them. He just needs specific direction and then he’ll follow them. He’s an unbelievable teammate. I know there was an incident in Columbus where I sat him in the third period because of multiple turnovers, he was the first guy waiting for his team to come off the ice after the overtime winner to congratulate everybody. I think that speaks to his character and his team-first mentality.”

Sounds like a guy Cronin doesn’t want traded. But he also sounds like a guy the Canadiens, or any team, should want to trade for if the Ducks decide to move him.

As an aside, up until this season, the Canadiens had a member of their amateur scouting staff assigned to watching American college players. That person was O’Connell, who left for a position with Arizona State University last offseason. If the Canadiens need intelligence on Zegras, they have an excellent source.

Mike Matheson is on pace for 61 points this season, which would put him in a tie for the 15th most productive season by a Canadiens defenceman in franchise history. Andrei Markov’s most productive season was 64 points. That’s it. That’s the note.

(Top photo of Kirby Dach and Juraj Slafkovský: Mike Carlson / Getty Images)





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