MANALAPAN, Fla. – You plan, God laughs.
The Yiddish proverb applies well to the reality Kent Hughes has lived on a daily basis since his early days as an NHL agent.
And it’s that reality the 53-year-old referenced on Tuesday, when we sat down to discuss his short tenure as Montreal Canadiens general manager.
“I always believed that, even as an agent, when people would ask, ‘What’s your typical week like?’ I would say it’s hard to describe,” he said in an exclusive interview with Sportsnet. “A lot of times I had 20 items I wanted to get through for the week, and when I got to Item 3, I felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off because even on the agent side, it’s a very reactionary business. It’s the same and then some on this side.”
That’s been made clear over and over again since he took to the helm of the Canadiens in January 2022, and even more so this season.
Before it, Hughes said he had no intention of over-exposing his rookie defencemen. But an injury to Mike Matheson in training camp thrust then-20-year-old Kaiden Guhle into a top-pairing role and 22-year-old Jordan Harris into one where he was averaging more than 20 minutes per game.
Arber Xhekaj, who didn’t turn 22 until Jan. 30, won a spot out of camp that wouldn’t have even been available to him had Joel Edmundson been healthy.
And these are just some examples of how fluid Hughes has had to be with his planning.
He dealt with others at the beginning of this month, when he was unable to trade Sean Monahan – among others – for anything, let alone the first-round pick he anticipated receiving when Monahan shot out to an excellent start with 17 points and great all-around play through the first 25 games of the season. Injury got in the way, just as it did when it came to trading Edmundson for what would’ve been a strong return.
It hasn’t all been unexpected change for the worse. The circumstances have allowed Hughes to get a better sense of what Guhle and Harris can do. He’s learned that Johnathan Kovacevic, who arrived via waivers at the beginning of the season, could be more than just a stopgap solution, and he’s seen players such as Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Jesse Ylonen and Alex Belzile prove they could do more than just fill in at this level, and all of that is positive.
Still, it’s been a whirlwind for the Beaconsfield, Que., native. We spoke to him about that in a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from how he views this season to how he views potentially drafting Russian players given the current political climate.
The following has been edited purely for clarity and flow purposes.
Sportsnet: What’s your takeaway from how this season has gone?
Kent Hughes: It’s hard to, when you’re fifth from the bottom, sit here and say it’s a successful season. Having said that, we didn’t have expectations we were going to be a playoff team. We lived through an inordinate number of injuries, and yet we’ve remained competitive. That’s critical to me for our development. The development of our individual players and our culture has been served.
When we went through that tough period on either side of Christmas, where we weren’t competitive, that didn’t feel like a great environment to stick a bunch of young hockey players into. But now I feel like, with the fact that we’re down to our last 15 games or so and we’ve had very few games like that, it’s been really positive. And we’ve had a group where the veteran guys have still bought in, and they’ve been great leaders and role models and helped to create this culture that’s really encouraging.
SN: What roles, if any, have the patience and support of the fan base played in the good of this season?
KH: I can tell you that, from a player perspective, from a team perspective and organizational perspective, it’s incredible to have that kind of support. It makes it so much easier for the players on a night-to-night basis. They’re going out and playing to give their all, they’re playing for the fans and they know the fans are appreciating their effort. I think their role in being able to create this environment where our guys can get better and compete despite knowing that the odds are against us, from a playoff perspective, has been fantastic.
Even last year, when the fans were able to come back in the building, I think we got a standing ovation in the final game of the season. Jeff Gorton was teasing David Savard, saying, “Two years in a row, you left the season to a standing ovation – one with the Stanley Cup and the other with a dead-last finish.” But he was highlighting the passion of the fan base.
It’s an educated and respectful fan base in that regard. It’s not just like, “We’ll cheer if you win.” It just goes to show you, in part, how important the Canadiens are to the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec.
SN: Social media gives you more exposure to the fans outside the Bell Centre, so you can have a pretty strong sense of how accepting the whole base is regarding the long-term process you guys have undertaken. When you gauge the temperature of the fan base as a whole, what does it mean to you to know they’ve bought in?
KH: I don’t do a lot of gauging of that stuff. I’m sure other people in the organization do. We just set out on our mission and our objective to put a team together that could win on a sustainable basis. To that end, we’ve just gone ahead and tried to get further along in that mission. I didn’t know how fans would react to it. My guess is, on social media, there’s support for it and there’s others who won’t support it. But people we see on the street when we’re walking around the city, for the most part, are pretty positive about it.
SN: Where do you think you’re at in the process? Are you further along that you thought you’d be? Behind? Or are you where you hoped you’d be when you put together a plan that we know isn’t necessarily written in ink?
KH: I guess, in some ways, further along. Again, it’s hard to say you’re further along when you sit fifth from the bottom, but I actually feel like things have gone kind of where we had hoped they would go. There’s been a progression collectively, and individually.
What we really ultimately need to do is figure out where that progression takes us with each individual because that really helps us understand what we have with our roster. When you have a young group of players progressing, you sit there and get excited (about) what the future could be, but it’s not what it is today. Your young player that’s performing well gives you cause for optimism, but they actually have to go out and get there and live up to that potential you think they might have – and that’s the unknown we’re still living with. What’s the ceiling for Jordan Harris? What’s the ceiling for Arber Xhekaj? Kaiden Guhle? Justin Barron? And same for the Cole Caufields and Nick Suzukis and Kirby Dachs and the young forwards coming.
SN: Who are some players that have developed beyond what you’d initially hoped for under head coach Martin St. Louis?
KH: I wouldn’t say there’s a specific player that’s turned my head, but there’s certainly some where you’ve seen considerable progression. I think Josh Anderson is one where he’s doing a better job of extending possessions, protecting pucks and trying to add to his game. I think all good hockey players learn how to use their best assets to their advantage, and Josh has learned how to use his speed more away from puck. He’s getting pucks, catching players flatfooted. What did he have the other night? Three breakaways? He’s got to be up there in the NHL in terms of breakaways this year, and it’s not like he’s doing it hiding behind a defenceman. He’s beating people to get to breakaways.
I think Marty’s had an overall impact on everybody. Every hockey player also has a certain internal pressure to be this, to be that, but I think Marty creates a good environment for it to happen.
It’s not just Marty, it’s the whole coaching staff.
I think players have a sense that they’re all in this together, working together towards something individually and collectively, and the staff has created that. They’ve garnered, as a group, respect for what they’ve accomplished as hockey players, and that helps.
SN: It was thought the team would opt for coaching experience to fill the vacancy left by Luke Richardson, but Stephane Robidas came in to run the defence. What do you make of his work?
KH: I don’t know if you guys see him, but I see him all the time one-on-one with one D or another going over video. He’s got a great mind for the game. His background was development. He’s also very patient. Incredibly patient, doesn’t get uptight. I think you see that when you’re watching him on TV, when he’s behind the bench.
The group of coaches, as a whole, feels pretty even-keel, and the players feel that and appreciate it. I had Mike Matheson and Chris Wideman come to me at one point this year, and we were talking about how their careers would’ve been different had they broken into the NHL with this staff. It was really meant to say this is a really great environment for young players.
SN: How much credit does goaltending coach Eric Raymond deserve for what we’ve seen with Sam Montembeault and Jake Allen? A lot of people were saying Sam wasn’t an NHL goaltender when you got him, and many were lobbying for him to become your starter just two months ago. Jake has played great, so what about Raymond’s influence?
KH: I think he’s had an influence. I think he’s, again, especially for goalies … when they’re playing, they’re probably under the most pressure, and a bad game for a goalie is always more magnified, so he’s a calming influence. I think Eric is another one who’s a very even-keeled, matter-of-fact, business-like person who is clear on working on this or that and staying on task.
Part of it, to me, is if you’re not wired that way, it’s hard to just put on a face for however many games a year and pretend you are.
There’s just an element of calmness to all the coaches that the room and everyone is benefiting from.
SN: What’s your view on the number of injuries your team has incurred since you’ve been here?
KH: The injury piece has kept us on our toes for sure. It’s almost like, on a nightly basis, you’re coming down, you’re trying to figure out who’s injured, where are we roster-wise, where’s Laval, can we get somebody up, do we have to put somebody else on IR in order to call somebody up, so there’s been a lot of managing around it all.
But the bigger piece is, nobody’s going to build a winning team with the level of injuries we’ve had. It’s impossible.
SN: Surely, you’ve noticed the media, and some of the fans, have made a lot of noise about transparency – or lack thereof – on injuries. What’s your take on it?
KH: Every player has the right, like anybody else, to privacy. Whether they choose to exercise that right because they’re private by nature, or because they’re worried that disclosure could put them at risk from an injury standpoint, is at their discretion. We talk about Arber Xhekaj – he hurt his shoulder, everybody saw it that was at the game or watching on TV, but when we come in after the game, we don’t know the extent of the injury, we don’t know if he’s playing the next game, if he’s going to play in a week’s time. If we go out there and announce it publicly so that everybody who wakes up the next morning across the NHL reads that Arber’s got a bad shoulder, when he shows up to play that next game, we’re putting him at risk with another player challenging him to a fight and maybe yanking his shoulder around a bunch.
We’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to figure out how much of it is that we’ve just had really bad luck the last couple of years to, if there’s ways where we could, as we go forward, improve the situation. And whatever ways there are, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and get to work on figuring out what they are and allocate whatever resources we have on anything we can do to get better in that department.
So, there will be an element of trying to protect the athlete.
But then there’s going to be a third tier, where we’re approaching a trade deadline with a player like Sean Monahan, who’s a trade candidate, where I would rather pick up the phone and have a one-on-one conversation with a GM about Sean’s health issues than have people read about it without having the entire picture and discounting him as a possible trade candidate.
Outside of all that, I have no issue with being transparent. We’ve had a lot of situations this year, to be perfectly frank with you, where there’s been too much unknown. Sean Monahan’s case, with how he injured himself in the rehab process, and it was just really difficult to pinpoint the issue and what the timeline is for it. Kirby Dach was another one. We laughed and said we might as well not tell the truth because no one is going to believe us, but what we said about him, about having believed he had an infection that then turned out to be an injury, was the truth. There are other players, like Joel Armia, who still have issues we’re still trying to get to the bottom of.
SN: Coming back to the big picture and your plan moving forward, there’s money coming off the books this year, players’ contracts expiring. Should fans expect the Canadiens to spend to the cap next season?
KH: I think we will. As we’ve done, wherever we feel we have a way to leverage cap space to improve us immediately or improve us in the future, I think we will do it. You had the example with Sean Monahan this year where once we knew Carey (Price) wasn’t going to be able to play and we could spend his money, we immediately tried to do it. We didn’t think the most productive way at that point was to go sign an older free agent, so we made the trade, acquired a draft pick and a pretty darned good hockey player at the same time, which was great. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented him from being all that he could’ve been this year.
SN: Before we get to free agency, we’ve got the rest of the season to go and the draft approaching. What’s your immediate focus, aside from traveling to the world under-18 tournament?
KH: You’re never going to know the whole universe of players available for the draft, so it’s nice to get your eyes on some of them and have a little bit of an understanding. Ultimately, we put our trust in our scouting group to direct us when it comes to the amateur draft. But I like to go and, if I see things in a player, raise those issues and say, “Do you worry about this? Did you notice this about a player?” Whether it’s a positive or a potential shortcoming in their game, we want to be able to at least debate it with the scouts.
But the other component for us now is, we have so many young players we’ve already drafted – the (Riley) Kidneys and (Joshua) Roys and (Logan) Maillouxs – whose junior careers are coming to an end. We’d like to get some of them to Laval to push for the playoffs there if they become available.
SN: When you talk about having all those young players already in the system, is it fair to assume that your window logically opens as Suzuki, Caufield and Dach advance into their prime years, starting around two seasons down the line?
KH: We can’t have a blueprint that isn’t malleable enough to react to certain changes in the environment or events. At the end of the day, we want it to open as quick as we can.
Dach was that type of example where, instead of acquiring a pick, we got a player three years older who we feel had as much or more potential as that pick could’ve represented but we feel could hit it three years quicker. And we’ll continue to look for those situations.
They’re not always going to be there. And we were lucky or fortunate enough to be the ones who were able to trade for Dach, it could’ve been somebody else.
We’ll continue to look at that and, to me, those are ways to advance our timeline while still getting youngers. And if we don’t, we’ll use the picks.
But I do envision there’s a time coming soon where a pick that we’ve acquired becomes a trade asset instead of a future player.
SN: The draft is quickly approaching. What’s your view on taking Russian players?
KH: I think as we get closer to the draft, we’re going to delve into that a little bit deeper. Of course, (co-director of amateur scouting) Nick Bobrov is Russian, so he’s in a position to expand on it and share a bit more information.
But yeah, there has to be some level of concern, and that’s probably true for all the teams given the climate of that world today.
SN: Our time is up, so thanks for doing this and good luck the rest of the way.