Canadiens double down on their developmental model by trading for Mike Matheson

It’s been a little over five months since Martin St. Louis was hired out of nowhere to coach the Canadiens. It was a shot in the dark, a risk that Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton were comfortable with because they knew how St. Louis thinks about the game would translate to the NHL level, even if practically no one else did.

About a month after St. Louis was brought on board, the Canadiens also hired Adam Nicholas to become their director of hockey development, to be more hands-on than the existing player development staff made up of Rob Ramage and Francis Bouillon. Whereas those two men play more of a mentorship role for Canadiens prospects wherever they are playing around the world, Nicholas would be on the ice with the current players, and with players in Laval, working on specific skills and serving as a sounding board for whatever a particular player wanted to work on.

Two months after the Nicholas hire, Christopher Boucher was brought on board to head up the Canadiens’ brand-new analytics department, something that had never existed in the franchise’s history. On Thursday, two more hires — Philippe Desaulniers and Miranda McMillan — were made to work under Boucher.

Those three hires in a three-month span help explain the Canadiens’ acquisition of Mike Matheson and a fourth-round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday for Jeff Petry and Ryan Poehling, a move that puts an end to the Canadiens’ best opportunity to shed salary and at the same time does right by Petry by sending him to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

Matheson, a Pointe-Claire, Quebec, native, is a former Hughes client. It was Hughes who negotiated the monster eight-year, $39 million contract Matheson signed with the Florida Panthers in 2017 before his entry-level contract was even expired. It’s a contract Hughes now gladly inherits with four years left on it at a cap hit of $4.875 million a year.

After making the trade, and after signing Rem Pitlick to a two-year contract worth $1.1 million a year, the Canadiens come out ahead a bit more than $1 million on the cap, so that portion of what Hughes wanted to accomplish in any Petry trade worked out. But he has also taken on a lot of term with Matheson; no Canadiens defenceman makes more money per year or is signed for as long as he is.

To do that, Hughes needed to be confident that Matheson’s performance in Pittsburgh last season, the best season of his career so far, was not a one-off. Those three hires allowed him that confidence. Matheson’s underlying numbers were pretty good last season, but it was the first year that was the case since he signed his massive contract.

It’s a risk, one mitigated by the information Hughes received from his analytics staff and, perhaps most important, by his confidence in St. Louis’ ability to get the most out of Matheson. In that sense, it is similar to the swing Hughes took on Kirby Dach, whom he acquired at the draft in the hope that his development staff could fix whatever it was that wasn’t working for the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft.

Five months ago, this would have been unthinkable, the Canadiens making two trades that banked on their ability to properly develop players. But today, that is exactly what they are doing, and we saw another example in the acquisition of Matheson, even though he is 28 years old. St. Louis is a firm believer that a player can never stop learning, never stop improving, and Matheson will provide an excellent test case for that theory.

“Mike, like a lot of players, one, there’s a progression that comes with maturity as a hockey player, and there’s a progression that comes with an environment that’s conducive to development,” Hughes said Saturday. “I feel we know Mike well enough to know what that environment is, and I feel like that environment, we are going to have it plentiful in Montreal.

“He has some abilities where he’s really at the top of the league, his ability to generate offence off the blue line, which I think we certainly can benefit from. His skating allows him both to transport the puck or just be more aggressive defensively. I think we saw it with Brett Kulak, who was also a good skater. Under Marty, there was an uptick in Brett’s game relative to what it was before. I think we’re going to see the same in Mike Matheson.”

Hughes had said he didn’t want to take on a big contract in return for Petry, but he clarified Saturday that he meant he didn’t want to take back a dead contract, a player who was not performing up to its value. With Matheson, he does not believe that is what he is doing. He is a player who is essentially the Canadiens’ de facto No. 1 defenceman as things stand now, which is not exactly “an environment that’s conducive to development.”

Last season, Matheson played just under 19 minutes per game with very limited time on special teams, and he thrived with career bests of 11 goals and 31 points in 74 games. He is, however, 28, an age when a talented player should be ready for a bigger role or else never will be. Hughes obviously believes he is.

“I know back in time, Dale Tallon thought he would become the Duncan Keith in Florida because of his skating,” Hughes said. “I think Mike’s time in Florida was marked with success and probably some challenges as well. Then when he got into an environment that was more conducive for him, we really started to see his game go. I spoke to Kris Letang extensively about Mike before we did this trade, and Kris is disappointed to see him leave but very, very positive in terms of who Mike is and who he can be in terms of a hockey player.”

What this comes down to, ultimately, is the belief of Hughes and Jeff Gorton that St. Louis can allow players who have underperformed to reach their full potential. Dach has a ton of potential. So does Matheson, and so does, for that matter, someone like Jonathan Drouin, who barely played under St. Louis before his season was ended by a wrist injury. Not to mention all the young players currently on the roster and the ones coming up.

It’s been five months since St. Louis was hired. Five months when the Canadiens’ entire player acquisition strategy appears to be highly predicated on the presence of St. Louis, a coach for whom players seem excited to work, a coach whose ability to individually target developmental opportunities even in veteran players makes him distinctive.

Brendan Gallagher made a comment to me, one of the things that he found really unique about Marty is that he found he was being coached as an individual,” Hughes said. “Not individually within the framework of the system, but just as a hockey player. We believe Marty and our development group will help these guys.

“It’s not just on the ice, it’s the environment they perform in and how we include them, protect them and make them feel comfortable to play to their best.”

That’s a lot to put on a rookie coach. But the Canadiens are clearly all-in on what Martin St. Louis can do.

(Photo of Mike Matheson: Len Redkoles / NHLI via Getty Images)

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