Stu Cowan: Canadiens' Jayden Struble has long history with Kent Hughes

Defenceman was like a third son to Habs GM, who has watched Struble play since he was 10 years old and was also his hockey adviser.

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Kent Hughes wasn’t general manager of the Canadiens when they drafted Jayden Struble.

It was Marc Bergevin who decided to take Struble in the second round (46th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft.

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If Hughes had been GM at the time, there’s a very good chance he would have also taken Struble after the defenceman put on an impressive display at the NHL Combine, finishing first in the bench press, grip strength (with both right and left hand), the standing long jump and one of two Wingate Cycle Erogometer tests.

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But Hughes didn’t need to see the results of those tests to know all about Struble. He was sort of like a third son to him while growing up.

Hughes has watched Struble play since he was 10 years old as part of the Boston Jr. Eagles Hockey Club. Hughes’s two sons, Riley and Jack, were also part of that youth program. Struble played at the age level between Hughes’s oldest and youngest sons and the three boys were good friends.

During an interview last week on RDS’s l’Antichambre, Hughes talked about how there were times he would arrive back at the family home in Westwood, Mass., and Struble would be in the kitchen making eggs. He would be the only one in the house.

Struble chuckled when I mentioned that story to him.

“Yeah, after a workout I’d go to their house and make breakfast,” he said. “I lived there for a little bit during COVID so I could work out and stuff.”

Struble and Hughes’s two sons played at the same prep school, St. Sebastian’s in Needham, Mass. Struble and Jack were also roommates for four years at Northeastern University and still keep in touch on a group chat with their other two roommates.

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Before becoming GM of the Canadiens, Hughes was Struble’s adviser as a player agent.

“He’s been huge for me, especially when I was younger,” Struble said. “He knows the game so well and helped me navigate through college and the different scouting and combine stuff. He was super-helpful. He’s one of the best hockey minds I’ve ever met.”

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Hughes coached his two sons with the Jr. Eagles, but he never coached Struble. However, he did watch most of Struble’s games.

Struble said it was “weird” when he found out Hughes had been named GM of the Canadiens. Thursday will mark his second anniversary on the job.

“Joining the organization (after graduating last year from Northeastern) it’s even more weird,” Struble said about having Hughes as his GM. “Now it’s more normal. I’m happy for him. He’s done a great job.”

The Canadiens called Struble up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Nov. 20 before heading to Anaheim to start a four-game road trip. At the time, Hughes told Struble he probably wouldn’t play in any games, but the GM wanted him to experience life on the road with the team while also taking part in practices.

“The day we got there we found out Jordan (Harris) was hurt and I found out I was in (the lineup),” Struble said. “It was a whirlwind. I called my mom right away and tried to get them on a flight.”

Struble’s parents and his two brothers made it to Anaheim in time to watch him make his NHL debut. He has played every game since then, posting 2-2-4 totals and an even plus/minus rating in 25 games. The 6-foot, 205-pounder brings a physical presence with 41 hits, which ranks fifth on the Canadiens, and he also had his first fight, dropping the gloves with the Chicago Blackhawks’ MacKenzie Entwistle and doing very well.

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Struble made his first major mistake in his 23rd game last Thursday at the Bell Centre against the San Jose Sharks. Just over five minutes into the game, Struble went to make a backhand pass behind his own net. The puck took a weird bounce and went directly in front of the net, where Luke Kunin picked it up and scored to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead. The Sharks — the worst team in the NHL — went on to win 3-2.

After Struble’s mistake, assistant coach Stéphane Robidas spoke with him on the bench.

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“He just said it was a bad bounce,” Struble recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t let it affect you too much.’ I wear that stuff pretty heavy on me even if it was a bad bounce. He said, ‘Just try to forget about it and go about your business.’ It’s tough, but you got to do it.”

Seven minutes after making the mistake, Struble hammered William Eklund into the boards with a clean check.

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I asked Struble what’s the best advice Hughes has given him since joining the Canadiens.

“Probably just playing hard and knowing your role and trying to do that to the best of your ability and not playing outside yourself,” he said. “It’s easy to try to do too much. He told me not to get too high or too low. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

So far, so good.

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