Stu Cowan: Kent Hughes is the right man for the job as Canadiens' GM

He has embraced the challenge of rebuilding Habs and while he realizes the plan might not work, he has confidence it will and won’t panic.

Article content

Canadiens GM Kent Hughes answered questions from the media for more than 20 minutes Friday in Brossard after the NHL’s 3 p.m. trade deadline had passed.

He gave one answer that to me highlighted why he’s the right man to be putting the pieces together during this team rebuild — and it wasn’t about his decision to trade goalie Jake Allen to the New Jersey Devils or to keep veteran defenceman David Savard.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

When I asked Hughes about the patience he has shown since taking over the job two years ago, he responded: “Listen, I look forward to the day that we’re buying, not selling. I’m as competitive as the next person. I want to feel the highs and lows of winning and losing that come when you’re expected to compete for a Stanley Cup. So the faster that it could happen the better off it is. I’d like to be around for it. But I don’t want to do it at the expense of doing it the right way and I think that’s how we all feel as a management group and as an organization.”

The words that jumped out to me were: “I’d like to be around for it.”

Rebuilding a team in the 32-team, salary-capped NHL is not an easy job — just ask fans of the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers. Hughes’s rebuilding plan might not work — and he realizes that. But he has a solid plan in place — along with Jeff Gorton, the executive vice-president of hockey operations — and believes it will work.

If it doesn’t work, Hughes will eventually get fired. But he’s not afraid of that and won’t make panic moves hoping to save his job.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Hughes doesn’t need this job. He was a very successful player agent and doesn’t need the money. But he has embraced the challenge that comes with being GM of the Canadiens.

“Why not take the ultimate challenge here, and it’s coming home,” Hughes, who grew up on Montreal’s West Island, told me during a one-on-one interview a couple of months after Gorton hired him as GM.

Hughes had another interesting quote from that one-on-one interview when talking about his days coaching youth hockey — including his sons Riley and Jack — with the Boston Junior Eagles program.

“When I started coaching the kids, every time we had a big game I would tell them we’re not afraid to fail,” he said. “We’re not worried about failure. We may or may not win the game — if we knew we were going to win before, we wouldn’t want to play. If we knew we were going lose before, we’d probably want to play even less. It’s the unknown, the unknown outcome and the ability to impact that outcome that drove me.”

It still drives him.

The Canadiens’ Mike Matheson also grew up on Montreal’s West Island and has known Hughes for a long time. Hughes used to be Matheson’s agent and negotiated the eight-year, US$39-million contract extension the defenceman signed with the Florida Panthers in 2017. Matheson, 30, has two more seasons remaining on that contract.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“I think he’s staying true to what he believes in and isn’t making any decision for selfish reasons for whatever the case may be,” Matheson said after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre when asked about the job Hughes is doing as GM. “He’s truly making every decision that will be the best for the team.”

Hughes is still stuck with some tough contracts from Marc Bergevin’s time as GM. Brendan Gallagher has three more seasons with a cap hit of US$6.5 million. Josh Anderson has three more seasons at US$5.5 million. Christian Dvorak has one more season at US$4.45 million and Joel Armia has one more season at US$3.4 million. Thankfully, Hughes isn’t still stuck with Carey Price’s contract (two more seasons at US$10.5 million that is now on long-term injured reserve) or Shea Weber’s contract (two more seasons at US$7.857 million that Hughes traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, who then traded it to the Arizona Coyotes — where bad contracts go to die).

Hughes now has a core group of players all age 24 or younger that includes forwards Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Alex Newhook, Kirby Dach, Joshua Roy and Juraj Slafkovsky, defencemen Kaiden Guhle, Jayden Struble, Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris, and goalie Cayden Primeau.

The most impressive thing about the team this season has been the consistent compete level, which was on display again Saturday against the Leafs.

“I think there’s still a good mixture of young guys that are continuing to grow and some older guys that have a lot of game left in them and can help along with that growth,” Matheson said. “I think both pieces are as important as the other. I think the character in the room, that everyone’s still bringing it every single night, is a great sign.”

There are signs that this rebuild could work, but there are no guarantees.

However, Kent Hughes has shown he’s the right man to be GM.

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 5

Article content

Article content