June 5, 2023
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Stu Cowan: Canadians take risks that pay off in the long run

“Everything is fixable and that’s really refreshing coming from a coach because it’s an emotional sport,” says Jordan Harris of mistakes.

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ST. LOUIS — Hockey is a game of mistakes.

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It is also a game of calculated risks.

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Those are two things Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis emphasizes as he tries to rebuild the NHL’s worst team of last season.

Rookie defensemen Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris both average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. They will make mistakes, and St. Louis doesn’t want them to worry about mistakes. Instead, he wants them to learn from those mistakes.

“I think it comes down to experience and how important it is to calculate the risk you’re taking,” St. Louis said last week. “You can’t just take risks. You have to calculate why you are taking this risk right now. It’s not necessarily risk…but I think every player should have some calculated risk, and I think Jordan is doing that right now. With him and Guhls they can support the offensive, but also hit back pretty quickly if it doesn’t work out.”

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Harris said St. Louis and assistant coach Stéphane Robidas both want defenders to stop looking for safe play and instead look for open lanes.

“It’s a fine line between playing safely and being maybe half a second late,” Harris said after a recent practice session. “I feel like young people – especially with me – you don’t realize how much time you have and that comes from repetition and experience and really trying to slow it down and make the right play. It’s definitely one of those things that comes with learning the system and learning where the guys are going to be and not just throwing the puck away. Everything we do has that purpose and you don’t want to throw the puck away.”

Harris added that his confidence grows with every game.

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“When you’re about to get up[in the NHL]it’s all about adrenaline and instincts,” he said. “You may be making the right game, but you may not know why it was the right game. Now I’m starting to understand what the right game is and when. When it comes to timing, especially off our set breakout, you have to wait for the right timing and forwards to swing. Just understand the purpose behind things.”

St. Louis believes in concepts over systems, and Harris described it as a more mature way of playing the game while letting the puck do most of the work.

“We don’t have a lot of set plays or if the puck is here, you have to be here,” Harris said. “It’s good how[St. Louis]describes things because he always has a rationale for it. It’s very interesting. Sometimes when I make a mistake I think about the mistake. But he’ll say, “You made the mistake because of that,” and that’s really interesting. It takes away some of the emotion from him. It’s really nice how he thinks about things and it’s really logical. Everything is fixable and that’s really refreshing from a coach because it’s an emotional sport. But the way he sees it, it’s logical and that helps a lot as a player because you know you might make a mistake, but it’s correctable.”

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Defenseman Johnathan Kovacevic, who received waivers from the Winnipeg Jets before the start of the season, likes that Robidas is very supportive and positive and “knows the game so well” after playing 15 seasons as an NHL defenseman.

During a game last week against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which the Canadiens won 3-2 in the OT, Kovacevic said he drove up the neutral zone in the first period and made a play on the boards that he described as “not.” He came to the bench and Robidas told him to look for the seam that had been open. Kovacevic found himself in a similar situation later in the half and again managed to play the boards safely. He got the same message from Robidas.

In the second third, in a similar situation, Kovacevic spotted Brendan Gallagher open in the seam and hit him with a pass that created a scoring opportunity. When Kovacevic returned to the bench, Robidas had a huge grin on his face.

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During a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild this week, Kovacevic ran in the neutral zone with the puck and instead of making the safe play on the boards, he played a backhand pass towards Gallagher into a seam that didn’t open up in the end was. The Wild intercepted the pass and scored the winning goal.

Kovacevic took a risk and made a mistake.

The important thing is that he learns from it. That’s what this season is all about as the Canadians look to rebuild and develop their young players.

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