Canadiens weekly notebook: An awkward milestone, an endorsement for Lane Hutson and more

The time between the moment Trevor Letowski found out he was about to become an NHL head coach on Friday evening in Calgary and the moment he became a winning NHL head coach for the first time on Sunday night might have only been nine days, but it must have felt much longer than that.

Saturday night in Calgary, after losing 5-2 to the Flames, Letowski faced a horde of media, a scrum much larger than usual because of the circumstances of the Montreal Canadiens announcing just before the game that head coach Martin St. Louis had left the team to attend to a family matter and that Letowski was now in charge.

Letowski seemed a bit overwhelmed by the situation, the sudden attention and the spotlight after working in the shadows for so long, but he handled himself with grace and poise. He answered questions as best he could without divulging anything St. Louis didn’t want to be divulged. It was a strong start to a difficult situation, despite the performance of his team that evening.

“It’s been an emotional 24 hours, and it’s obviously a private, family matter right now with Marty,” Letowski began that evening in Calgary. “But he’s the leader of our group. It was an emotional time for all of us, for staff, for players and we tried to rally around that as a group. We just fell short tonight.”

St. Louis inherited Letowski as an assistant coach from Dominique Ducharme and didn’t know him much other than having played against him. But in the two years they have worked together, they have gotten close, and this whole situation was obviously difficult for Letowski to absorb and handle.

But the group responded three nights later in Edmonton, losing a tough one 3-2 to the Oilers in overtime, and got taught a pretty stern lesson by the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night. Which led to Sunday night in Seattle, a 5-1 win against the Kraken that was never really in doubt. But the Canadiens managed to maintain that big lead, something they have had trouble doing all season, and Letowski deserves some credit for that. He mentioned after the game that the Canadiens weren’t really trying to score in the third period, that they were trying to play a mature game, a deep game getting pucks into the Seattle end and playing as far from their own net as they can. And the Canadiens executed that plan.

As far as first career wins go, the circumstances might not have been ideal for Letowski, but he had a certain stamp on it in that the Canadiens did what they have failed to do at previous moments this season. It was only their fifth win of the year by three or more goals, the second-lowest total in the league, ahead of only the San Jose Sharks.

“Well, it feels pretty good,” Letowski told reporters in Seattle after his first NHL win. “For me, it’s a little bit awkward just because of the circumstances. I feel I was the guy who was, I guess, the head coach, but it was a real group effort, and that’s why I feel a little uncomfortable about saying that’s my first NHL win as a head coach.

“But it was a memorable week for me just because of how the team rallied around each other, and the staff and players had to push a little extra just to keep some sense of normalcy when we’re missing our leader.”

The focus over the week was on St. Louis, as it should have been. But it was a special week for Letowski, and maybe that got a little lost in the equation. After the game in Seattle, the players gave Letowski the game puck.

“It’s a real nice memory for me,” he said.

The value of the IIHF World Championship

The Canadiens have reached the point in the season where they will begin fielding questions about whether they want to participate in the upcoming world championships in Czechia. There are several candidates for various teams, perhaps most notably Juraj Slafkovský, who will be under enormous pressure to suit up for Slovakia so close to home. David Reinbacher will surely be invited to play for Austria, Joel Armia might get an invite from Finland with how well he’s played for months now, and then Cole Caufield with Team USA and Nick Suzuki and maybe Alex Newhook for Canada are others.

Sam Montembeault is the most obvious candidate considering his role in backstopping Canada to the gold medal last year, but, at least as of last Wednesday in Edmonton, he was still undecided, wanting to see how he would feel at the end of what will be the busiest season of his career.

Another potential candidate has no such concerns, though. If Kaiden Guhle gets invited by Team Canada general manager Rick Nash, he will be there.

“That would definitely be something I would want to do,” Guhle said. “It’s always a pleasure being able to pull on that maple leaf. I’ve never played in the worlds, and maybe it sounds weird, but it was always something I wanted to do growing up. I always saw NHL players going to play that when the season’s done and always thought it was a cool idea, just a bunch of random NHL players going to play … just meeting a bunch of guys around the league and playing together.”

For anyone on the Canadiens sitting on the fence, it might be worth listening to what Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers had to say about his experience at the event last year. His circumstances were very similar to what the Canadiens are going through right now, so it should resonate with the potential candidates mentioned above.

“For me, individually, it did a lot for me,” Myers said. “We were going through a big transition last year, we were figuring out a lot within our room and our team. We had a really strong finish, and I liked where we were headed. For me, I was looking at it like, we had just had a baby, it was a lot to think about. But I wanted that feeling of playing for something again, and I think it was definitely tough leaving the family, but I was very happy I went. Obviously it worked out well winning, but it brought back a lot of that feeling that I haven’t felt in a while. So it was great.”

Myers was Montembeault’s teammate at the event last year and came back impressed with what he saw from the Canadiens goaltender.

“I didn’t know much about Monty going into the tournament, but I found out pretty quick he was a very good goalie,” Myers said. “Even early in practices leading up to the first exhibition game, going into the tournament, this guy, his size and the way he moves, I found out pretty quick he has a lot of potential. And he’s showing this last year that he’s stepping in and doing very well.”

Quinn Hughes knows which Canadiens prospect is compared to him. (Zac BonDurant / Getty Images)

Quinn Hughes saw the question coming from a mile away

Quinn Hughes is a rare specimen in the NHL, an undersized defenceman who is the front-runner to win the Norris Trophy as an offensive dynamo who can still hold his own defensively despite his relatively small frame. He’s a competitor, and it makes up for those shortcomings.

Prior to the Canadiens game in Vancouver, Hughes spoke to the media and was asked a rather benign, general question by Anthony Martineau of TVA Sports, wondering how Hughes found the transition from the NCAA straight to the NHL as an offensive defenceman. A perfectly legitimate question that Hughes saw through immediately.

“It’s a really good question, there’s a lot of challenges, and I feel like it takes a couple of years to really step into what you think you can be as a player,” Hughes began. “But I think for my first year, you can’t beat people as much with your skating, you have to use your teammates and trust the other guys on the ice and be more of a puck-mover and when you get your opportunities, do your thing. Everyone can skate, so it’s just figuring out the game.

“I figure why you’re asking, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out and he’ll be fine.”

He, of course, is Canadiens prospect Lane Hutson, a similarly undersized offensive defenceman currently completing his season at Boston University. Hutson’s name was never mentioned to Hughes, but he had no problem identifying the reason behind the question. Hutson has been compared to Hughes for years, and Hughes clearly knows it.

Martineau’s follow-up was equally general, asking how long it took Hughes to feel comfortable in the NHL, and Hughes again drove his answer toward Hutson.

“Right away, for the most part, I think I felt very confident. My first year couldn’t have gone better. I had a great season, and the second year, we struggled. I thought my third fourth and then this year have been really good. It’s just about building,” Hughes said. “Lane’s going to … it’s not about how good he is at 20 or 21, it’s about how good he is at 25, 26. I tell my brother Luke that, focus on one foot in front of the other, and he’s having a great year, too, but just keep grinding so that at 23, 24 you can say you’re one of the best in the league.

“So he’s going to keep building, and I think I’ve built. That’s all they can do.”

Again, the “he” in that last bit is Hutson. It’s almost as if Hughes has a rooting interest for another smaller, offensive product of the USA Hockey program to succeed, and that he knows how many people look at his success as proof that Hutson can succeed in the NHL as well.

Della Gallagher

Brendan Gallagher’s mother, Della, has had cancer for two years. Her diagnosis was recently made public by Gallagher’s sister, Bree, and Gallagher spoke to Sportsnet’s Eric Engels at length about it a couple of weeks ago.

Gallagher grew up in Vancouver but was born in Edmonton and both his parents’ families are from Alberta, so this was an eventful trip for him.

Not as eventful as it was for Della, though.

“She’s doing good,” Gallagher said after the game in Vancouver. “She was there in Calgary, but she had to miss the game in Edmonton because she had to go down to L.A. They just got back here, they made the game here, they landed at around 5 p.m. and came right here.”

Los Angeles is where Della Gallagher gets her cancer treatments. She goes down there every three or four weeks and has done so for the last two years. So while Gallagher had tons of family at the game in Edmonton, his mother was off attending to more important matters.

“It’s good, it’s working, but it’s pretty intense on her,” Gallagher said. “Every three or four weeks we’ve got to send her down there, but she’s got her own team, and they take care of her.”

Della also came to the game in Seattle, so after all that travelling, at least she got to see her son get a win.

Joshua Roy scores scaled e1709707604954

Joshua Roy has left a good impression on the Canadiens coaching staff. (John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)

Joshua Roy proving his value as a complementary player

Canadiens assistant coach Alexandre Burrows’ name and face are on the ring of honour in Vancouver because of how well he learned to be a complementary player, someone who can absorb his linemates’ tendencies and act off them and enhance them. He did it better than anyone playing with the Sedin twins in Vancouver, and he has a knack for recognizing that same quality as a coach.

Last year, he saw it in Rafaël Harvey-Pinard as he filled a first-line role with Suzuki and found the back of the net. This season has not gone quite as well for Harvey-Pinard, but there was another young player who showed similar complementary tendencies long before he arrived in Montreal.

Joshua Roy was a great linemate for Connor Bedard at last year’s World Junior Championship, quickly learning in a short tournament how to play with the most talented junior player on earth. This time, he quickly adapted to playing with Newhook and Armia on the Canadiens’ second line, and his absence since blocking an Evan Bouchard slap shot Tuesday night in Edmonton has been felt on that line despite Roy being a rookie.

And like Harvey-Pinard last year, Roy left a very similar impression on Burrows.

“I feel he’s still a young guy as a 20-year-old, still learning about the game. He’s got 40ish games, and you’re learning that game, you’re learning what it takes to be successful at this level,” Burrows said. “I feel he’s checked every box since he’s been here. Coming in, we didn’t really know if we could rely on him in a 200-foot game, but he showed he can play with anyone, against any line. Even (Tuesday), I saw him knock (Leon) Draisaitl off a puck and win a 50/50 stick battle. His reads defensively, the way he blocked that shot, I think that was a Bouchard bomb that he went out of his way, he really wanted to get in that lane, he didn’t pretend to be in that lane.

“Those are things you can’t really teach, it comes from within and Josh has been doing all those things for us ever since he’s been called up.”

(Top photo of Alex Newhook celebrating a goal against the Kraken: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

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