BROSSARD, QC — For potential head coaching candidates of the Laval Rocket, Stephan Lebeau has a warning: be cautious and know what you are getting yourself into.
Lebeau played four-and-a-half seasons with the Montreal Canadiens including being a member of the 1993 Stanley Cup winning team. The following season Lebeau was traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for goaltender Ron Tugnutt.
This past week, Lebeau appeared on TSN 690 to talk about the coaching vacancy with the Laval Rocket following the dismissal of head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. While the host was clearly unfamiliar with the Rocket and the AHL, Lebeau has established bona fides in that regard.
As the regular season ended, Rocket forward Chris Terry captured the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the leading scorer in the AHL. Terry was the first player to receive this honour playing for a Canadiens AHL affiliate since Lebeau won it in the 1988-89 season as a member of the Sherbrooke Canadiens. It was the only season that Lebeau would play in the AHL scoring 70 goals, 64 assists for 134 points in 78 games.
Lebeau headed back to the AHL in 2013-14 as an assistant coach, part of Sylvain Lefebvre’s staff with the Hamilton Bulldogs. After two season in that role, Lebeau’s contract was not renewed. Lefebvre declined to comment on Lebeau’s departure but the assistant coach hinted at philosophical differences saying that the head coach wanted to go in another direction.
All that to say, that while Lebeau has not coached for the Canadiens since 2015, he does have some insight into the organization and into Lefebvre’s approach to coaching. He also has clear ideas on how he would manage an AHL team.
So why does Lebeau have words of caution for the Dominique Ducharmes, the Philippe Bouchers, the Andre Tourignys and the Joel Bouchards? “Those coaches, even though this is a great challenge and a good step to reach the American Hockey League with the Montreal organization, they need to be careful.”
Firstly, as we have been telling you for quite some time, the Canadiens control a great number of the decisions of their AHL affiliate. The systems for the Rocket are set by Claude Julien while Marc Bergevin is not afraid to weigh in on lineup decisions. Lebeau confirms this saying Lefebvre was “not in complete control.”
Will the potential new head coach be willing to buy into the philosophy of the Montreal Canadiens, that is, that player development is the primary purpose ahead of winning? Are they willing to give up their coaching independence and adopt the systems in use at the Canadiens NHL level? Are they willing to be a good soldier following directions of Bergevin and Julien?
“(Dominique) Ducharme, Andre Tourigny, Joel Bouchard are great candidates for the job, but will they have the freedom to bring that new spirit or are they going to need to do whatever Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin tell them to do?” said Lebeau.
In addition, Lebeau feels that “it is going to be tough in the upcoming years to have success with this team.”
Lebeau is talking about winning. Laval finished last in the 30-team league in 2017-18 and the former AHL scoring star doesn’t see bright skies on the horizon. But is winning the correct measure of success at the AHL level?
As described in this piece earlier this week, the Montreal Canadiens have prioritized development at the AHL level at the expense of winning. It is the model used by all but a few teams in the American Hockey League. Prospects are on the AHL to learn, and part of learning is making mistakes.
Following Lebeau’s departure from the Hamilton Bulldogs, Marc Bergevin reaffirmed the work of Lefebvre saying that Canadiens prospects had “learned a lot with Sylvain.” Bergevin added, “The goal is to win at all levels, but I do not want to fill the team with veterans just to win more games.”
There are a small number of teams who focus only on a handful of top prospects and stock the rest of the team with AHL vets. Those teams can have success in the standings but what about development? It appears that this was the point of division between Lebeau and Lefebvre.
Lebeau says that their vision on how to development hockey players was different.
“After my first year (on the coaching staff), at the end of the season, I had a meeting with Sylvain, and one thing he told me, he said you are too focused on winning,” said Lebeau.
Lebeau added, “Sylvain was always talking (with me) that it is not important about winning, it’s more important about developing (players).”
Well, of course. Lefebvre was responsible for implementing the priorities set by the organization. And development is clearly the primary mission of the AHL affiliate as set by Marc Bergevin. Given that Lebeau wanted to go off in his own direction, he was relieved of his duties after his second year of coaching.
“I was just an assistant coach (in Hamilton) and Sylvain had the free choice to choose his staff,” said Lebeau. Nick Carriere replaced Lebeau the following year as the franchise relocated from Hamilton to St. John’s.
So how different was Lebeau’s vision? He places AHL players into three categories: top prospects, in-betweens and no chance. And in his opinion, “it’s pretty easy to see their future.”
The top prospects are ‘can’t miss’ types headed to the NHL “no matter what is going to happen.” Lebeau says that there are far too few of these types coming from the Montreal Canadiens organization.
Next there are the ‘in-betweeners’ who the jury is out on whether they will graduate to the big club. But even if they do make the NHL, “they won’t be impact players,” said Lebeau.
Lastly, in Lebeau’s eyes, there is a group of players who are lost causes. “You know after they skate two laps around (the ice) that they will never make the NHL, no matter how much time you spend,” said Lebeau. And the inferred question is, why spend any time on them?
Well, there is an obvious correlation between being selected higher in the NHL Entry Draft and making it to the NHL. Lebeau places high value on the draft. But, as we know, there are numerous exceptions.
Unfortunately the host didn’t stop to ask further about this fool-proof crystal ball for predicting the fortunes of prospects. What about late bloomers? What about players selected in later rounds of the draft who surprise with their NHL success?
What would Lebeau’s formula have meant for players like Charles Hudon selected in the fifth round, 122nd overall in 2012? Would he have been an early casualty of separating the wheat from the chaff? Are the Canadiens now reaping the investment of Hudon’s three years of development in the AHL?
And what would this approach mean for the chances for undrafted players to make the NHL like Charlie Lindgren, or… Stephan Lebeau?
Development requires patience. It also can also be a source of pain and frustration. While many fans would prefer the ‘Lebeau method’, it is reasonable to assume that Marc Bergevin isn’t going to alter the plan for his AHL affiliate. So, any head coaching candidates for Laval, would be wise to declare their buy-in from the outset.
And it means, that there won’t be any radical change from the Rocket next season unless there is a change in philosophy. So, as was argued in this piece, it is clear that Sylvain Lefebvre was only used as a scapegoat to calm the masses.
Major change at the top of the organization is required to alter the course of this franchise. Or maybe just a crystal ball and an illusionist.
“Sylvain Lefebvre, Donald Dufresne and Nick Carriere give their heart and soul to develop players, but at the end, if you don’t have a true athletes (to work with), it’s very difficult to bring them into the NHL. You need to be a very good magician,” said Lebeau.