These are just a few typical areas a modern team must focus on for success, but the reality is a team like the Montreal Canadiens must view these components of operations as standard requirements. In order to fight parity and rise above mediocrity, teams must go beyond these classic elements of business operations to find creative ways in obtaining a competitive advantage.
Increasingly Allusive Competitive Advantage
Finding a competitive advantage is becoming increasingly difficult at a time when parity and player skill has never been higher. This means finding those things that can provide a competitive advantage have become increasingly vital, especially for the Canadiens, a team that has arguably some competitive disadvantages including taxes, pressure and geography.
I’m not talking about drafting the best player or hiring the best coach. These are things available to all teams. I’m talking about doing innovative things that other teams are not thinking about. Often these things are in the theoretical realm and may not have immediate or easily measurable impact.
Of course, teams are doing their best to find these allusive advantages. It’s what keeps owners, presidents and general managers awae at night. But it’s difficult for fans and media to know what these innovative things are simply because they are generally secrets; they are management theories or ideas meant to stay in the inner circle. However, if we read between the lines we can see that many teams have attempted to do innovative things to gain an advantage.
Early Adopters of Innovation: Analytics
Some of the more obvious things teams have done include becoming early adopters of the analytics movement. It’s difficult to untangle all the elements of performance to understand whether the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes or the Toronto Maple Leafs have gained an advantage here, but they have been bold enough to make this seismic organizational shift.
For these teams, it’s more than just adopting analytics — it’s about shifting organizational influence to younger leaders on the theory that these young minds more easily adopt innovation and change. An added bonus is their inherent link to the younger hockey cohort of players and coaches; in an increasingly young NHL, these new leaders such as Kyle Dubas can speak the language. Will this guarantee success? No. Is it a bold move in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage? Yes.
You can definitely say that the Canadiens were also early adopters of analytics with the hiring of Matt Pfeffer in 2015. But, when his contract was not renewed in 2016 and no replacement announced, Bergevin gave the impression that analytics was not an important aspect of team management.
Is it true that analytics doesn’t play a critical role with the Canadiens under Bergevin? It’s hard to say, mostly because of the secrecy around the subject with the Canadiens. On the NHL website, there is no analytics department or position listed in the Canadien’s directory. However, they do have a Sports Science and Performance section where Pierre Allard leads a group that looks into data driven performance analysis. If Bergevin had some secret competitive advantage related to data analytics would he advertise it? Of course not. But, it is also clear that there is no overt organizational effort to have analytics take a prominent role to the degree that the Coyotes and Maple Leafs do.
Amateur Player Acquisition Secrets
Since 2010, no other team has drafted as many players from the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) than the Los Angeles Kings; 25. The NHL average is roughly 13. The Canadiens drafted 11 players from the OHL during that span. Is this just a coincidence? Or are the Kings stealing theories from famous Canadian economist Malcolm Gladwell? Gladwell’s books are a mixture of economic and psychology theories that can help leaders avoid the white noise of information; to simplify and focus efforts for better results.
Have Kings’ management adopted a simple theory of drafting from the best amateur source league; the OHL? What do they believe are the advantages of this theory? Maybe, in drafting primarily from a single source league, they save on efforts (and money) in scouting elsewhere. Maybe they become better connected with the OHL in general; coaches, agents and billets. Maybe the Kings believe they gain advantage through the increased possibility that the players they draft know one another better and their opponents (as the OHL is the biggest feeder of players to the NHL), thus steepening the learning curve for quicker adaptation to the NHL.
Does player development become a more coherent and effective endeavour under these circumstances? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I bet it’s not. I bet it’s a strategic effort by the Kings, and something they believe provides them with a competitive advantage.
Under Bergevin, the Canadiens too have implemented methods to improve amateur player acquisition; just not as secretive. They are using their monetary power and geographical position to run special camps for Quebec-based amateur players to ensure no talent falls through their fingers in their own backyard. This, undoubtedly, provides the Canadiens with a competitive advantage.
Canadiens’ Competitive Advantage Secrets
Do the Canadiens have more competitive advantage secrets? They have many advantages including a strong fanbase, flush ownership that translates into excellent player facilities, and a respected organization that seems to treat its players right. This stuff resonates with players and provides the organization with a competitive advantage.
They smartly moved their American Hockey League (AHL) franchise to Laval to gain advantages in proximity, including reduced travel for call ups and increased player development opportunities. But are these secrets? I don’t think so.
I’m sure there are other theories and corporate secrets we don’t know about. But here’s one idea I believe could result in a serious competitive advantage.
Russian Players Could Unlock Competitive Advantages for the Canadiens
If I was Bergevin’s advisor, I’d pitch love for Russia. The Canadiens should position themselves to be the destination for Russian players. Gladwell would approve the genius of such a plan in its simplicity. It starts with geography. Montreal is relatively close to Europe and Russia. We should not underestimate the importance of geography for foreign players and their families.
The Canadiens have been blessed with a long list of Russian-born players that were really good and could handled the pressure of this team. Remember Vladimir Malakhov, Oleg Petrov and Igor Ulanov? And of course there was Alex Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin and, short but eventful stints by, Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk. They all seemed to perform well and deflect pressure as if they were born to play for the Canadiens.
There’s a healthy pool of Russian players that would be more attracted to play in Montreal if Bergevin created the environment to foster the pull factors. If the Canadiens positioned themselves as the destination for Russian players, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) could effectively become a key source for players, including players to fill out the bottom part of the lineup.
To create this environment, the Canadiens would have to go beyond the playing roster and into the coaching and management ranks. Molson can start by adding Russian professionals into his organization at various levels including coaching and management. They have a deep history with Russian players including Markov and Kovalev who could help usher in the new wave of players headlined by highly touted prospect Alexander Romanov.
Becoming the destination for Russian players may unlock many advantages including discounted contracts, on-ice chemistry and opening up a greater pool of players who want to play in Montreal. If they start now, maybe the next time a player like Artemi Panarin hits the free agent market, the Canadiens will have a real chance to sign him. It may not work, but it would be a bold and creative attempt at gaining a competitive advantage.