“Someone once told me that coaching is: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. »
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. It is with this mentality that Stéphane Robidas approached his very first season behind a National League bench last summer. With hindsight, we understand that the second part of the saying was more useful.
Robidas, coach of the defenders of the Canadian, has indeed had to manage a “historic” season, not necessarily in the positive sense of the expression.
By our calculations, those 271 games tie a record in NHL history, excluding expansion teams that once looked to youth. Saturday evening, in Toronto, the CH should therefore beat the mark of the Calgary Flames of 1996-1997, by sending Justin Barron and Johnathan Kovacevic into the fray.
In fact, only one expansion team employed more rookies on defense: the 1967-68 Los Angeles Kings.
“I wouldn’t say it leaves me indifferent, but I don’t focus on it, replies Robidas, in an interview with La Presse, when informed of the statistics. The important thing is to build solid. Myself, I had the chance to return to the National League because of injuries. No injuries, maybe I don’t fit.
The fact remains that even if Mike Matheson, David Savard, Joel Edmundson and Chris Wideman had remained healthy, the CH would necessarily have employed two recruits per game, minimum.
Robidas says he didn’t necessarily have a hierarchy on his roster before starting the season. But by listening to it, we quickly grasp how the state of forces has changed.
“We knew Matheson was coming, along with Edmundson, Savard and Wideman. Then you had Harris, Barron and Schueneman who had played a few games upstairs. Guhle was a big prospect, we knew he was coming. Kovacevic wasn’t even there. Xhekaj, we knew he was coming, but if you had told me he was going to get a job, I would have said… We didn’t mean it! It’s hard, you plan things, but it can change so much with performances, injuries. »
Defenders are obviously not the only players whose mandate is to prevent the opponent from scoring, but the fact remains that the Canadiens of 2022-2023 will have finished at the bottom of the pack in several defensive indicators, whether it is the goal average allowed (3.66, 29th in the NHL), shots allowed (33.6, 28th) or scoring chances allowed five-on-five (10.96, 31st).
If there is one who was well placed to understand what these recruits went through when thrown into the mouth of the wolf, it is Robidas.
In his first steps in the NHL, he took advantage of injuries suffered by right-handers Patrice Brisebois and Craig Rivet. When they returned, and with the arrival of Stéphane Quintal in 2001, he fell “fourth right-hander”, he specifies.
Then, in Dallas, he became a permanent member of the defense in 2005-2006, but there too, he found himself fourth right-hander. It was not until 2008-2009 that he landed a leading role, the first of three consecutive seasons with an average of 24 minutes.
“If Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher don’t get injured, my career may not be the same. I was number 6 or 7, I fell 1 or 2 and it went well. »
It has often been said of Martin St-Louis that almost all of his players can identify with his background. That’s not necessarily the case with Robidas, but there are certainly players who can see themselves in their positional coach. Kovacevic, for example, got his chance thanks to waivers, like Robidas when he left CH.
In a few years, we will have to see if there are any similarities between Robidas and Matheson.
Robidas had to wait until he was 31 to be employed in a first duo. A step that Matheson, 29 for a month, is taking this season. Much has been said about the experience gained by rookie defenders, but Matheson’s production in his role as number 1 is one of the surprises of the season.
“I remember the first exhibition game, I was like, ‘Hey tabarouette, he’s a racehorse!’ He skates like a tabarnouche, he shoots, he passes. I understood why it was a first-round pick. He’s not the biggest, but he’s got a good build, he’s physically strong, and he’s winning his battles in the corner. His skate is beyond, beyond,” he said raising his hand high above his head.
“It has a nice smooth glide, like Paul Coffey. But when he leaves and someone tries to take the puck away from him behind the goal, he goes out of the blocks. It pops, it explodes. You see he is an athlete. »
Robidas says he only felt comfortable in the NHL when he was “30, 31, 32. That’s when I had a role and I was as comfortable as in the junior and the American League. I was in my place, I was no longer an impostor. »
Does he want his young defenders to keep this same insecurity, to prevent them from letting their guard down, from thinking they have “arrived”?
And this feeling of comfort notably comes from individual sessions.
“With the older ones, I spent less time. Sometimes it’s more of a discussion. What do you think of that, do you? I am learning to sail. When I clip a match, I have it in tabarouette, clips! But I have to sort out what is important and what is not. It’s the timing too. If a guy isn’t feeling, is it time to tell him this, this and this, this isn’t good? Maybe not.
“Jacques Lemaire has already told me that his philosophy was to coach as he would have liked to be coached. I agree to that. I try to put myself in the shoes of the player. What would I have liked? That doesn’t mean that’s what he needs, because every player is different. But it’s to stay with the goal of helping, not belittling. »