By Bob Trask – As the season winds down for the Montreal Canadiens the process of evaluating the talent within the organization continues. With each game at the NHL level, the AHL or in the amateur ranks, Kent Hughes gains more insight into the strengths and weakness of the organization. That information will influence the decisions he makes going forward and will help him define the path he wants to take.
It’s easy for us to acquire players we want and discard those that we don’t within the environment of social media. The real world is more complex and players that we may covet will also be high on the list for other teams. Conversely, if a last place team like the Habs have been for much of the year, sees no little value in a player it is difficult to believe that other teams will pay up for him in a trade.
Taking all of that into consideration, it becomes apparent that forecasting specific player movements is difficult if not impossible. But we can expect certain trends to occur.
While a lot hinges on the future of Carey Price, the Canadiens should be in far better shape to start next season than they were at the start of this season. Bergevin had to scramble at the last minute to find a replacement for Price and did well to come up with Samuel Montembeault.
For the upcoming year, Price, Jake Allen and Montembeault are already in place while Cayden Primeau will have another full season under his belt. There are options even if Price is unable to return.
Outlook: Status quo remains among personnel vying for the two goaltending positions.
The collapse of Jeff Petry’s game created a huge problem for the Canadiens. While he has rebounded somewhat, the ice time and particularly the power play time he saw under Martin St-Louis is an indication that his future is elsewhere. There was simply no one else with the ability to step in and play in that first pairing role.
In his short stint under St-Louis, David Savard looks better than he did under Dominic Ducharme but still ranks no more than a low-end second pairing or a high-end third pairing defenseman. Chris Wideman looks like a power play specialist who isn’t really outstanding in that role and doesn’t seem physical enough in that role.
Justin Barron was a key acquisition for the Canadiens. He brings a combination of size and skillset that the Habs will need. Depending on his performance from now to the end of the season he could fill one of the spots on right defense with Savard filling the other.
Jordan Harris could also be in the mix but has the disadvantage of a left shot playing the right side. The impression created by St-Louis and Hughes is that they prefer defensemen playing on their strong side.
Outlook: The Canadiens will be scouring the free agent and trade markets for a right-handed defenseman who can step in and play big minutes while they let their youth develop. If Wideman re-signs it will be as depth defenseman.
Alexander Romanov and Joel Edmundson seem to be locked in for two of the spots on left defense. Neither is flashy offensively but both give the team an honest day’s work.
The spot on the third pairing will be hotly contested among players currently in the organization. Corey Schueneman has been a pleasant surprise; Mattias Norlinder has had a disappointing season; top prospect Kaiden Guhle is in his last year of junior; Kale Clague and Sami Niku have bounced around; William Lagesson hasn’t impressed with the Oilers or Canadiens yet; Gianni Fairbrother looks like a long shot for next year. Otto Leskinen remains Habs property putting up eight goals and 15 assists in Europe so far this year. And of course there is Jordan Harris.
Outlook: The Canadiens will look for solutions from within the organization for left defense. It could come down to a battle between Guhle and Harris with Norlinder in the mix. Expect three players on the current roster to be playing with different organizations next year.
The saga of the center ice position continues in Montreal. Nick Suzuki has stepped up his play in the last six weeks and if it continues, he will have earned the title of #1 center. Some, including me, saw him as a strong #2 center but that has since changed.
The problem lies with those playing behind Suzuki. Christian Dvorak seems more suited to a role as #3 center but so do Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans. None seem to have the extra bit of offensive flair that could take some pressure off Suzuki. Additionally, both Poehling and Evans have had injury histories that are cause for concern. Laurent Dauphin is a versatile player who can fill in as a winger or as a center. That is where is value lies, even though that value has its limitations.
The forgotten man, Lukas Vejdemo, is well-suited to a fourth line role with his size, skating ability and defensive prowess but an injury has impacted his development. He is likely a long shot to return to the organization next year. Nate Schnarr has been ranked as a less than adequate skater which is not ideal for the style of game Hughes envisions.
That’s about it for depth at center in the organization. It remains a weakness.
Outlook: As with right defense, the Canadiens will likely scour the free agent and trade markets for a center who can step into the #2 role. It could be an existing NHLer or a high end prospect. In the event they are able to draft Shane Wright that could change but it is unreasonable to expect a player to come out of junior hockey and become and immediate impact player.
The picture starts getting muddier for the Canadiens when we get around to examining the wingers. Although he shoots right, Cole Caufield has been piling up the points as the Canadiens #1 left winger. After that the depth chart includes Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, Rem Pitlick, Paul Byron and Michael Pezzetta. In the minors Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Joel Teasdale (coming back from injury) are enjoying solid seasons while Emil Heineman is toiling in Europe.
It is highly doubtful that Mathieu Perreault or Cedric Paquette will be in the mix. Pezzetta fills a role of a high energy player better suited to a fourth line or extra forward role. Byron is a good third line or excellent fourth line player while Pitlick seems to have the skills set well suited to playing on the third line.
Among current players, Hoffman and Drouin could be left fighting for the second line position on left wing. It is plausible that the Canadiens could keep Hoffman, for example, until someone like Joshua Roy or Sean Farrell are ready to step up. Having said that, Roy has played mostly right wing in junior and could do the same in the pros.
Outlook: The left wing position will be sorted out from within. There is a strong likelihood that one of the roster players will be with another organization next year. It could be Hoffman, Drouin or Byron.
There is an elephant in the room and the Canadiens have a dilemma at right wing. Their top paid player at this position has been one of their least productive players recently. In his last 65 games including playoffs Brendan Gallagher has seven goals. I don’t care how much heart you bring to a team, at a projected nine goals over 82 games a team can’t pay a player $6.5 million per year and have enough cap room remaining to add high end players.
The status of Gallagher is the biggest issue facing Kent Hughes this summer and beyond if he can’t deal with it right away. For all his energy, the veteran winger doesn’t seem to fit with the vision that Hughes has for the team. His production certainly doesn’t. And his presence blocks the path for those who could fill that role.
Josh Anderson may be overpaid too but he brings an element of speed and size that has worked well with Caufield and Suzuki. While he may not pile up the points, his presence often helps to create space for the other two. Joel Armia is signed to a contract that overpays him (a familiar theme among right wingers) and brings size along with sporadic play to the lineup. He could conceivably start as the the team’s 3rd or 4th line RW and depending on how the year unfolds, become trade deadline bait next season.
Tyler Pitlick is a complete unknown to me but he is a right winger with some size, scheduled to become a UFA this summer. If he re-signs with the Canadiens (which might be unlikely) he could battle with Armia for the third or fourth line right wing position.
Jesse Ylönen is the only right handed shooting prospect in the organization that seems close to being ready to take the next step. His year in Laval, interrupted by call-ups and taxi squad duty, hasn’t been spectacular but it has been solid. Ylönen is a contrast in style to the plugging and battling efforts of Gallagher. He is an exceptional skater with a quick release, excellent on-ice vision and plays a fast, free-wheeling game. It seems like he checks a lot of boxes that Hughes is looking for but he lacks toughness. Ideally, the young Finn would cut his teeth in a third line role while trying to work his way up the lineup, but muddled situation at right wing makes it unclear whether that is a possibility.
Outlook: The situation at right wing hinges on the future of Brendan Gallagher. There has to be a return to productivity or a change needs to be made. The team could start the year with Anderson, Gallagher, Ylönen and Armia as the Canadiens’ starting right wingers but there is an awful lot of money tied up in relatively little production. Look for the Canadiens to kick tires on trades for Gallagher and/or Armia to free up cap space and open up the position to competition.
It is unlikely that there will be a purge of veterans over the summer. Some movement could occur around draft time, more movement could occur if the Habs are able to plug a hole or two at free agency and depending how next season unfolds, more veterans could be moved next year’s trade deadline when their contracts have less term remaining.
Buyouts could come into play but for those with significant term remaining, it is unlikely that Hughes wants to impair his cap space for the long term.
With a plethora of draft choices, Hughes may also have to bite the bullet and sacrifice one or more in an attempt to move veterans to clear cap space. The list includes all those with big contracts and who are under-performing. Jeff Petry, Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin may be on that list.
Shea Weber represents a unique situation and it is very possible that his contract will no longer be on the Canadiens’ books next year.
One thing we have seen from Kent Hughes is that no one is immune from being traded. Expect changes!