By Bob Trask – When Kent Hughes took over the reins as the General Manager, the Canadiens were a mess and the team was sitting at or near the bottom of the standings. For even the most casual observer, it was obvious that drastic measures were going to be needed.
From a player personnel perspective, Hughes had to evaluate the talent on the roster while keeping an eye on the cap situation. There were some players he may have preferred to keep but realistically had little chance of fitting them under the cap. Artturi Lehkonen and Ben Chiarot come to mind. Jeff Petry wanted out and the return offered for Brett Kulak was too good to turn down.
So far, there have been several significant moves but these have simply been in preparation for the more difficult decisions yet to come.
Paring Down the Roster
With that in mind, the first step was to pare down the roster to its bones, keeping those players who were under contract and those who could be realistically re-signed. Given where the Canadiens were sitting in the standings there was no urgency to turn things around and make the team into a contender. It was more important to look farther down the road and add assets for the future.
That was accomplished in a series of trades at the trade deadline and in the post-season.
Managing the Cap
The second step the Hughes needed to make was to find a way to shed some salary. While this is never easy, because the Canadiens were not expected to be a contender, Hughes could afford to be modest in his demands. The resulting trade of Shea Weber for Evgenii Dadonov was the biggest move with regard to cap management but the Petry trade also helped the cap situation modestly.
The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the recoveries of Carey Price and Paul Byron helped. The Price situation made the acquisition of Sean Monahan and a first round pick possible. While Monahan does carry a fairly hefty contract, it expires at the end of his year and that has given Hughes some additional flexibility to make a decision with regard to the player from both a performance and a contract point of view.
None of these steps regarding cap management were designed to turn the Canadiens into a legitimate contender this year or even next, for that matter.
Giving Youth a Chance
On the path to creating a more competitive team, Hughes and coach Martin St-Louis have given younger players bigger and bigger roles than they have seen in the past. The acquisitions of Kirby Dach and Johnathan Kovacevic, along with the promotions of several within the organization to the NHL team, has given management and the coaching staff a real opportunity to evaluate what they have in terms of talent.
Again the pressure on management to create a winning team populated with inexperienced players was minimal. Executive Vice-President Jeff Gorton and GM Hughes had carefully and consistently worked on setting the expectations of the Habs faithful at a reasonable level.
Giving youth a chance has been a no-brainer for a team clawing its way out of the depths of the NHL standings.
The Next Steps
The next steps will be the more difficult ones. Fan expectations can be kept at a low level temporarily, eventually they will want better results. So far Kent Hughes has deconstructed the team from the 2021-22 season, patched up a few holes and introduced some new talent. The result has been a team that is more competitive, more exciting, faster and younger than last year’s version. But as the game against New Jersey on Tuesday night clearly illustrated, the Canadiens still have a ways to go before they reach the next level.
The steps required to reach that next level are the hard part. Development of the young players on the team will help but more talent is needed for the Canadiens to reach that next level. The moves that Hughes makes will be influenced on how long he is willing to endure this developmental phase, the progress shown by young players on the team as well as prospects within the organization and by what opportunities arise that can help him to upgrade his roster.
Hughes must make his choices carefully. He will want to keep his most promising prospects but he can’t keep them all and decisions will have to be made, up and down the organization. Offers to players on expiring contracts will have to be made with one eye on creating a competitive team and the other on the cap situation. Evaluations will have to be made on whether some players will be ready for promotion from Laval, Europe or the North American amateur leagues. Trading a veteran will no longer be a simple salary dump. These can no longer be decisions based on giving players a chance or improving the cap situation; Hughes is now in a position – or soon will be – where fans will demand improvements for the on ice product.
Kent Hughes has proven to be an astute General Manager and has taken full advantage of the rope he has been given. But now, the hard part begins as he is faced with task of helping the Canadiens return to their days of glory.