By Bob Trask – The mid-March view from Alicante, Spain.
As the season draws to a close we can look back and see how many players have missed games with injuries for the Canadiens and at the same time we can see how many players had the opportunity to get a shot at playing in the NHL. In a lost season that is a bit of a silver lining.
With all the players that have donned the Habs uniform this year we can look ahead at some of the possibilities for next year. One of those possibilities is that the team has one more tough year in front of them before they gel into contender status. And that could mean another promising year at the draft table in 2024. But I am getting way ahead of myself.
Let’s take one step at a time and see what the team could look like in October.
Goal: Jake Allen, Samuel Montembeault
Left Defense: Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris
Right Defense: David Savard, Justin Barron, Jonathan Kovacevic
Center: Nick Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak (or Sean Monahan), Jake Evans
Left Wing: Cole Caufield, Juraj Slafkovsky, Jonathan Drouin, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard
Right Wing: Denis Gurianov, Josh Anderson, Jesse Ylönen, Brendan Gallagher
Extra Forwards: Michael Pezzetta, Alex Belzile
On the outside looking in: Mike Hoffman, Joel Edmundson, Rem Pitlick, Joel Armia, Anthony Richard, Dvorak (or Monahan)
There are a lot of caveats to this lineup. It is highly probable that Armia would replace Ylönen in this hypothetical lineup if he is not moved and that would leave Ylönen on the outside looking in. Hoffman and Edmundson could prove to be impossible to trade and that would have a domino effect at their positions. Drouin is penciled in here but seems unlikely to re-sign leaving a spot open for competition on the left side. But for argument’s sake, the roster could look something like this one.
The first thing that might strike you is that this lineup does not look a lot different from the current one that is trending towards a 70 point season and you would be right. However, two important factors come into play. One is a given and one is not.
What is given is that this lineup would have exponentially more experience than the one that started the NHL season, particularly on defense. What is not given is that it is unlikely that the Habs will suffer the same amounts of long term injuries to so many of their key players. It could happen but odds are that injuries will play less of a factor next year.
Still a Longshot
In the end, this lineup would be a long shot to contend for a playoff spot. It should be better than what we have seen this year but not enough better to reach the 90+ point mark. More improvements would be needed. But Hughes has preached patience and seems unlikely to try any shortcuts that could jeopardize his long term plans. While playoffs may be out of reach even for next year the foundations for long term success are methodically being put into place.
My hypothetical roster only includes players currently in the organization and even with that, the team does not look horrible. In fact, there are many elements on the team that look promising. It also does not include prospects like Sean Farrell and Emil Heineman who may be knocking loudly on the door.
I have purposely overlooked any potential additions to illustrate how the Canadiens could look no worse, and in fact better, than this year’s edition even if they subtracted veterans like Hoffman, Edmundson, Armia and others without getting anything in return.
What does that mean when it comes to how Kent Hughes may approach the situation? Will he try to replicate his deal for Kirby Dach or his deal for Mike Matheson? Or will he do both? Will he look into taking on another bad contract as he did in the Sean Monahan deal? Or will he look farther down the road and try to pick up more early round draft picks for 2023 and 2024? Will some of the glut of talent in the organization at left defense be used to sweeten deals and accelerate the rebuild process.
My expectation, and it is only my personal guess, is that we will see Hughes try to add one forward with top 6 potential in an off-season trade. To me that means a young player who may not have lived up to expectations elsewhere but who has been identified by the scouting and analytics staffs as someone to target. Maybe he has already done that with the Gurianov addition but maybe he would like to take another swing at it.
Last year Jeff Petry let it be known that he wanted out and Hughes included a solid young prospect in a deal to make it happen. With the success of that deal, I could see Hughes going to the well again in trying to make a deal for Edmundson, Hoffman and/or Armia. With the current crop of prospects and eleven picks in the upcoming draft the Canadiens are trending toward having more prospects than contracts available in the future. This points towards the possibility of a two for one trade (or maybe a couple of two for one trades) to strengthen the roster and bring more balance to the prospect pool.
In addition to all of this is the potential for free agent additions. Shedding big contracts and perhaps re-signing high priced veterans on expiring contracts to team friendly contracts could open up a ton of cap space for the Montreal GM. Last year he indicated a willingness to participate in the free agent market if the opportunity presented itself. It easy to believe that he has maintained that mindset.
It is not unreasonable to expect that the Canadiens could add two or three players over the summer by taking this approach.
Revisiting the Roster
Between potential trades and free agent signings along with the development of young prospects like Farrell and Heineman it’s easy to see why the hypothetical roster that I initially put forward will look completely different from the finished product. But a general manager has to start somewhere and a good place to begin is by identifying who may compete for spots, who won’t and who may be considered expendable when it comes to the next season. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about what Kent Hughes is thinking.
In the meantime I am going to enjoy a couple of more weeks of Mediterranean sun and watch the remainder of the season unfold.