By Bob Trask – Kent Hughes has been a master a managing the expectations of Montreal Canadiens’ fans and continues to preach patience to the team’s followers. If a few elements fell into place it could turn into a case of under-promising and over-delivering. While it is unlikely that all of the events discussed here will take place, there is a chance that some of them could and that could have the Canadiens knocking on the playoff door.
Let’s take a look at what could happen.
The Injury Situation
It’s not just that the Canadiens lost a lot of man games to injury, it was a case of losing a lot of key players for extended periods of time. No team that loses their leading goal scorer, their second best center, their third best center, their top defenseman, their second best defenseman and arguably their fourth best defenseman would have much hope of remaining competitive. That group missed a total of 220 games for the Canadiens or an average of 36 games each.
This list doesn’t even include Brendan Gallagher who missed over half the season and who was, at times, playing through undisclosed injuries when he was on the ice. While he is unlikely to return to his former level of production, his inspirational presence can’t be dismissed.
If the number of games missed due to injury can be reduced significantly, it bodes well for improved on-ice success.
Montreal had five rookie defensemen who played significant time with the NHL team and all rookies experience a learning curve. Next year it is unlikely that any rookie defenseman crack the lineup and the blueline squad that coach Marty St Louis ices next year will be far more experienced.
A similar story exists at forward where six forwards were age 23 or under. That group includes Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Jesse Ylonen and Juraj Slafkovsky. With varying degrees of NHL experience under their belts all have yet to reach their prime and it isn’t unreasonable to expect an increased level of contribution from this group.
Plugging the Holes
A quick review of the Canadiens’ lineup makes it clear that the team could use help at a couple of positions. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Hughes is active in the off-season in an effort to plug those holes without sacrificing anyone from the core of the team.
Pierre-Luc Dubois is on the radar screen of every Habs’ fan. With the Jets finding themselves backed into a bit of a corner, Hughes may be able to pry the big center out of Winnipeg at less than market value. His acquisition would make the Habs stronger down the center than they have been in 25 years.
Another player to keep an eye on would be Damon Severson who is a pending UFA and 28 years old. As a RD, he would provide some balance to the left-right ratio on the Habs blueline, while adding experience and a touch of offense. The lineup on RD of Severson, David Savard and Justin Barron would have to compare favorably to the lineup last year of Savard, Chris Wideman and a rookie LD playing out of position.
Knocking on the Door
Jesse Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard have already been mentioned but Emil Heineman could push some of the veteran wingers for a job. Sean Farrell has been signed, but like Heineman, is more likely to start in Laval and be available for a recall to the Canadiens if he shows very well or if the Canadiens run into injury or illness trouble.
There is only one player who would have the potential to crack the Canadiens if they were to draft him and that is Connor Bedard. However, that is the longest of longshots but we will know in less than a week exactly where the Canadiens will make their first pick.
The upcoming draft should help the Canadiens in the long term but expecting a player to significantly contribute at the NHL level as an eighteen year old is expecting too much.
However, the draft brings all the teams together and creates an environment where trades are discussed, debated and sometimes consummated. We saw that with the Kirby Dach deal last year, and Pierre-Luc Dubois aside, Kent Hughes has the assets that make another of this kind possible.
The Bigger Picture
The Atlantic Division could be tighter next year. Ottawa, Buffalo and Detroit are all in a position to improve. Tampa and Boston may have peaked and could slide back. Toronto faces question marks with ten UFAs and one RFA on the roster. While many of these are not key players, they do need to be re-signed or replaced. Florida should be in contention after a rough start to the season this year.
The Canadiens will face stiff competition but with organic growth, some roster changes and a little less bad luck they have an opportunity to be more competitive in 2023-24. It will be a struggle for them to make the playoffs but as we have seen with the New Jersey Devils the jump from being a cellar dweller to being one of the top teams in the league can happen more quickly than expected.