By JD Lagrange – After not one, but two disappointing seasons, the Montreal Canadiens are getting set for a second NHL Draft under the duo of hockey management of Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes. A year ago, they held the very first pick at the Draft and went against the team’s fan base by selecting Juraj Slafkovsky instead of the so-called “consensus” favourite Shane Wright. The Canadiens are set to speak fifth at this year’s Draft.
But as then enter the summer, GM Kent Hughes stated himself that the expectations on players and for the team’s results will be starting to get higher starting next season. As we don’t know what Hughes has in mind both for the Draft’s perspective, but also for potential trades, let’s focus on some of the returning players who might feel a little bit more heat when the puck drops in October. And there are three key reasons for that pressure…
1- Key players
☞ Nick Suzuki
Let’s face it: Suzuki will always have pressure while wearing the “C” on his chest in Montreal. He will want to work on his consistency and avoid going through a dry spell like he went through in the middle of this past season. From December 10th to January 28th, a 24 games span, the Canadiens’ captain only managed two goals, seven assists for nine points, and he had a differential of minus-17. This averages to 0.38 points per game, a huge step down from the 0.98 points per game for the other 58 games of the season.
☞ Cole Caufield
At the time of writing this, Caufield has yet to sign a contract extension, although both he and the team have gone public at season’s end stating that they wanted a deal done. So with a new contract in his back pocket, the pressure will be on the goals’ scorer to keep up with the furious pace of 48 goals in 83 games he has set since Martin St-Louis took over as the Canadiens’ coach. If it’s a bridge deal, he will want to earn himself major money thereafter. If it’s a long term deal, he will have to live up to the salary that he will be awarded, as salary is a factor in adding pressure on a player.
☞ Kirby Dach
As he admitted himself, he has taken a step forward but he hasn’t reached his potential yet. This season will be the one where he will want to prove what he can become as a NHL player, his breakthrough season. Will he be doing this as a center or will it be on the wing, where he found immediate chemistry with Suzuki and Caufield? A lot will depend on what Kent Hughes does this off-season (Pierre-Luc Dubois?) and if he can improve over his team low 38.3% success rate in the faceoffs’ dots, and aspect where even Jonathan Drouin (44.5%) had more success. But either way, he has shown flashes of becoming an impact player prior to his injury last season. If the Habs do acquire Dubois, I like the idea of having him and Dach on the same line, as it would allow them to take faceoffs on their strong side.
☞ Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher has been a warrior for years. The longest serving Canadiens will be entering his 12th season in the NHL, all with Montreal. After four consecutive seasons of 30 goals (or on pace for), the heart and soul type winger has been struggling with injuries and last season, he only managed eight goals in 37 games (18 goals pace). Prior to his injury though, he was skating better than we saw the previous season, but the puck simply wasn’t going it. The issue is that he has four more years with a cap hit of $6.5 million, which in itself puts pressure on the 31 year-old.
☞ Joel Armia
Armia has always been a frustrating player to watch. He has the size, he has the skating abilities, and he has the talent to be a very good player. His issue has always been his consistency and much like Gallagher, injuries have taken their toll on the big Finn. Unlike a guy like Mike Hoffman though, when he’s not producing offensively, he contributes in other aspects, as he is very reliable defensively. But it will be a year of redemption for Armia, who had only managed seven goals in 42 games (12 goals pace) last season. The 30 year-old has two years left to his contract, with a $3.4 million cap hit.
3- Something to prove
☞ Samuel Montembeault
Some fans and members of the (French) media see Montembeault as bigger or better than he really is, at least in my opinion. Statistically speaking, Monty hasn’t shown anything yet.
After winning the Gold medal with Team Canada at the World Championships, the discussions over Montembeault have taken a life of their own, being totally blown out of proportion. Stéphane Waite was on record that he would sign him for over $3 million per season on a 5-year deal. Allow me to remind everyone that just over a year ago, Joel Armia had an incredible World Championships tournament. How has that turned out? Montembeault has one year left to his current contract so… what’s the rush? He will, however, have the pressure to prove that he can become a starting goalie in the NHL.
☞ Justin Barron
The pressure on Barron will be mostly self-inflicted. Wanting to established himself as a legitimate NHL player, he will not want to live what he went through after training camp last year, being sent down to Laval. We sometimes tend to forget that he’s only 21 years old which, for a defenseman, is quite young. But he has progressed in Laval and has shown some good things after being called up. The Canadiens have a surplus of defensemen so he will have to battle to earn his spot.
☞ Juraj Slafkovsky
The pressure to perform, improve over last season and to produce offensively will not come so much from the team or the player himself, but rather from many fans who are impatient of nature. The tag of being the first overall pick in any Draft comes with pressure and the young man handled it rather well, thanks to the organisation, led by Kent Hughes and Martin St-Louis, who have done a good job lowering the expectation on the big Slovak. But Slafkovsky wants to be the man. He has that attitude in him and he’s working hard at improving all aspects of his game.