Logjam at Left Wing

By Bob Trask – Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes will continue to evaluate the team’s personnel throughout training camp and the pre-season in collaboration with Jeff Gorton and Martin St-Louis. There are still a lot of difficult decisions to be made and one of the positions where the competition is fierce is left wing.

Cole Caufield shoots right but has had a lot of his offensive success with the Canadiens when he was playing LW on Nick Suzuki’s line or on the power play. If that is where the team slots him into the lineup again this year, it makes the competition for jobs even stiffer for the remaining spots.

A look at the candidates quickly illustrates that the task of choosing the left wingers for this roster will be challenging.

Returning Players

Players returning from last year include Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, Rem Pitlick, Paul Byron and Michael Pezzetta. Off-season acquisitions Sean Monahan and Evgenii Dadonov may or may not be tried on the wing. Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, who played most of the year in Laval, and Emil Heineman, acquired in a trade deadline deal, are also in the mix. And then there is Juraj Slafkovsky.

That is a total of nine players fighting for four jobs or five at the most. Of course, one or two of the left wingers could be asked to play right wing but that only moves the problem of too many wingers from one side of the ice to the other.

We can take a closer look, explore some of the options.

The Candidates

First line – Cole Caufield.

Second Line – Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Sean Monahan, Juraj Slafkovsky.

Third Line – All of the candidates that are vying for a second line position plus Emil Heineman and Rem Pitlick.

Fourth Line/Extra Forward – Rem Pitlick, Michael Pezzetta, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Paul Byron (injured).

A Deeper Look

Cole Caufield

First line – The job is Cole Caufield’s, unless of course the Canadiens decide to use him on RW.

Second Line – Dadonov may end up on RW and Monahan could find himself at center ice but that would still leave three players (Drouin, Hoffman and Slafkovsky) fighting for one job.

Third Line – If Dadonov plays RW, Monahan plays center and one of the remaining three wingers wins the second line job, a huge competition remains for the third line position. For the purpose of illustration only let’s assume Drouin wins the second line spot. That leaves Hoffman, Slafkovsky, Heineman and Pitlick vying for the third line position. Slafkovsky could temporarily go to Laval if the issue isn’t completely resolved, Heineman could go back to Europe and Pitlick could end up on the fourth line.

Fourth Line – By virtue of the salary cap, the fourth line on NHL teams requires players at the bottom of the pay scale. For Montreal that includes Pitlick, Pezzetta and Harvey-Pinard. Each brings something different to the position but because he is still waivers exempt, Harvey-Pinard may be the odd man out… at least to begin the season. Byron would also be in this competition but he is currently injured and his salary is higher than one would like to see for a fourth line player.

A Fluid Situation

No positions on the Montreal Canadiens are cast in stone for the upcoming season and this is particularly evident on left wing. Players filling those positions when the season begins may be different from the group that hits the ice in December and almost certainly different from the lineup post trade-deadline, which is March 3rd, 2023.

Monahan may or may not be ready to go when the season begins and he may or may not see more ice time at center than on the wing. Mike Hoffman may be traded or waived; the same applies to Jonathan Drouin. Dadonov could end up on RW and Heineman may show so well in camp that he pushes others farther down the depth chart. All of these variables come into play when deciding who will be in the initial starting lineup when the season begins. But there are even more factors to consider.

With Laval an unlikely option for Heineman, the decision on his immediate future may be one of the most difficult to make. Does he go back to Europe where he will be inaccessible for the Canadiens or does he make the NHL roster? With the current logjam at LW and no urgency for the Habs to become a contender this year, Europe may be in the cards for Heineman this year and his performance in his first pre-season games will likely influence any decision that Hughes makes. Byron’s health – or lack thereof – also comes into play.

But the big question for many fans is Slafkovsky. Eventually he will play for the Canadiens this season but will it be to start the year or later on? When he does lace them up for the Habs, will it be a permanent position or will he be part of the Laval shuttle? His fate may be tied to the future of Drouin and Hoffman. A trade(or trades) or waivers may be used to clarify the situation but before that happens, a lot of evaluation by the Canadiens needs to take place. At the same time, opposing teams will be evaluating their own rosters to determine if they have a need. It would not be unreasonable to expect that Slafkovsky will begin the season in Laval as Hughes explores options for Drouin and Hoffman.

Trade Timelines

Kent Hughes has demonstrated a willingness to retain salary for a portion of a year but nothing beyond that. For that reason those who are on the last year of their contracts may be traded closer to the deadline. Players like Drouin, Dadonov and Monahan could be given a chance to prove themselves in the upcoming season. If all goes well, it gives Montreal two options – trade them at the deadline or re-sign them. If traded, acquiring teams would only be on the hook for a portion of their salary for a portion of the year.

Mike Hoffman

Paul Byron is also on an expiring contract but his health situation remains unclear and unless he can demonstrate that he is healthy and able to contribute, Byron holds no value on the trade market. Paradoxically, veteran players with more than one year left on their contracts may be traded sooner rather than later. Because he is limited to retaining three salaries, if Hughes wants to use that option on trades, he may want to keep his powder dry until nearer the trade deadline.

On left wing, Mike Hoffman falls into the category of a veteran player on a multi-year contract but if salary retention is off the table, Hughes would likely have to use another sweetener to consummate a trade, as they did by including Ryan Poehling in the Jeff Petry trade. That sweetener could be in the form of a draft pick (the Habs have a multitude) or the form of a prospect (the organization is very deep in some positions).

Expectations

There seems to be a good chance that the Habs will make at least one trade, either before the season begins or shortly thereafter. Mike Hoffman is the most likely candidate for the reasons listed above. The fact that he is one of the oldest forwards on the team only increases that possibility. It should be noted that Hoffman’s offensive performance did improve under head coach Martin St-Louis and he was given a high profile role in his first exhibition game. Hughes may be showcasing him. Including a second tier prospect on left defense (Gianni Fairbrother, Otto Leskinen, Mattias Norlinder?) to facilitate a trade may be an option that Hughes would consider.

There also seems to be a good chance that more that one veteran will be traded nearer the trade deadline, when salary retention can be efficiently used as part of any trade package. Dadonov remains the most likely candidate but Drouin and Monahan may also generate some interest – depending on their recovery from injuries. Any return on these trades would be a function of how the player perform up to that point in the season and the urgency the acquiring team may have.

As much as I would like to see him in North America and be available for call-ups from Laval, I also expect Heineman to return to Europe. Harvey-Pinard, because of his waiver exempt status, seems destined for Laval to start the season.

The result of all of this is that Habs fans can expect the LW position to be in a state of flux while the Canadiens’ staff evaluates player performance and explores opportunities in the trade market. So far, there are few indicators in how the situation will unfold. In the meantime patience and trust in the process will be required by Canadiens’ fans.

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Dmitri Kostenko – The Russian Dilemma

By Bob Trask – Dimitri Kostenko was was chosen by the Montreal Canadiens in the 3rd round of the 2021 Draft after a year that saw him split time between the VHL and the MHL. The VHL is Russia’s second highest men’s pro hockey league after the KHL while the MHL is a junior league. He is a right shot defenseman, a position that has a dearth of good talent across the NHL.

In the past three seasons, he put up 38 points in 44 junior games and 24 points in 88 pro games. If you consider that the VHL might be considered the AHL of Russia and that Kostenko began his pro career at age 17, putting up those kinds of numbers is no small achievement. He was a boy playing in a man’s league.

This season Kostenko has been loaned to Kunlun Red Star (Beijing) of the KHL, which curiously plays in the western division of the KHL despite being 6,000 km east of Moscow. Kostenko is now 20 years old and is playing in what is considered to be the 2nd best league in the world.

A Closer Look

The website habsprospects.com is a good resource for following prospects in the Canadiens organization. A quick look shows that Kostenko’s usage has been erratic with ice time of around two minutes in a couple of games, to over 13 minutes, and as high as 17 minutes in others. After 11 games, he has averaged 8:51 per game. He has one goal and his +/- is a respectable -1 on one of the worst teams in the league.

It has been said the Russians often sit their young talent in favour of veterans thus hindering their development, as they did with Alexander Romanov if you recall. Whether or not that is the case with Kostenko remains to be seen.

Kostenko is signed through to April 2024 with Spartak Moscow and the Canadiens must sign him by June 1, 2025 to retain his rights.

The Wild Card

Of course the extra wild card in the situation is the worldwide geopolitical situation that can be described as extremely unstable, at best. Recent events in Russia have only exacerbated the situation. Will Kostenko seek an early exit from Russia and would the Canadiens want to see him in North America sooner rather than later are questions that we don’t know the answer to. And it would be unfair to Kostenko to seek his comments a this point in time.

The Final Analysis

Dmitri Kostenko plays a position where there always seems to be a shortage of talent. As a 20 year old who stands 6-1 and weighs 187 pounds he has the frame to play high level pro hockey. He has also exhibited offensive abilities at the junior level. One risk is that his progress could stagnate with little ice time while playing on a weak team. The other risk is that the entire situation with Russia could become so untenable that the possibility of him playing in North America drops dramatically.

Ideally, Kostenko would be playing in Laval this year where they could use some depth on right defense. It would give him a chance to become familiar with North American culture, the smaller ice surfaces and the Canadiens’ organization. Unfortunately that ship has sailed and it won’t be back for next season either. The best we can hope for is that he continues to develop his hockey skills and exhibits a desire to play in North America when he is free to do so.

In the meantime Dmitri Kostenko flies under the radar among Habs prospects as he plies his trade in Beijing. As fans, we can continue to follow his game by game progress on habsprospects.com.

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