By Bob Trask – From the goaltender out, there will be more than a few controversial decisions for the Montreal Canadiens that need to be made before the drop of the puck next season. Since the 2015-16 season, the team’s winning percentage has been .489 and they rank 27th in that category.
That statistic tells me that no one is indispensable. We cling to our favorite players because of what they bring on the ice, off the ice and in the dressing room. But the naked truth is when your leadership group brings you results like that, management needs to take hard look at the situation.
No, the supporting cast has often not been great. At times talent has been lacking or the lineup is inexperienced but literally none of the veterans have stepped up to the plate and have dragged the team to higher levels. The unicorn cup run in the 2020-21 season was the exception. And even that unexpected run could be marked with an asterisk because of the re-alignment of divisions due to Covid.
The Canadiens are now at a crossroads where the leaders have become the supporting cast and the young players are beginning to take over as leaders. It’s through this lens that we can look at the team.
With Sam Montembeault now locked up for three seasons, the Canadiens have established who at least one of their goaltenders will be. At this point the battle for the second job seems to be between Jake Allen and Cayden Primeau. The reason I said “second job” rather than backup, is that I see the situation becoming more of a 1A and 1B setup vs a starter and a backup.
My money is on Allen sticking around. By the time his current contract expires, Montreal will have a far better idea of who the prime candidates to share the net with Montembeault. With a combined salary of $7.0M, the Canadiens are not overpaying for the goaltending position.
What would become of Primeau in this situation?
He could be placed on waivers for the purposes of assignment to Laval. If he clears, it puts the Canadiens in a favorable situation but if he doesn’t, the team has lost some potential but not anyone who has contributed to date. He could also be traded but it would likely be for nothing more than a late round pick or a positional player who has had trouble cracking his current team’s roster. Someone, like Primeau, who has unfulfilled potential.
In reality, the controversy among existing players here is overblown. With the Montembeault signing, the best Primeau could hope for is a backup role and that is a position that has been successfully filled by other teams via free agency, trades or the waiver wire. If he is lost to another team, the Habs would still have Jake Allen and the flexibility to add another goaltender over the summer or earlier.
The situation on defense is far more dicey with a glut of young players already in the NHL and a handful more knocking on the door.
Let’s begin with David Savard. He has provided leadership and a steadying influence on the young defense corps but as they gain experience, the need for his veteran presence will become less necessary. Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Justin Barron, Jonathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris were rookies at the end of last season. By the start of next season, they will all be “young veterans” and Savard could be a redundant asset.
It’s still far too early to pencil Lane Hutson, Logan Mailloux, David Reinbacher or Adam Engstrom into the lineup so we’ll save that controversy for next year as this highly talented group continues with their progression toward the NHL.
But that still leaves a battle for positions on the blueline among other young players. Jordan Harris, Jayden Struble, Mattias Norlinder and Gustav Lindstrom vying for only a couple of available positions. I didn’t include Arber Xhekaj in this group because he brings a unique skillset to the team, while Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Justin Barron and Jonathan Kovacevic have all seemed to earn the trust of the coaching staff.
The final choices may depend on what kind of defense the team wants to build. Norlinder is the most logical candidate to be playing elsewhere next year. That would leave Harris, Struble and Lindstrom battling it out for the #6 and #7 spots on the roster.
This is a tough one for me because I really like Harris and with that comment, you can see where I am going with this. He is a solid player and by all accounts, a solid citizen but in the harsh world of pro sports, he is expendable – particularly if he can help to bring a much needed asset in return
Struble, unlike Harris, brings that physical presence you like to see on the 2nd or 3rd pairing while Lindstrom is a RD who could serve well as a placeholder until Mailloux and/or Reinbacher is ready to make the jump. If Harris was part of trade that helped fill other gaps in the lineup, I would make the move and wish him success with his new team.
For this to work, Xhekaj and/or Struble would have to get comfortable playing on their weak side from time to time because I don’t see Lindstrom as a full time #6 d-man at this point. It is not a stretch to think that either one could be successful there.
After Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach are penciled into the lineup the situation at center for the Canadiens gets very murky, very fast. Sean Monahan remains a trade contract but he could also remain with the Canadiens. Alex Newhook looks far better on the wing than at center and, in my opinion, so does Jake Evans. Christian Dvorak’s offensive output during his tenure with the Canadiens has been a disappointment.
Among prospects, Owen Beck has stepped up his game recently while Oliver Kapanen, who is currently injured, has continued to see his game progress in the Finnish pro leagues. One of these two could challenge for the 4th line center position but may be better off starting the year in Laval.
A lot of the decisions surrounding the center ice position hinge on the future of Sean Monahan. Kent Hughes faces two completely different situations depending on where Monahan plays next season. And a lot of that could depend on he plays and how the Canadiens fare between now and the trade deadline. And it depends on what kind of return Hughes could get at the deadline.
If Monahan plays well and stays, the situation at center become more clear with Suzuki, Dach and Monahan filling the first three spots. I would expect a contract similar to what Nino Niederreiter signed in Winnipeg would be required to get it done
If he plays well and is traded, Hughes would likely want a highly touted center prospect as part of the package rather than a draft pick – someone who would have a good chance of filling the 3C role next year. For that kind of return, Montreal may have to include additional assets to make it happen but the organization is well-stocked and has the ability to make that kind of move.
If Monahan’s play levels off and he is traded, don’t expect to get anyone in a trade that will help the team next year.
Christian Dvorak is probably a great 4th line center who is being paid like a 2nd line center. Having said that, his fate could be linked to Monahan’s. If Monahan stays, I can see Montreal moving Dvorak but if Monahan is moved without a center coming back in trade, the situation changes. I don’t see both of them with the team next year and it is possible that neither will be on the roster next October.
Personally I would like to see Monahan play well and be re-signed to a medium term contract. That would allow Montreal time to draft and develop a potential replacement or time to work out a trade for a young center who could eventually fill Monahan’s shoes or more. The caveat is that any overwhelming offer for picks/prospects could change my mind.
As mentioned, Beck and Kapanen are probably best served by playing next season in Laval, leaving Jake Evans as the sole candidate for 4th line center (with apologies to Mitchell Stephens and maybe Lias Andersson). However, I also saw a very effective Jake Evans playing wing against Seattle and would like to see him tried at that position more frequently going forward.
That would involve finding another 4th line center who maybe brings some slightly different elements to the game than Evans (read physical presence) and could be a good way to round out the roster. Evans would still be available to play wing, kill penalties and play center when necessary.
Should both Monahan and Dvorak be traded the Canadiens would be very thin at center onca again and would need to scour the hockey world for a replacement for at least one of them.
Look for the center position to look different next season.
If you thought there could be some controversy among who plays goal, defense or center, hold my beer. The potential for change among players who patrol the wing for the Canadiens is dramatic.
One game is a poor sample size on which to make a decision but the line of Caufield, Suzuki and Slafkovsky looked good against Seattle. In the same vein, playing Alex Newhook with Kirby Dach seems like it could work well despite only seeing Dach in very limited action this year.
Another reasonably successful one game sample was Monahan with Evans and Josh Anderson. They were the 2nd line against Seattle but the return of Dach and Newhook could bump them to 3rd line status. Of course, keeping that line together is reliant on the Canadiens keeping Monahan. For now, let’s assume he stays.
With those positions in place, the Canadiens would still need a winger for Dach’s line and two wingers for the 4th line. The candidates are many, beginning with Gallagher but also including Joel Armia, Michael Pezzetta, Jesse Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard from this year’s roster as well as Sean Farrell, Emil Heineman, Joshua Roy and maybe Lias Andersson from the Laval Rocket. Among amateur/European players, only Filip Mesar seems close.
I’ll start with the most controversial name first. Brendan Gallagher and his style of play seems like a very poor fit with Kirby Dach or Nick Suzuki. He has become a single role player with no spot for him on the PP nor on the PK.
Of the remaining names listed above, Emil Heineman may be the best candidate if he can bounce back from his concussion. Heineman is a big body, who skates very well and has an excellent shot. These are three elements missing from Gallagher’s game.
But when you are dealing with prospects, it is dangerous to limit your candidates to fill a role to a single player. My second choice here would be Jesse Ylonen who is also and excellent skater with a good shot. A line with Dach, Newhook and Ylonen would have speed to burn. We’ve also seen Ylonen used from time to time on the PK, a skill that gives him one more arrow in his quiver than Gallagher.
I don’t see Harvey-Pinard as a fit on the 2nd line but I do see him having a role on the team.
Based on their performances to date, I would like to see Sean Farrell and Joshua Roy ply their trade in Laval for one more year, but a second half spurt in development could change my opinion.
If none of these players seem to be the answer, then don’t rule out a trade involving a Montreal center, a young d-man and forward prospect to fill the position of RW on Dach’s line.
That leaves the 4th line wingers and a couple of extra forwards to round out the roster. The remaining candidates are Gallagher, Armia, Pezzetta, Harvey-Pinard and maybe Lias Andersson.
If Heineman and Ylonen were to share the 2nd line RW/extra forward position, that would leave three open spots for five players. I’ve included Andersson in this group even though he isn’t signed for next season.
Harvey-Pinard and Pezzetta both bring an element of energy the game. Harvey-Pinard may be more gifted offensively while Pezzetta brings a physical presence that can be called upon when required. If events unfolded in this manner there would be three players left vying for one spot: Gallagher, Armia and Andersson.
In this situation, what would be the options available for Kent Hughes?
- Trade Armia for no or negative return (or buy him out), release Andersson and hand the job to Gallagher. In this upside down world, the Canadiens’ 4th line RW would be earning more than twice as much as the 1st and 2nd line RWs combined. But contract aside, this seems far from the ideal situation. Gallagher is a single role player and 4th liners are often asked to contribute on the PK.
- Keep Armia, release Anderson and buyout Gallagher. Trading Gallagher seems literally impossible because his contract creates a situation of huge negative value. The cost would be an average cap hit of $2.167 million per year for the next 6 years. A rising cap would help take some of the edge off this penalty but it’s still a big hit.
- Trade Amia, keep Andersson and buyout Gallagher. Relieving the team of Armia’s contract would take some of the bite out of the Gallagher buyout for the next couple of years but Andersson might be the least talented of this trio.
The Hypothetical Lineup
At this point there are unlimited possibilities for the roster composition. It will likely look different after the trade deadline with more changes to follow over the summer. When looking at any lineup such as this one, it is important to keep in mind that the situation with NHL rosters is highly fluid and unexpected circumstances can dramatically change the situation.
With that caveat, here is one example that is definitely not cast in stone.
- Goal – Montembeault, Allen
- Left Defense – Matheson, Guhle, Xhekaj
- Right Defense – Barron, Kovacevic, Lindstrom
- Extra Defense – Struble
- Center – Suzuki, Dach, Monahan or Dvorak, ???
- Left Wing – Caufield, Newhook, Evans, Harvey-Pinard
- Right Wing – Slafkovsky, Heineman/Ylonen, J. Anderson, Armia
- Extra Forwards – Pezzetta, Ylonen/Heineman
On the bubble
- Goal – Primeau
- Defense – Savard, Harris
- Center – Dvorak and/or Monahan
- Left Wing – L. Andersson
- Right Wing – Gallagher
- Tanner Pearson
In going through all of the potential changes, one thing seems apparent to me. The future of Sean Monahan may be the key element in determining what the path forward will be.
It is ironic that Carey Price’s career ending injury allowed the Canadiens to acquire Monahan (and a first round pick). That acquisition has turned out to be a high quality addition to the lineup who may either continue to contribute to the team or be used to acquire more high quality picks or prospects.
And as the title suggests, controversy looms and no more for anyone than Brendan Gallagher.