Six Years And Counting

By JD Lagrange – How long does it take to turn a franchise around in the NHL? Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers. Many will blow smoke trying to convince you that they know what it takes. But there is no set blueprint to turn a team around through the draft.

When it all started

For the Canadiens, the reset, rebuild or re-whateveryouwannacallit started in the Summer of 2018. That’s when then GM Marc Bergevin started piling up his draft pick and revamped his scouting and player-development. Whether he did enough on that aspect is a topic of discussion but what is not, is the fact that he did revamp it.

Then, of course, there was this change in management, and eventually leading to the hiring of Martin St-Louis as head coach. All of this brought a much needed wind of fresh air after nine years under previous management. Even those who liked Bergevin, like yours truly, were behind this new management.

Now, we are now days away from turning the calendar to the year 2024. So this upcoming Summer, it will be six years since the re-thing started. A first and fifth overall draft pick later, a few trades completed in the process, and we must admit that what the Canadiens have to show for is rather disappointing to fans.

Lack of progress

Where is the progress, many fans ask? I would venture to say that there are only a couple of solid progress stories so far. Kaiden Guhle has been phenomenal and we’re potentially looking at a solid top-pairing defenseman for years to come. The second is another defenseman, Justin Barron. Since being called up from Laval, Barron has played some pretty solid hockey.

Let me ask you this. Where is the progression from Nick Suzuki this season? What about Cole Caufield? Prior to getting injured, where was the progression from Rafaël Harvey-Pinard? Or Jesse Ylönen and Jake Evans? Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder?

And as much as we want to defend Juraj Slafkovsky, he is not performing to the expectations rightfully placed on the first player selected in his year of the draft. To make matters worse, he is playing at the easiest position on the ice, on the wing. As we all know, defensemen and goaltenders will take longer to develop, and young centers often need to adapt, particularly in the faceoffs’ circle.

With that being said, it’s way too early to give up on Slafkovsky and he may still end up being the best player selected in his draft year. Understand that I’m not pounding on the kid as I had him going first at the Draft that Summer.

The reasons why I’m bringing him up is because of his very slow progression. I feel like by now, we should start seeing him put up some numbers at the very least. Did the Canadiens do the right thing by keeping him in Montreal last season, and preventing him to play at the World Junior Championships? I believe so but who am I to criticize, right? It’s working out so well.

Then of course, there are prospects doing well in their respective leagues but every season, you will find that. The reasons why I don’t follow prospects from too close is because… they are just that: prospects. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a prospect, as good as he may be at his level, is only a prospect as long as he’s not having an impact in the NHL. As much as some want us to believe that they know what they’re talking about, truth is that no one truly knows when he will reach his ceiling in development… no even the team.

All in all, fans should be starting to get disgruntled with the lack of success, or at the very least, the lack of progress on the ice. Yes, injuries have played a role in the team’s struggles. But by now, the young guys should be able to step it up more than they have thus far. At least, that is one man’s opinion…

Newfound Center Depth

By JD Lagrange – Remember when, not long ago, the Montreal Canadiens simply couldn’t find anyone to (efficiently) play the center position? Remember when they traded for and tried to convert two wingers, Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, to fill that need? Or when they ended up drafting for needs in picking Jesperi Kotkaniemi ahead of Brady Tkachuk, amongst others? Well, thanks to sound drafting and a few key trades, the search seems to finally be over.

Here is the current center depth on the Canadiens, and how they were acquired, in no particular order:

Nick SuzukiAcquired in September 2018 by Marc Bergevin from the Vegas Golden Knights, along with Tomas Tatar and a 2nd rd pick, for Max Pacioretty
Sean MonahanAcquired in August 2022 by Kent Hughes from the Calgary Flames, along with a 1st round pick, for future considerations to allow the Flames to sign Nazem Kadri
Kirby DachAcquired in July 2022 by Kent Hughes from the Chicago Blackhawks for the 13th overall pick and a 3rd rd pick
Christian DvorakAcquired in September 2021 by Marc Bergevin from the Arizona Coyotes for a 1st and 2nd round pick
Alex NewhookAcquired in June 2023 by Kent Hughes from the Colorado Avalanche for the 31st and 37th overall picks and Gianni Fairbrother
Jake EvansDrafted by the Canadiens in the 7th rd of the 2014 NHL Draft
Owen BeckDrafted by the Canadiens in the 2nd rd of the 2022 NHL Draft
Sean FarrellDrafted by the Canadiens in the 4th rd of the 2020 NHL Draft
Jan MysakDrafted by the Canadiens in the 2nd rd of the 2020 NHL Draft
Xavier SimoneauDrafted by the Canadiens in the 6th rd of the 2021 NHL Draft
Riley KidneyDrafted by the Canadiens in the 2nd rd of the 2021 NHL Draft
Oliver KapanenDrafted by the Canadiens in the 2nd rd of the 2021 NHL Draft
Vinzenz RohrerDrafted by the Canadiens in the 3rd rd of the 2022 NHL Draft
Jared DavidsonDrafted by the Canadiens in the 5th rd of the 2022 NHL Draft
Ty SmilanicAcquired in March 2022 by Kent Hughes along with a 1st and 4th rd pick from the Florida Panthers for Ben Chiarot

Further, Lias Andersson can also play center or wing if or when needed. Martin St-Louis doesn’t have to scramble to find centermen for his team. He has more than enough.

2023 season

Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes announced, a few days ago, that Christian Dvorak wouldn’t be ready to start the season due to an injury. However, the Canadiens’ top faceoffs center (after Monahan) is skating solo and has intensified his workouts.

The knock on Kirby Dach has always been his faceoffs’ percentage being well below the acceptable barrier of 50%. That’s why the Blackhawks gave up on him and it remains his biggest downfall. However, he has shown signs of improvements so far at training camp so there is hope.

Due to the quality depth on the Canadiens’ roster at the center position, odds are that you will have two centers playing on any given line. This is a good thing for a few reasons.

  1. We know that NHL linesmen can be overzealous at kicking centers out of faceoffs. When this occurs, another center can take that faceoffs, with better odds of winning it than if it was a winger taking the draw. That’s good for puck possession both in the offensive and defensive zone.
  2. It potentially allows for centers to take faceoffs on their strong side. If you were to put Monahan (a lefty) on a line with Dach or Suzuki (both righties), he could take some of the faceoffs. The same goes for Newhook, Evans, Dvorak.

It is a well known fact that it is easier for a center to play wing, than for a winger to learn to play center, particularly at the NHL level with the responsibilities that come with the position. And we’re seeing the organization trying to develop centers, even with players who play wing. An example of that is Filip Mesar, whom the Habs’ coaching staff plays at center from time to time. By the time he reaches the NHL, he will have some experience there.

Though my years of coaching and watching hockey, I have always been a strong believer that you cannot have too many centers, but you certainly can have too few. It looks like the Canadiens understood that reality and the center position has now become a position of strength and depth, with more young ones continuing to develop in the system.