Bounceback Season Candidates

By JD Lagrange – It’s been said before, last season was a nightmare year for most around the Montreal Canadiens organization. From the owner’s perspective, through management and coaching changes, to the players, it trickled down to the fans as well. And for those in the media who like to feed on negativity, they had their plates full and more.

But this is a new season, a new era. The arrival of Jeff Gorton, the appointment of Kent Hughes as the new General Manager, and the surprising hiring of Martin St-Louis as the new head coach, all contributed to bringing a wind of hope over a City that needed it. A few trades later, a successful NHL Draft where the Canadiens selected first overall, the composition of the team has changed rather drastically as well. Even the old veterans on the team are hoping to put last season behind them and start fresh.

Bounceback year

For some more than others, it’s been a season to forget. It is particularly true for five current veterans who are still part of the team: Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman and Paul Byron. All five have had a particularly tough season and they are all hoping for a chance to redeem themselves.

☞ Carey Price

Carey Price

We all know about his knee, don’t we? Some fans are even tired of reading and hearing about it. But when the player is your franchise player and ties up $10.5 million of the team’s cap space, they will continue to hear about it, understandably so. Price had an injection earlier this summer and he seems to be doing well. He should be starting his on-ice training pretty soon.

Last year, after his surgery, things were doing well for him with the off-ice training. It even went pretty well for his on-ice training. The issues reoccured after games, where swelling was apparent in his knee. So we likely won’t know Price’s status for this season, even for his future, until he plays a few games at training camp or in pre-season. But no one is hoping more than Price himself that he will be healthy and able to play next season.

Prediction: Impossible to predict until we see how his knee reacts. If all goes well, playing 50 games or so should be a realistic goal. His presence alone would be a huge boost to this team.

☞ Brendan Gallagher

Often described as a heart-and-soul player, Gallagher missed 16 games due to injuries last season and was playing hurt for most of the season. After four consecutive seasons of 30 goals (or on pace for), he had his lowest total of goals of his 10-year career with seven.

Gallagher explains his poor season to fatigue. The Canadiens went through two COVID seasons with unusually tight schedules and short off-seasons. It’s even more true since the Canadiens made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals a couple of seasons ago. Gally explains that he needs the time to recuperate and rebuild his body for a long 82-games season, something he hasn’t been able to do in a couple of years. He does have time to do just that this off-season.

Prediction: Gally’s role won’t be what it was when he had Tatar and Danault on his line. But 20-25 goals is not out of question. Third line duty with Juraj Slafkovsky and Christian Dvorak would suit him well.

☞ JONATHAN Drouin

Jonathan Drouin

It’s unfortunate and, quite frankly, unfair but fans are all over this guy. He is without a doubt (with Price) the fans’ scapegoat. Comments and opinions used against him are too often over the top. In the past couple of seasons, Drouin has had not one, but two wrists operated on. In between, the toll of fans and media’s unnecessary pressure had a huge effect on him and he had to take a leave to look after his own mental health. While fans and media were saying the right thing then, they quickly showed their hypocrisy when returning to their old behaviour at first chance.

Before leaving to have his second wrist surgery, Drouin was the team’s second best scorer, tied with Tyler Toffoli, only two points back of fan favourite Nick Suzuki. Think about this for a minute. And that was all under Dominique Ducharme as the head coach. He came back for only two games under St-Louis. Along with newly acquired Kirby Dach, Drouin will be one of St-Louis’ most interesting projects next season.

Prediction: As an eternal optimist, I’m expecting good things from Jo. He’ll never be a point-per-game player but I feel like with more freedom offensively, he will be reaching the 60-points plateau this season. A second line of Drouin, Dach and Evgenii Dadonov could catch fire.

☞ MIKE Hoffman

Marc Bergevin signed Hoffman in an attempt to add some offense to a team that desperately needed some. A perennial 25-30 goals’ scorer, his production dropped to 17 goals last season and he went long stretches without producing. The issue with Hoffman is that when he’s not scoring, he’s not helping the team as he’ll never be confused with a Selke Trophy nominee.

Hoffman’s biggest strength, or weapon, is his shot. He has a quick release and he can be lethal on the power play, on his off-wing. In order to bounce back, the coaching staff will have to find ways to improve on the power play strategy and include him as a threat on the right side for a one-timer. That is if he doesn’t get traded before the season starts, as his name has been a fixture in trade rumours this off-season.

Prediction: Expecting 20-25 goals should be a realistic expectation but I’m anticipating that he won’t be doing that with the Canadiens. He could be a cap casualty.

☞ Paul Byron

Everybody loves Ti-Paul, and rightfully so. Much like Gallagher, with whom he shares an “A” on his jersey, he is one whom a coach and teammates can count on to give 100% effort on every every shift. Unfortunately, injuries are taking their toll on the 5-foot 9-inches, 158 lbs winger. He had hip surgery and it is said that the results aren’t what they were hoping for.

At 33 years old, the prognosis of him returning to form is not looking so good. For a guy whose main strength is his speed, a hip is a huge handicap. He has only managed 102 games in his last three seasons, an average of 34 games per season. Of the five players mentioned in this article, he is the one we should worry about the most, along with Price.

Prediction: Byron should start the season on the LTIR, so it’s impossible to make a prediction. Here’s hoping that he can return soon but it will likely be in a reduced role.

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Martin St-Louis’ 2022-23 Projects

By JD Lagrange – The hockey world went through a range of emotions since the Montreal Canadiens surprised everyone when naming Martin St-Louis as the team’s new head coach back in February. Known as a good hockey mind, St-Louis didn’t have any experience coaching at the pro level, so shock was the first reaction of many. Then, it turned into humour when he started using drills utilized in minor hockey, playing on smaller areas on the ice. It was followed by humility, when the Canadiens started playing much better.

And when he turned some players’ season around, the hockey world took notice and the qualificative “impressed” was predominant. Cole Caufield was by far the NHL’s best rookie since St-Louis took over. Jeff Petry, who was brutal in the first half, returned to form while Christian Dvorak, who had failed to replace departing Phillip Danault, was the third most productive forward on the Habs under the new coach.

Changing mindsets

St-Louis wants his players to take a different approach. He wants them to use their instincts more, to be creative with the puck and give each other options. He has already started working on changing the game of both Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher, two guys who don’t know how to go half-speed, two of the team’s hardest workers. He wants them to work “smarter”.

“I was never really taught that or even thought about that,” said Anderson. “I’ve really just been a straight line guy and, as soon as Marty came in, it was about attention to details, the little things. Change your speed, maybe not go so fast and think the game a bit more in open ice. This is the NHL and you don’t always have to be beside a guy supporting the puck,” he added. “You can try to find open ice and you don’t always have to be flying. There’s a been a lot of back-and-forth video with Marty and it’s helpful.”

Thankfully, both players are born leaders and will do what it takes to help the team. In this case, St-Louis believes that while they may seem to struggle with it at times, both players will become better hockey players and feels like it could even extend their career.

“If you just go, go, go,” said St. Louis, “you’re going to miss opportunities. There are always ways to improve if you’re 27 or you’re 30. I think it’s important if you’re going to play in this league for a long time to keep evolving as a player. You still need to play to your strengths but there’s parts where players have holes in their game. As a coach, as an organization, you have to help players work on those holes and the more they evolve, the more productive they’ll be and they’ll probably have a better career because of it.”

“I think this is a good opportunity to implement the concept, the culture I’m trying to bring, collectively, individually. Not everyone has the same progression and I’m not coaching everyone the same. I understand when I talk to some of the players, it might make them think a little bit and, when you think, there may be a little more hesitation in the game. But once it becomes clear through repetition, through video, through the conversation, they’re in a better place.”

Other projects

St-Louis has new projects to work with. Jonathan Drouin missed a lot of time due to a second wrist injury and he seems ready to come back at training camp. The former third overall pick has been under a lot of heat since being acquired by the Canadiens. He has struggled to be healthy and has yet to turn into the player everyone saw in him.

Drouin is in the final year of a contract paying him $5.5 million. The 27 year-old winger has reached the 50-points plateau only twice in his career. Being a contract year should be added motivation, but his offensive creativity could fit in very well with St-Louis’ approach. If he can remain healthy, there should be room for a lot of optimism that he can have a very good season. Later in the season, the question will be about trading him or re-signing him. That decision is not made yet and will depend heavily on the season he’s having, and the direction the team is taking at the time.

Martin St-Louis will have another important project with high offensive potential. Kent Hughes completed a trade at the Draft table, which saw the Canadiens acquire 21 year-old Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks. Also a former third overall pick, Dach has gone through some injuries issues, including a wrist injury, much like Drouin.

Kirby Dach

The giant format center oozes skills but has yet to put it all together and St-Louis could very well be the guy to help him find his confidence and at the same time, his game.

Both Drouin and Dach are creative, offensive players. Getting more freedom to express that talent on the ice could help them get to where everyone saw them going on their draft year. St-Louis could be the catalyst in both cases to make that happen. The Canadiens’ coach is no miracle worker, but if he can repeat with those two players what he’s done for Caufield, Petry and Dvorak (amongst others), players will take note and more skilled players will, like Pierre-Luc Dubois, want to join his team.

Player development

And St-Louis won’t be alone, as he can rely on the help of Director of Hockey Development Adam Nicholas, Rob Ramage (Director of Player Development), Francis Bouillon (Coach, Player Development) and newly appointed Player Development Consultant Marie-Philip Poulin.

Focussing on skills’ development is a lot easier… with skilled players. And the Canadiens have a few good ones whose potential has yet to be fully reached. That also includes this year’s Draft first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky.

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