By Bob Trask – Last week I published my thoughts on how the future should be promising for the Canadiens and began with presenting a potential lineup from which General Manager Kent could begin to build. I included Jonathan Drouin as a placeholder until a better alternative could be found and got some blowback on that… which I deserved.
Another way to look at the situation is to see where improvements can be made and who could be replaced by someone with a similar style of play.
The most surprising and positive development around the goaltending situation has been the development of Samuel Montembeault. He is no Vasilevsky, but with the 11th best GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected) in the league, he has provided the Canadiens with a chance to win in a lot of games, even when the team in front of him didn’t really deserve to win.
The biggest disappointment has been Jake Allen’s complete inconsistency. From one game to the next you don’t know if you are getting the second coming of Ken Dryden or that of Andre Racicot.
The only potential replacement player at the moment is Cayden Primeau. He won’t replace Montembeault who has been the top Canadiens’ goaltender this season. You don’t replace your best (and least expensive) goaltender if you are trying to improve the team. And Primeau is unlikely to replace Allen either, with the latter signed for 2 more years at a price where he is too expensive to be a backup, and at a level of play where he doesn’t warrant a starting position.
Any improvement at the goaltending position will have to come as a result of Montembeault’s continued development and improved consistency from Jake Allen. The only “if” is if Montreal somehow traded Allen and acquired a superior goaltender to replace him. It’s something that I doubt we will see happening. Expect few changes at this position.
Any improvement in the defense is likely to be a result of the continued development of the young squad rather than from an acquisition through trade or free agency over the summer. In fact, the squad could afford to lose a veteran, someone the likes of Joel Edmundson would be a good contender if management can trade him. His replacement as a physical blueliner is likely to be Arber Xhekaj. They have a similar skill set with Xhekaj being more intimidating physically and more skilled offensively.
There is no one waiting in the wings to replace any of the trio of Savard, Barron and Kovacevic on the right side and from time to time a LD is probably going to have to fill in on RD. Harris and Guhle have both displayed their versatility.
The truth is that Edmundson could be traded without seriously impacting the defense and whatever return that Hughes might get for him is unlikely to be someone who makes next year’s roster.
Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach are set, for now, as the 1st and 2nd line centers for the Habs for next season. After Suzuki and Dach, the picture gets murky. A lot of it revolves around the health of Sean Monahan and his contract status. Some of it revolves around Christian Dvorak, his health and his level of play. And to a lesser extent, the 4th line center position isn’t entirely settled.
Both Monahan and Dvorak bring a veteran presence to what would be the 3rd line position. They also bring skill to the faceoff circle. There doesn’t seem to be a spot for both of them on the roster and depending on the route that Hughes chooses to take, neither might be on the opening night roster next season.
The ideal situation might be if Monahan fully recovers, signs an inexpensive, bonus-laden contract and Dvorak, who may have some trade value, is moved for additional assets. However, that is a long shot and the more likely result is that Monahan may not recover and the Habs utilize Dvorak in a 3rd line role, at least until next year’s trade deadline.
Jake Evans is signed and penciled in as the 4th line center; it is likely to remain that way with Chris Tierney probably not being offered a contract for next year.
Of course the much pined for trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois could throw this entire scenario out the window but for now we are only dealing with players within the organization.
It is on the wing where the Canadiens could see the biggest turnover from this year’s squad. There is more than one candidate waiting in the wings. If we begin with the assumption that Cole Caufield, Josh Anderson, Juraj Slafkovsky, Brendan Gallagher and Denis Gurianov will all be back, there is a lot of competition for the remaining positions.
Mike Hoffman’s name comes up frequently in trade scenarios and it is likely he will be moved, if not in the off-season then at the trade deadline next year. As a shoot first winger like Hoffman, Emil Heineman is a candidate to fill that role with the Canadiens. It might take some time in Laval before Heineman is ready. Hoffman is on a 17 goal pace (over 82 games) for the Habs and it is unlikely that Heineman could reach that goal. But the entire team picture needs to be examined before dismissing Heineman as a possible replacement.
The next name that comes up is Jonathan Drouin, a pass-first forward, who will become a free agent on July 1st unless the unthinkable happens and Kent Hughes re-signs him. He is on a pace to score about 4 goals over 82 games. A pass-first winger currently in the system and who could be signed before season end is Sean Farrell. This skilled winger has put up points at every level of play and has competed internationally.
When we look at Hoffman and Drouin in combination, their total goal production over 82 games this year projects to be 21 goals. It is not unthinkable for a combination of Heineman and Farrell to equal that production. While the goal production might be replaceable, the assist production would be more of a challenge. Over 82 games Drouin’s rate of production equates to 44 assists in a full season – and it’s bigger number than what many of us realize.
The decisions on Hoffman and Drouin are two of the most important ones facing Hughes. A strong possibility is that Hoffman could be retained until the deadline while Drouin pursues his options as a free agent. In that case, Farrell could have the inside track on a LW position while Heineman could continue his development in Laval and wait for an opportunity later in the season.
If that is the case, the Canadiens would have seven wingers in the fold to start the season with Caufield, Anderson, Slafkovsky, Gallagher, Gurianov, Hoffman and Farrell. With four lines and two extra forwards on the roster, that leaves room for three more players. Those vying for positions include Joel Armia, Rem Pitlick, Jesse Ylonen, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Michael Pezzetta and Alex Belzile (who is a pending UFA).
Armia seems untradeable at the moment and with Hughes stated aversion to buyouts, he seems to be a candidate for one of the three remaining positions. After that it quickly becomes obvious that some player movement is likely to occur. Belzile may choose to pursue his options elsewhere but that still leaves four players for two positions and it is hard to believe that Hughes will be willing to lose these players on waivers.
Those who do earn a position on the team next year will be due to their performance over the remainder of the season, their performance in training camp, their attitude and a reflection of what kind of team Hughes wants to build.
An Evolving Team
The Canadiens are in the middle stages of their evolution. A lot has changed since their Stanley Cup Final appearance and more changes will be made before training camp begins. The excess of bodies (not necessarily talent) dictates that. And the team that begins the season in October next year will differ from the team that finishes the 2023-24 season.
While we all would like to see instantaneous results, we must understand that circumstances dictate what changes need to be made over time and sometimes adjustments need to be made as unforeseen circumstances occur.
Among the veterans, Drouin, Hoffman and Edmundson are unlikely to be with the Canadiens next April and may not even start the season with the team. Any return the Habs may get in return could have an immediate domino effect or it could be a more delayed effect if the return was in the form of draft picks or prospects.
The excess of bottom six players who must now pass through waivers points to a trade or two that may include one or more of them as a sweetener in a deal. Players like Mattias Norlinder and Gianni Fairbrother also seem to have their paths to the NHL blocked by young players already on the Habs roster. They are also being pushed by less experienced players like William Trudeau and Jayden Struble. This is another situation where an excess of players could see someone included in a deal as a sweetener or in a trade for later round picks.
A Clearer Picture
A lot of what Kent Hughes does over the summer could be impacted by the draft and we will have a better idea of how that will unfold with the draft lottery. The addition of a Bedard or Fantilli, for example, could radically change how Hughes would build out the center position on the Habs… and yes, I am thinking of the Pierre-Luc Dubois situation.
After the draft lottery, the next big event is the draft itself. It’s not unreasonable to believe that Hughes will pursue another big trade in the mold of the Dach trade or the Matheson trade (or both). In fact, he will probably be disappointed if he can’t make one big trade splash at the draft table.
As a general manager who has stated his desire to make player moves and to put his stamp more indelibly on the Canadiens, Kent Hughes has a lot to work with and a lot of decisions to make. These are a few of the more obvious situations that could occur but the possibilities are endless.
There is a lot to look forward to for fans of the Montreal Canadiens.