By Bob Trask – As the Montreal Canadiens prepare to embark on another NHL season, fans are looking forward to what the team might look like. Last season was a disaster as far as the standings go but it did allow Montreal to move up to top spot in the amateur draft. It also gave General Manager Kent Hughes the freedom to make some significant moves. The Habs couldn’t finish lower in the standings in 2022-23 so there was little to be gained by hanging on to veterans – particularly those who were up for new contract or who wanted out of Montreal.
While there are undoubtedly more moves to be made, we can compare the current roster of this year’s team to that of last season. This review does not take into account any potential trades or free agent acquisitions.
If Carey Price does not return, the Canadiens have the same starting tandem as last year with Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault. While this duo might not intimindate opposing snipers, at least the Canadiens won’t have to look for a last minute replacement who is suddenly asked to fill an unexpecte role.
Cayden Primeau should be much more prepared than last year in the event he needs to be recalled and a return of a healthy Carey Price would be a huge boost.
Outlook: Even without Carey Price the goaltending situation should be break even to moderately better
For the sake of this comparison, Joel Edmundson replaces Ben Chiarot even though both were on the roster at various times last year. Mike Matheson steps in for Alex Romanov, Corey Schueneman takes Brett Kulak’s spot while Jordan Harris replaces Kale Clague.
Edmundson seems more solid defensively than Chiarot, Matheson provides more offense than Romanov but lacks the physical play while, for me, Schueneman vs Kulak is a saw-off. Harris in a clear improvement over Clague.
Outlook: The left side of the Canadiens defense looks like it has the potential for more offense than last year’s group. They do give up something in the physical play department but at times, both Chiarot and Romanov were caught trying to do too much. Look for a modest improvement that could be a substantial improvement if Harris and Kaiden Guhle prove they are ready for the NHL
David Savard and Chris Wideman return to the right side and, at the moment, Justin Barron is the leading candidate for the open position on RD.
Barron cannot be expected to play at the level that Petry did for the last half of the season but he can easily play as well as Petry did during the first half of the season. That makes it a tough comparison. If the Canadiens can somewhat shelter Barron’s minutes and allow him to develop, the team may not have taken as big a step backward as first appears.
Outlook: Over the course of a full season the right side of the Canadiens’ defense, as it now stands, is not as good as last year. A player with the skating ability of Jordan Harris may be able to flip from side to side, sometimes spelling off Schueneman and sometimes spelling off Barron with all three playing about the same amount of games over the season. Otto Leskinen could also be a candidate to fill that role.
Nick Suzuki, Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans are all signed for next year while recent addition, Kirby Dach, pencils in as Ryan Poehling’s replacement.
Suzuki should continue to improve, Dvorak was playing well at season’s end after a rough start and Jake Evans has been steady. Dach has the potential to be an improvement over Poehling.
Outlook: Depending on how well Dach can perform the Canadiens should be stronger up the middle than they were last year. Depth, in the event of injury, remains thin but Rem Pitick filled in there from time to time last year.
Cole Caufield had success at LW last year and because that is on Nick Suzuki’s strong side it is not unreasonable to expect him to play there again this year. All of the other LWs are returning except Artturi Lehkonen.
One wildcard is Jonathan Drouin. After Caufield he was the top point producer on the left side measured by point per game but his season, like many others, was impacted by a terrible start under Dominic Ducharme and ended with a wrist injury. A healthy Drouin could thrive under the tutelage of Martin St. Louis.
Hoffman, Pitlick, Pezzetta and Byron should all be able to equal their respective performances from last year, which brings us to Lehkonen. It’s a huge hole to fill but there is a huge prospect waiting for the opportunity. His name is Juraj Slafkovsky.
Outlook: While one or more of these players seem likely to be moved out, it’s hard not be optimistic about the LW position for the upcoming season. Organizational depth includes Emil Heineman and Rafael Harvey Pinard. This, along with LD, could be the deepest position on the team.
Returnees include Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia, all of whom disappointed at various points during the season. Evegeni Dadonov steps in for Tyler Toffoli while Jesse Ylonen is waiting in the wings.
Surely Anderson, Gallagher and Armia can bring more than they showed last year while Dadonov may fit in better than Toffoli with the up-tempo style preferred by St Louis. Ylonen seems to have the exact skill set that the Canadiens are looking for – terrific skating, great vision and hockey sense, an excellent shot and defensively responsible play. But it hasn’t shown up on the score sheet to any great extent, even at the AHL level.
Outlook: The right wing position on the Canadiens should be better than last year if for no other reason than it couldn’t be as bad. If Dadonov can find some chemistry with his new line mates and Ylonen can prove he deserves to play, right wing should be significantly better and faster than last year.
Every team needs depth to cover for the inevitable injuries or illnesses that strike a team every year. Gone from last year are Laurent Dauphin, Mathieu Perreault, Cedric Paquette, Tyler Pitlick and Sami Niku. Potential replacements are Nate Schnarr, Emil Heineman, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Joel Teasdale and Kaiden Guhle.
Other potential candidates include Madison Bowey, Arber Xhekaj, Gianni Fairbrother, Mitchell Stephens, Alex Belzile and Anthony Richard. Cayden Primeau returns as the first call-up candidate in goal.
Outlook: The candidates for deph positions the Canadiens appears to be solid and well… deep.
Going into the season the Canadiens look to be stronger or more settled at every position other than right defense. Given the lack of talent available at that position it seems unlikely that a full replacement for Jeff Petry will be found.
The good news is that the team is younger than they were at the start of last season and should improve rather than regress over time. Habs fans are likely to see effort and enthusiasm along with mistakes that the coaching staff can use as teaching points rather than as a reason to punish their young charges.
Keep an eye on those positions where the team has an excess of talent (left wing) and those positions where the roster is thin on talent or agent (right defense and right wing) for potential roster moves.
As training camp approaches there will undoubtedly by more personnel moves that will change this comparison – perhaps dramatically. Whatever happens, there is a lot to be excited about.