By Bob Trask – Nobody in the hockey world expects the Montreal Canadiens to be Stanley Cup contenders this season – or even next season – because there are some pieces missing that a true contender needs. The job of the general manager is to find those missing pieces and add them to the team so the coach can plug them into the lineup and make the team more competitive.
Everyone has a different idea on how to construct a hockey club and every wish list will be somewhat different. The kind of team Kent Hughes is trying to build, for example, is far different from the one that Marc Bergevin put together. Both approaches can be successful but the way in which any success is achieved will look very different.
Another example of different approaches is the difference between the roster of the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa has relied heavily on elite goaltending and a big bruising defense in the last three playoffs; Colorado’s goaltending may have been slightly above average but not outstanding, while their defense relied more on speed and skill.
So what will the Canadiens look like under Hughes and what pieces will he need to add in order to be successful?
There aren’t many Andrei Vasilevskiy’s or Carey Price’s in the world so it seems doubtful that Hughes will be able to build a team around elite goaltending. When other teams see Colorado succeeding with somewhat average goaltending, it may be a model they will try to emulate. Devoting too many financial assets to the goaltending position can hamstring a GM when trying to build out the supporting cast.
Verdict: Jake Allen is good enough to be the 1A or 1B goaltender on a contending team but the Canadiens need someone equally skilled to share the puck stopping duties with him. It could be Cayden Primeau as early as next year but if not, the Canadiens need to add a netminder with a career average SV% of at least .915 – not superstar territory but still solid.
With Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson in place along with a host of blue chip prospects in the organization, there isn’t a blatant need on left defense for the Canadiens.
Verdict: If everyone can stay healthy, there are no missing pieces here. It will be a matter of choosing the best candidate from the pool of existing talent for the 3rd pairing position. In fact, the surplus of talent here could be used to acquire talent that fills needs in other places.
Right defense looks questionable. David Savard and Chris Wideman are second or third pairing defenseman at best and may be better suited to third pairing and seventh defensemen roles on a contender. At 20 years old, Justin Barron is young and can’t be expected to shoulder too much of the load. If he does, it is a bonus but there is still a clear need for a minute-eater on right defense.
Verdict: Until the prospects in the pipeline are ready to contribute significantly or unless a left shot defenseman already in the organization can effectively transition to the right side, this position remains a question mark for the Canadiens. The free agents’ market and the PTO route are possibilities to address this shortcoming in the near term but players available would likely be only stop-gap solutions and unlikely to push the Canadiens into true contender category.
The potential at center for the Canadiens is mouth-watering but unless they reach that potential the position remains a question mark. Optimists will point to Sean Monahan as a potential #1 center, the size and skill of Kirby Dach, the strong play of Christian Dvorak in the last half of the year, the Swiss army knife skills of Jake Evans and the consistent solid performance of new team captain, Nick Suzuki. Pessimists will point to the individual shortcomings of this group of five.
Verdict: The jury is out on whether there is a missing piece at center for the Canadiens or whether each of these player will find their stride and play to their potential. At this point it could go either way but the talent is certainly there and a move to beef up the center ice position in order to become a contender seems unlikely.
The Canadiens have a good problem at LW because they have too many left wingers, particularly if Slafkovsky makes the team and Caufield remains on the left side. Hoffman, Drouin, Pitlick and Pezzetta all played for the Canadiens last year while Emil Heineman and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard look to be knocking on the door. That is eight bodies for four or five positions with two of those (Slafkovsky and Caufield) having elite potential.
Verdict: The Canadiens do not need to add any left wingers to compete for jobs at the NHL level and may even try to trade a veteran in order to open up an opportunity for a young prospect while acquiring a player who fills a need in another area.
Right wing is not as deep for the Canadiens as LW but with Josh Anderson, Evgenii Dadonov, Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia available there is no glaring need. In addition, Jesse Ylönen is waiting for his opportunity to crack the lineup. This group is unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of many goaltenders and there is no true sniper on the right side but it is serviceable. In order to become a true contender, the team will need to add some scoring punch on the right side and Dadonov is likely to be gone by year end.
Verdict: The Canadiens could use a modest upgrade on RW from an offensive point of view and Filip Mesar may eventually prove to be that player. Until then, this workman-like group can provide the Canadiens with solid two-way play that can help the Habs remain competitive until the bright young offensive prospects are ready to join the team and transform them from competitors to a contender.
If everyone played to their potential and excess talent in one position (LW) could be used to address deficits in a weaker position (RD), the Canadiens may not be as far away from playoff contention as many believe. Hughes’ other big asset is his prospect pool. The glut of talent among prospects on left defense, for example, could give him an opportunity to re-balance his prospect pool or use a prospect as a sweetener in a trade, much like he did with Ryan Poehling. With another draft ten months away – the Canadiens have 11 more picks – and limited contracts available, don’t discount the possibility of prospects being included in trades.
Of course, some player will exceed expectations and some will disappoint but if the pieces fall into place, a quality acquisition on right defense may be all the Canadiens need to become competitive this year. Not a contender. but competitive. Yes, an elite goaltender would be nice to have but Colorado proved that it wasn’t imperative to succeed. If that is followed up by solid development among the young players already on the team along with the prospects in the organization, the turnaround from a last place finish to a legitimate contender could occur as soon as the 2023-24 season.
There may not be as many missing pieces as you would expect in a team that finished at the bottom of the league last year. My glass is still half-full.