“It’s opening night at the Bell Centre for the Montreal Canadiens, and reigning Selke Trophy winner Nick Suzuki is in the faceoff circle for Montreal getting ready to launch the 2022-23 season. Eighty-point scorer Jonathan Drouin is to his left and Josh Anderson flanks him to the right. Back on the blueline are the ageless Shea Weber and Alex Romanov, with Carey Price in nets. I’m Dan Robertson and alongside me is Brian Wilde getting set to bring you another exciting season of Montreal Canadiens’ hockey.”
Okay; perhaps the Selke Trophy for Suzuki and 80 points from Drouin by 2022-23 are unrealistic, and Brian Wilde being in the broadcast booth is highly improbable seeing that Sergio Momesso is a terrific colour analyst…but it’s always fun looking ahead, and trying to predict what the Canadiens’ lineup may look like two years from now.
Pundits and fans alike have been predicting the erosion of Weber’s hockey skills for the past few years. In fact; ever since his one poor playoff series versus San Jose back in 2015-16 while he was still in Nashville, many have been insisting that he is slowing down.
Well here’s a newsflash – Weber was never fast. And no…he’s not slowing down; not yet at least.
Weber is part of that breed of elite defenceman that has stayed highly effective throughout his 30’s so far because of everything else he brings to a team besides speed. Like many defenders who are past their primes when it comes to optimum skating speed, Weber relies on experience, elite hockey sense and anticipation to angle off opponents.
Even more importantly; athletes don’t lose their strength in their 30’s, and Weber is still one of the strongest players in the league. When he pushes a player who is trying to beat him to the outside, they move. You can count on one hand the number of times a player is still able to drive to the net if Weber gets one of his Man Mountain paws on him.
I also see Romanov and Weber complementing each other. Romanov is an elite skater that already has top-notch gap control. He’ll be able to back up Weber when opponents get in behind him and he’s not able to catch them. Similarly, Weber will back up Romanov when he flattens a much larger opponent who comes looking for him with fists clenched. That’s going to happen given Romanov’s proclivity for bodychecking.
A line of Drouin, Anderson and Suzuki seems like an ideal combination. Many are anticipating those three playing on a line this season, and given that Suzuki is not about to lose his smarts and Anderson won’t lose his speed or strength over the next two seasons, they have the makings of a trio that could stay together for the foreseeable future. That is, of course if Drouin can maintain the consistency he showed at the start of last season before being derailed by injury, and they all remain healthy.
That could well be the starting six for the Canadiens on opening night in 2022-23, but what about the rest of the roster?
Here is a projection of what the depth chart may look like to start the 2022-23 season without including any players that may be acquired in trades or through free agency.
*2021 draft picks
I have Noah Juulsen and Joni Ikonen listed at the bottom as they are injury wildcards. This will obviously be pivotal years for both. If they can remain healthy and progress as they were once slated to progress, then they may still have futures in the NHL. Montreal will have a decision to make in training camp with Juulsen. If he is placed on waivers another team may pick him up if they are thin in the bottom pairing. I’m not sure a team would take a chance on grabbing him considering he hasn’t played much in the past two years. He likely would only be a spare defenceman, and that’s the last thing he needs right now…to sit out more games.
So he likely goes to Laval and has one last opportunity to show the club he can earn a regular spot on Montreal’s defence by 2021-22 training camp. If you asked me today who has the most NHL upside between Fleury, Brook and Juulsen…I would still lean towards Juulsen if injuries haven’t permanently hindered his development. Put him very much in the TBD category.
The biggest addition to Montreal’s top six by 2022-23 could well be Caufield, and having him on a line with two forwards in Toffoli and Kotkaniemi that don’t mind battling for pucks would free Caufield up to go to the scoring areas, where he is “mint”. That future trio has the potential to score a ton of goals if there’s chemistry, and Caufield and Kotkaniemi bloom as expected.
Kotkaniemi’s vision and playmaking abilities have yet to be fully utilized playing with wingers who aren’t known for their sniping abilities. Caufield and Toffoli one-timing shots instead of Paul Byron, Joel Armia or Artturi Lehkonen will see KK’s assist totals rise quickly and dramatically. I would not be surprised to see those three together at some point in the 2021-22 season.
If Caufield isn’t ready to assume a top-six position, there are two viable options on the right side of KK in Toffoli and Brendan Gallagher. Jesse Ylonen will be a wildcard in the mix. It’s not beyond the possibility that he’s one of KK’s wingers at some point in the year 2022; there is certainly no shortage of talent in the young Finn.
The big omissions in this projected lineup would be Tomas Tatar, Chiarot, Victor Mete and Phil Danault. Chiarot’s contract is up after the 2021-22 season if he’s not lost in the expansion draft, and at that point the Canadiens will likely be looking to sign Nick Suzuki to a rather enormous contract if he keeps developing the way most expect.
The “in thing” right now for NHL teams is to sign highly coveted players after their ELC’s expire to long-term deals at a big ticket so that they don’t have to worry about them walking away as UFA’s at the age of 26. If Suzuki is Montreal’s first-line center after the 2021-22 season and he’s already eclipsed 60 or even 70 points, the Canadiens are likely going to have to sign him to a deal that is for 7-8 years in the $54M-$60M range.
Kotkaniemi’s ELC will expire after this season, and if he hits the 50-point plateau? Montreal will want to sign him long-term…but it’s gonna cost them if they do….likely at least $6M per season, and likely even more.
That may well leave Bergevin in a cash crunch unless Tatar and Danault are dealt, or allowed to go to free agency. Tatar is the most likely of the two not to be signed, and he could well be dealt before the 2021 trade deadline.
I would not be surprised if Bergevin were to re-sign Danault at some point this season, but then trade him before Suzuki’s ELC contract is up at the end of the 2022 season. You would suspect that there would be at least one more name on the roster that hasn’t been mentioned if Tatar and Danault are both gone before the 2022-23 season.
How the roster looks in two years will depend a lot on what KK and Suzuki achieve over the next two seasons. If they keep developing as expected, and the salary cap remains relatively stagnant because of COVID, there may well not be enough money to go around, and Chiarot, Tatar and Danault would be casualties if Chiarot is still with the team and not a victim of the expansion draft.
Bergevin has a history of not letting players walk for nothing. He’s a firm believer in asset collecting, and that’s why he rarely lets a player get to free agency. In Chiarot’s case, however, he may have little choice come the trade deadline in February of 2022 if he’s still a Hab. I would suspect that the Canadiens are going to be in the playoff race at that time, and trading Chiarot when there may not be anyone quite ready to replace him would make little sense for a team hoping to make a long run in the playoffs.
Guhle likely is still playing junior hockey two springs from now. Harris will probably play all four years in Northeastern. Struble also needs another two years in college given how much time he’s missed with injuries and the fact that he only turned 19 in September. Norlinder is not likely to be ready to be ready to replace a Chiarot at that point either as he’s likely playing his final year in Sweden, or simply not ready.
The other option at the 2022 trade deadline if there is one of the above-mentioned left defencemen who is playing pro and deemed ready, and Chiarot and Edmundson are still on the club, would be to deal Edmundson so that no defenceman is lost for nothing.
Ryan Poehling seems to be the player fans have most written off after his disappointing campaign, but the second-year pro has time on his hands. His next contract won’t be nearly as costly as Danault’s, and if he shows any signs over the next year of developing into the player the club still thinks he can be, Danault is the best bet to be the forward to be traded after Tatar and Byron.
Poehling centering Gallagher and Ylonen in a couple of years would offer a nice mixture of talent. Gallagher can play with anyone and factor a hockey game, Poehling has the puck possession skills and vision to drive that line’s offence, and Ylonen’s speed and shot add up to goals.
No more trying to win 2-1 every night with those top-nine forwards if the kids develop – that group could well be capable of matching goal totals with most NHL teams.
This will be the season when the Canadiens determine if Jake Evans is an NHL regular. He’s most likely to be given an opportunity to win the fourth center spot out of camp, and his all-around play and defensive IQ could make him one of the more effective fourth-line centers in the league. He is attractive as well because he is going to be on a cheap contract.
Evans centering a line with Armia and Lehkonen has the potential to outscore lines it is matched up against, and that’s not something that could have been said about any of the fourth lines the club has iced in recent years. All three are capable of hitting double digits in goals; Lehkonen and Armia have both hit the 15-goal mark.
Brook, Juulsen and Fleury all face pivotal years in their quests to become regulars in the Canadiens’ lineup. There is a spot open on the right side, and whichever one of the three comes out on top, he will have an opportunity to grow into a top-four role on the club as Petry and Weber slow down. We like to always look at the newcomers and presume that they’ll be better…but it wasn’t that long ago that Juulsen was considered the best prospect on Canadiens.
Perhaps it isn’t written in stone that one of the left defencemen in the system ends up winning a job on the right side down the road over all three young right defencemen. They are all capable of playing in the NHL, and perhaps even in a top-four role if it’s not in Montreal. Bergevin is going to have several trade chips over the next couple of years.
And that, of course, is the big unknown. What players will be added to the 23-man roster mix over the next couple of seasons. Will the club’s first pick in the 2021 draft, presuming they keep it, be knocking on the door in the fall of 2022?
Will Guhle be more ready than Norlinder, Struble and Harris to win a spot on left defence at the 2022-23 training camp? That is an unanswerable question at this time, but I have a feeling he will, given his style of play. Perhaps expecting him to step into a top-four role by 2022 is being too optimistic, but I see Petry as the ideal partner for Guhle, and a better partner for him to transition into the pro game than Juulsen, Brook or Fleury. I think Guhle is a top-four NHL defenceman at some point in 2023 if he’s not at the start of the the 2022-23 campaign.
Regardless of who it is holding down the third spot on left defence, the expectation will be that at least one of the promising left defence prospects not named Romanov will secure a regular spot on the blueline in 2022-23. My money is on Guhle, but it’s a tiny wager. I see Mete moving on to another organization at some point this season or becoming a mainstay on the Laval blueline along with Xavier Ouellet.
The “2021” at the bottom of the defence and forward depth charts represents 2021 draft picks. The Canadiens are slated to have six more selections in the top three rounds, and at least three will be ready to step into pro hockey at some point over the next three seasons and compete for NHL positions by 2024.
Bergevin may even add some more top-60 picks by next draft given the glut of NHL-calibre players he is going to face in the next 12 months as he tries to keep the club under the cap….finally. All in all; it adds up to a bright future in Montreal – the depth chart is the deepest it has been in decades.
The Canadiens will likely protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie for Seattle’s expansion draft next summer. I don’t see them protecting only four forwards. KK, Suzuki, Poehling and Romanov will all be exempt. Here are the players Bergevin is most likely to protect if the roster is the same with the exception of Tatar moving on:
Byron, Jake Allen and Chiarot would be the most likely candidates to be selected in the expansion draft unless Bergevin deals Edmundson by the trade deadline. Chiarot is more likely to be left unprotected because he would only have a year left on his deal while Edmundson would have three. A lot will depend on how both perform this season. I think the club would protect Lehkonen over Byron due to the age difference. Lehkonen always seems to step up in the playoffs, and the club intends on going playing some playoff games over the next five years.
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