It’s been my contention that the Canadiens do not need a multi-year rebuild as this season has been an anomaly due to the significant injuries. In a parity-driven league, you can get back into the playoff hunt in a hurry, especially when you will be adding significant veterans back into the lineup like Joel Edmundson and Carey Price, who were arguably two of the club’s top five contributors in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup final.
The recent rants by Jeff Petry’s wife, his even more indifferent play, and the indication that new GM Kent Hughes is open to dealing Petry have made me reconsider my stance. Perhaps this needs to be an earnest two-year rebuild, and Petry needs to be moved out along with a few more veterans over the next 18 months. Petry’s pouting is not doing Montreal’s young talent any good. They need to be surrounded by veterans who will bleed for the bleu, blanc et rouge. No passengers on this train. If you’re going to lose, do so with effort and pride. Petry is doing neither.
The top four prospects for next year’s draft look all look like franchise players. That is not the case for this year’s draft, where even the leading candidate to go number one – Shane Wright – has struggled mightily to meet expectations.
I recently scouted the USNTDP U-18 team, and was blown away by Charlie Stramel. Few players have reminded me of Eric Lindros through the years, but this kid is certainly in that stratosphere. He’s already 6-3 and can already run through or around older opponents. Add him to the already highly-touted Matvei Michkov, Conor Bedard and Adam Fantilli, and you have a fearsome foursome that every NHL club would love to have in its system.
Even the second-tier of 2023 prospects looks to be as good or better than the top five in this draft. Dalibor Dvorsky, Quentin Musty, Brayden Yager and Zach Benson are putting up eye-popping numbers despite being just 16 years of age. It would be a shame if Montreal couldn’t eventually time having a top-five pick with making the selection in a strong draft class. Such was not the case with Alex Galchenyuk and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and history is looking like it will repeat itself in 2022.
Montreal’s major malfunction in the past 40 years has been an inability to draft and develop elite first-line forwards. It’s been five decades since the club drafted Steve Shutt. He and Lafleur were the last Habs to lead the NHL in goal scoring. Mats Naslund was the last player drafted by the Canadiens who finished top-ten in NHL scoring, and that was 35 years ago.
Nothing will ever equal the excitement of watching Montreal win all of those Cups in the 1970s but a close second for me as a child was following the scoring exploits of Lafleur, Pete Mahovlich, Shutt and Jacques Lemaire. What a thrill it was to open up the sports section of a newspaper and see several Canadiens in the top ten in league scoring in any given year, often right at the very top. Two or three generations of young Canadiens’ fans have grown up never experiencing that thrill, and for the league’s most storied franchise, that is a sporting tragedy.
The folly in this two-year “plan”, of course, is that you can never predict how well a team will or will not do. Montreal isn’t going to trade its key young players because it’s the best way of being dead last again and getting one of those potential franchise forwards in 2023, but there can be the purging of several key veterans.
What Hughes and Gorton can do is trade some desired veterans and go through one more season of growing pains, as difficult as it is to see the NHL’s most successful-ever franchise wallowing at the bottom of the league. I had resisted that plan including Petry up until now but if he wants out and is dealt; I have a difficult time seeing this club getting back into contention by next season given the glaring holes the club will have on right defence with the departure of Petry and likely retirement of captain Shea Weber.
Hughes isn’t going to keep Ducharme for another year if he thinks he’s his best bet to finish in the bottom five again next season – one more year of his “mentoring” could do irreversible harm to the club’s young core. We saw what a culture of losing in Buffalo did – the club kept losing for a decade despite adding a plethora of top-ten picks. Promising talent regressed, and many were moved for diminishing returns and the club has still not become a contender.
What the club can do, however, is something similar to what GM Bill Armstrong is doing in Arizona; just not quite to the same extent, as Montreal already has a wealth of good young players and prospects in the system. Hire a new coach in the offseason who is great at teaching young players and be patient with him for a year as the club accumulates a bounty of high draft picks and young players.
If the club trades Petry, Ben Chiarot and some of the veteran forwards at the deadline and then unloads a few more after the season and before next year’s trade deadline, odds are pretty decent that even with Price and Edmundson back next season that the club will finish in the bottom part of the standings. Promising young players like this year’s top pick, Kaiden Guhle, Jesse Ylonen, Jordan Harris (if he signs) and a host of other recent high picks may be able to crack the roster at some point next season and contribute but they could be at least a year away from being impactful NHL players.
When it first seriously crossed my mind a few days ago that Petry might get dealt before the first day of spring, I took a look at the contending team’s rosters to see if any of them might have promising young right defencemen they’d be willing to part with along with a draft pick or two in exchange for Petry. I saw none. It’s unlikely that a contender would make a sideways move in obtaining Petry. There’s little use in trading a defenceman who is a decade younger who is likely playing even better than Petry is right now.
What contending clubs would be more willing to do, however, is trade a recently-drafted right defenceman who isn’t currently in the NHL and a draft pick for Petry to take a run at a championship. Such a trade would mean that the Canadiens would be at least a year away from having a right defence group that would help Montreal get back into contention. Logan Mailloux looks like a future impact NHLer but he is going to be at least 20 months away from making any sort of a difference. Mattias Norlinder, Harris, Gianni Fairbrother, and Alex Romanov have all played effectively on the right side in the past and perhaps they could make the adjustment at the NHL level to playing on their opposite sides but it would take time for them to adjust and be difference makers.
As much as it would pain me to see Brendan Gallagher dealt to another team; if (and only if) Hughes receives the right offer, he has to seriously consider moving the heart-and-soul player as well. For all that he brings to the team and organization; the fact remains that he is heading into his 30’s, is injury prone, eats up a lot of salary, and has scored just 13 goals and 31 points in 71 career playoff games. Very few undersized players produce substantially at playoff time when the whistles get put away and mugging becomes legal. As hard as he tries even at playoff time; Gallagher is simply not able to produce at the level he can in the regular season.
There are clubs that will surrender a lot for Gallagher despite those drawbacks. He is considered the quintessential hard-working 5-9 NHL forward. You can’t properly assess a player’s heart and character with numbers, and there will be several GMs interested in trading for him if he becomes available. If a club offers the Canadiens a first-round pick and one or two promising young players, it will be hard for Hughes to pass given the state of the franchise. Hughes isn’t as tied emotionally to Gallagher as Marc Bergevin was; you had the feeling when Bergy cried at Gallagher’s re-signing press conference that he would never have traded him.
Dealing Chiarot, Mike Hoffman, Petry, Gallagher and a couple of other veterans (hopefully Joel Armia among them) by the trade deadline would not lead to years of futility. One more year of growing pains – yes; but there would be simply too much young talent in the system by the end of the 2023 draft not to be on the upswing by the fall of 2023.
I think most Canadiens fans would be on board with icing a young club next season that is in most games but not quite ready to win on a regular basis, especially with the end result being that they have a crack at adding a franchise prospect in the 2023 draft. A team with a coach who plays his young talent and is comfortable in knowing that he will be allowed at least one season of finishing near the bottom of the standings without fear of losing his job. Bring in a coach that is part of a promising future; not the captain of a treadmill. Get rid of the veterans who want out; go with a younger lineup like Ottawa is doing, and give the fanbase real hope for the future.
All of this can be achieved without dealing Carey Price I think, as he is still the key to having tangible success in the next five years if he can rebound from his knee injury.
Price has “only” played 707 NHL games in his NHL career. When it comes to elite goalies..he is basically in the middle of his prime, and should have plenty of tread left on the tires. Martin Brodeur played 1266 regular-season NHL games, and it was only in the last 40 or so that he showed any signs of slowing down. Patrick Roy played six more seasons after reaching 700 games played, and was never below .913 in save percentage while winning a Stanley Cup and reaching two more finals in those six seasons.
I see Price as having five to seven more premier seasons left, and I believe that within two years he can be part of a formidable team in Montreal. What Hughes and Gorton need to do is to sit down with him and map out their strategy. Explain to him that the club is aiming for 2023-24 to contend again, and explain why…and how…that can happen. If he bristles at the plan and says he wants out; then you look at dealing him at some point over the next 13 months. Obviously, clubs aren’t going to line up to trade for him this year as he may not even play again this year. Even if he is fully recovered by next fall’s training camp, the club should hang onto him.
Carey is a pretty bright guy – I think he realizes that the Canadiens won’t be contenders next season regardless and that one more year of a rebuild is what best serves the club. If he is sincere in his public statements saying he wants to stay, then he’ll be on board for such a plan – and just like the fans and Montreal’s management team and owner, be accepting of one more year of not winning – for the greater good.
Montreal can add two wingers, a center and a right defenceman with top-line upside over the next two drafts, perhaps more. Combine that with the young pieces already on the team and the promising prospects in the system, and there will be no reason to be calling for a three or four-year rebuild. After this draft, few if any teams will have picked more in the top three rounds of the draft than Montreal over the past four years.
Kemell/Wright and the top four players selected in the 2023 draft will all make impacts to some degree in 2023-24 at the NHL level. That is the projection in the scouting world, and it is a realistic one. If Montreal gets one of those four stud prospects in 2023, you can be rellatively certain that he makes the club that fall. Between Guhle, Norlinder, Fairbrother, Harris, Struble and Mailloux…it is difficult not to envision at least two of them making significant contributions at the NHL level by the time 2024 rolls around. There is simply too much talent and upside in that group not for two or more of them to be helping the club, and filling the long-awaited void for puck-moving defencemen.
Someone on Twitter suggested to me that there is no way Montreal could contend in the division any time soon given that Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida are so good. I disagree; especially when it comes to Boston.
Boston, Toronto and Tampa have not been restocking the prospect cupboard very well in recent years and it will eventually catch up to all three in the salary-cap world. By 2024, Patrice Bergeron will be 38, Brad Marchand 35, John Tavares 33, Steven Stamkos 34, Victor Hedman 33. All are keys to their teams’ success, and all will be on at least partial decline sooner rather than later, with the possible exception of Hedman.
Florida’s window to win may also not be as wide as some presume. Huberdeau’s contract is up after next season and Barkov’s cap hit in 2022-23 will go from $5.9M to $10M. Ottawa, Detroit, Buffalo and Montreal will all have loads of young talent on ELC’s that will help make them highly competitive by 2024, and I would be quite surprised if there isn’t a changing of the guard at the top of the division by 2024-2025 at the latest.
One concern is that Gorton and Hughes are not making any moves yet. Since Gorton joined the club on Nov. 28, the only roster moves he has made are picking up two fringe NHLers on waivers in Kale Clague and Rem Pitlick. The last thing this club needs is to be left holding the bag on Trade Deadline Day.
Right now there are three divisions that are pretty much already decided. The eighth-place team in the eastern conference is 11 games over .500. the ninth-place team – Detroit – has the same number of wins as losses.
What this means is that there are going to be a ton of sellers at the trade deadline, and history has shown that clubs looking to sell can only deal so many in the last couple of days before the deadline. There will only be so many buyers, and once they’ve found what they need; they won’t trade for more players just for the sake of trading. Contending teams only have so much cap room, and so many needs.
Hughes needs to start communicating in earnest with all of those GMs he has built relationships with over his many years as a player agent, and this 18-month rebuild needs to start yesterday.
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