Back to the Rebuild!?!

Slow start

Even before Price announced missing the beginning of the season, the Montreal Canadiens were not widely expected to have a good start to the 2021-22 season. Pre-season weakness strengthened this conviction. The bad start is partly because the team had less than a couple of months to recover from their Stanley Cup journey; an abnormally short period of time. And evidently outside of the coaches and managements' control, unless people want to criticize the Stanley Cup run?

Short recovery aside, many did not see the Habs making the playoffs this year.

The reasons were the loss of Shea Weber, Danault, Kotkaniemi, and to a lesser extent two other pieces of the playoff run are also gone, Perry and Staal, who played their hearts out but who would not have contributed at the same level during an 82-game season this year. And the temporary absences of Price, Byron and Edmundson does not help either.

Whereas it can be argued one of Danault or KK was replaced by Dvorak, there has been no equivalent replacement for the Captain. This leaves the Canadiens with a big (literally) leadership void, a weaker defense and a lack of depth at centre. Not a great combination for a team that barely made the playoffs in the Canadian league. Disappointingly, none of the non-NHL prospects managed to improve enough to make a push for the team, at least yet.

But the only real management misstep in my opinion, and it was a big one, was the loss of Kotkaniemi. While some associate this with the revengeful hostile offer sheet, this scenario would have never happened if last year had been KK’s rookie season. Instead, he would have another two years of the entry level contract to play. The poor development path and loss of the 6-foot 2-inch 200+ pounder is a huge blow that sets back the rebuild at center position by a few years.

Why tank if all the rewards are quickly lost?

When Marc Bergevin first became GM there were little to no prospects to be realistically excited about in the Hab’s organization. 2012 was one of the weakest draft years, good regular season finishes afterwards meant Montreal drafted late, and the injury bug seemed to be a recurring theme. The team has had difficulty finding consistent success because it has been unable to add elite players.

Unfortunately, benefits for the Hab’s poor finishes of the last decade - Galchenyuk (3rd in 2012), Sergachev (9th in 2016) and KK (3rd in 2018) - appear wasted to some extent.

Therefore, after the loss of Kotkaniemi and because of this current and already seemingly disastrous season, another good draft year in 2022 becomes a necessity. Hopefully everything is made right with Shane Wright!* [*Please, even if they are a generational talent let them develop psychologically and physically for at least another year before throwing them into the NHL!]

Montreal is hosting the draft so maybe the hockey gods will smile on the Habs with the lotto win. Otherwise, even a top-4 pick would be very beneficial to the team because there should be a couple of good centers to choose from. [Remembering that any finish outside of the bottom 10, the 1st rounder goes to Arizona]. Add a high 2nd rounder and ‘four’ 3rd round picks, Montreal hopefully comes out of the 2022 draft with at least an elite player or two.

And for all anti-tankers, consider Montreal has been in a ‘rebuild phase’ for the last five years and yet still rewarded fans with a nice run to the Stanley Cup final! Things happen in mysterious ways.

However, as bad as things appear now, the Montreal Canadiens future is a bit brighter at this point than it was a decade ago. Because of the recent rebuild efforts, there are several notable prospects and young professional players who will contribute to the team’s success.

The future of Hab’s left defense, in particular, looks strong with Guhle, Romanov and Struble as the potential 1-2-3 pairing down the road. Any other LD prospect who develops into NHL caliber, like Jordan Harris for example, will either challenge the others for a position, add depth, or become an interesting trade piece to fill other holes in the line-up.

The right D is more of a question mark, but Josh Brook continued to improve last year (2nd in points for D in Laval and +9) and hopefully is ready to make his mark at the NHL level within a couple of years. Norlinder, an offensively talented player, remains an interesting prospect who should hopefully be in the lineup soon as well.

What should be noticeable is that of the five future Hab’s defenseman mentioned, only Romanov is currently in the NHL. Defense is what wins championships, but it normally takes 3 to 4 years for any D-man to improve relative to their NHL peers. Even with the addition of more experience via free agency or a trade, Montreal is at least a few years away from becoming a top defensive team.

Weak again at Center

The bigger immediate problem that has returned is the center position. It is particularly weak relative to other NHL teams this year. It is difficult to trade for an elite centreman, so by default the draft becomes the best method to obtain one. Luckily, so to speak, since the team is lacking at the center position, chances are 2022 will bring a high draft position.

But even this is not as bleak as it was 10 years ago. Suzuki, one of the better Hab centreman in a long-time, at 22 years old is only beginning his performing years. Dvorak, 25, will be effective for a while yet. Despite Poehling not being able to step into the #3C role immediately, he is still improving and hopefully is ready for a full-time role by next year. Otherwise, Jan Mysak is showing some promise and could challenge for that 3rd pivot position as soon as next year (although he will probably be more ready in two). In that scenario, Poehling still fits in as a good 4th centreman for the team, or valuable trade material.

This is maybe not the strongest NHL center line-up, but it is better than before 2018, when Kotkaniemi was chosen early to fill the Hab’s positional need.

Of course, drafting Shane Wright would quickly turn Montreal’s center position into a strong point. After playing another year (or two) in the OHL, Wright would be able to step into a #3 pivot slot, playing on a ‘protected’ line behind the veterans Suzuki and Dvorak. Within a couple of years after that, Wright and Suzuki become an effective one-two punch, with any of Dvorak, Mysak, Poehling, (or a recent 2021 pick), being good options on the 3rd line.

Interestingly, wing is presently where the ‘elder statesmen’ of the team are found. Other than the rookie ‘Goal’ Caufield, the current standout in the young players/prospects is Joshua Roy (LW). All of Quebec’s fingers are crossed that he becomes one of those generational talents that somehow slipped back in the NHL draft. The rookie camp and beginning of his current season in the Q is already getting our hopes up. And the best part is that at 6’, he is not small. Even if Roy continues to improve and looks good next year, his optimal rookie season would still be in two years. Hitting a home run late in the draft is the type of luck required to become better than the other teams in the NHL.

Because of the incredible season in the USHL, another intriguing left winger is Sean Farrell. However, because he is of smaller stature (5.9’), further judgement on his ‘elite’ potential will have to wait on performances at the US university level and World Juniors this year and next.

The other prospects at wing that hopefully develop into at least role players at the NHL level are Tuch and Ylonen.

There is less visibility for the replacement at goalie position. Carey Price has another 5 years left his contract, so we can only hope a very strong defense will eventually aid an aging Price and whoever becomes his back-up/replacement.

The reason for this outline is to point out that Montreal’s outlook is in many ways better than it was when Bergevin first took over. Rebuilds take time and some luck before a solid team is constructed - in all positions. After the last 1993 visit to the Stanley Cup Finals, Montreal has never had the patience to follow that path. The result was a middling team that can sometimes make the playoffs but more often found itself in the bottom half of the league. Although it tries the nerves of the fans and media pundits, the rebuild was and still is necessary to return "Les Glorieux" back into an NHL powerhouse.

The Hab’s universe can at least bask in the glory of a fabulous and much needed Stanley Cup appearance in 2021 while looking past the 2021-2022 season into the draft in 2022, and even 2023, hoping it will help bring back a team that has frequent, deep playoff runs. Now that we remember what it’s like watching playoff hockey in shorts and a t-shirt on a patio, who does not want to see the Montreal Canadians competing in June again? Regularly.

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