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Building the future Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens will be sellers at the trade deadline. What pieces will they need to get in return to address organizational weaknesses?

Winnipeg Jets v Montreal Canadiens - Game Three Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

We’ve reached the month of the NHL trade deadline, with the final day for teams to add contracted players to their rosters for the post-season falling on March 21. There are plenty of big names on the board, and the Montreal Canadiens, who have been out of the playoff hunt for a long time now, have several of the coveted options.

Normally, the currency this time of year is draft picks, but the Canadiens currently hold 12 of those for this summer, so reports have them more interested in acquiring prospects to flesh out the organizational depth with some older, more established young players.

Ideally, the team would like to fill some holes in the organization, but the focus of Kent Hughes and the rest of the front office will not be on the current group. Instead, the task is building the team they want to have in place when the Habs are ready to compete with the top teams again.

When that will be depends on how many current players they can — or want to — retain. Two of the most important players whose status will dictate the length of any rebuild are Carey Price and Jeff Petry.

Price’s status is uncertain because of his nagging knee issues. He’s still under contract for four more seasons, and has expressed his desire to maintain his identity as the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender.

Petry was on the trade block because of a horrendous start to his season and reports that he would like to be closer to his family. Since the coaching change in Montreal, and perhaps due to the easing of COVID restrictions that had kept his family apart, the Canadiens’ top defenceman recently expressed his desire to play for Martin St. Louis “for a long time,” so his departure may not be as imminent as it seemed a few weeks ago. If Petry stays in the mix, a rebuild may not require a lot of time to see the Habs competing once again.

Rather than trying to formulate a plan with a point some unknown distance in the future, we can preview what the Habs could look like in an upcoming season, specifically, for the sake of this exercise, the start of the 2023-24 campaign.

Potential depth for opening-night roster for 2023-24 season.

The graphic above is a depth chart of sorts, projecting how the hierarchy plays out (your order likely varies from this one) on opening day the season after next. Players are listed by what best to worst might look like at each position at that particular moment in time, and therefore the rankings will be a bit different from our organizational depth chart that doesn’t place a timeline on when a prospect will reach his potential.

The table doesn’t include any players currently slated for unrestricted free agency either this summer or next, so the likes of Jonathan Drouin, Brett Kulak, and Jake Allen aren’t listed. That two-year window also applies to the players labelled as restricted free agents, who are due contracts either in 2022 or 2023. No salary information is mentioned because there are many factors at play, like any acquisitions or new draft selections, that go beyond the scope of this exercise (though you’re more than welcome to take a stab at what any salaries could look like). The numbers in parentheses are the players’ ages on a projected opening night of October 5, 2023.

Players whose names are in bold are current full-time NHLers sitting in positions that they’re likely to hold on a competitive Canadiens team at that time (e.g. Nick Suzuki centring the top line, Alexander Romanov a top-four blue-liner). The rest are either slotted higher than their ideal role, less likely to still be around 19 months from now, or unestablished prospects.

One thing that’s clear is that the right-wing position (or at least wingers who shoot right since Cole Caufield is currently playing on the left side) is one of the strongest the Habs have going forward. They would be very happy with a depth of Caufield, Josh Anderson, and Brendan Gallagher, the final two of whom will still have three more years on their current contracts at that point. Joshua Roy, one of the current top prospects in the system, could insert himself within this order as well.

With Joel Edmundson being just 30 years of age, he could lead quite a strong group of players on the left side of the defence. Or maybe Kaiden Guhle has risen to that level by then, or a player not even listed has claimed a top-four spot. No matter what transpires, this is one of the most well-stocked positions the Habs have at the moment. If Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes manage to convince Jordan Harris to sign, it could be set for many years to come.

The right side with Petry hanging around is also in good standing, but then you have to be mindful of age; he will be approaching his 36th birthday then, playing the final seasons of his career. Romanov is listed there because the quality already existing on the left may make that his position going forward, and he’s played that side before. Logan Mailloux could be the one to join those two, but there may be more development required for what will be a 20-year-old blue-liner before he’s ready to play in the NHL. A prospect reaching that potential is no guarantee, so Montreal will very likely be — like every other team — aiming to bolster its store of right-shot blue-liners at every opportunity.

Despite all the vouchers the Habs have exchanged for centre prospects in recent years, that position isn’t very strong behind Suzuki. Christian Dvorak is likely to be gone at the trade deadline, and neither Jake Evans nor Ryan Poehling has proven that he will be the one to lead the second line in the future. There’s no prospect in the system you can say with a great deal of certainty will become a top-six option.

Left-wingers Artturi Lehkonen and Mike Hoffman are the subject of trade speculation, and neither is the best top-line option on a contender. Sean Farrell looks like he will have an impact in the NHL, but that’s not something that can be banked on.

The goaltender of the future may already be in the organization. Perhaps Cayden Primeau figures everything out and reaches his potential, or maybe one of Frederik Dichow or Jakub Dobes rides his current form all the way to Canadiens’ top job. However, that probably doesn’t happen when they’re 22 years old.

The picture is one of a team with some significant holes that will need to be filled, but also a few positions that don’t need to be rebuilt completely. Some spots have several prospects who could jump up into roles, but “could” is the key word. Defence looks particularly strong, and it’s one of the positions that requires the most development time, so the Habs already have a leg up on becoming competitive again.

Based on this exercise, it appears that the top needs are for centres and left-wingers, and perhaps a goaltender who has already established his game at the professional level. Other holes will open up as trades are made, and in those cases you’d expect the front office to be filling the gaps with players in return. It does leave at least one top position held by a player 35 years of age, so the window from this plan may not be very long before more work on the roster is required.

If the ultimate goal is to create a young team that can stick together for a decade for multiple attempts at a Stanley Cup, the best option may be to move most of the veterans now for as many assets as possible, and aim for a competitive season further into the future when a handful of those prospects have developed into NHL players.

It’s all going to be a fluid situation from now until the trade deadline, through the draft, and beyond, but this is one look at what the overall plan could be shooting toward.

Poll

Which asset should Kent Hughes prioritize adding at the trade deadline?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Mostly prospects
    (463 votes)
  • 9%
    Mostly draft picks
    (113 votes)
  • 50%
    Equal numbers of both
    (580 votes)
1156 votes total Vote Now