Rebuild or reconstruct or reset - and the timeline for patience

Rebuild, reset, renew, reconstruct, ….

There should be no reason to become too beholden to the actual word used. Any franchise finishing at the bottom of heap will automatically be associated with the concept of a rebuild. Management, on the other hand, while hesitating to use the word will always be quoted saying their plans are ‘to improve the future of the team.’

Nor do I expect management to spell out a specific roadmap in such a ‘rebuild’. Management has an outline and process but cannot predict certain situations. The important component of trading players is not fully in their control. It depends on an entente with another team, while you might want to a trade veteran for a high draft choice and/or prospect the other GM’s need to offer sufficient return for the team to improve. Free agency is another wild card. You can lose a player. The players available need to be a good fit and willing to join the team - while fitting within the cap space? There is luck involved in the draft. Lots of uncertainty determining when the prospect will be NHL ready and what their ceiling will be. Injuries cannot be predicted either. The dream drafting scenario, i.e. what Hab’s fan hope becomes a reality, is for a dozen prospects to all rise far above their projected ceilings, quickly, and fit perfectly into the available spots in the lineup. This would solve all the problems. Closer to Earth, though, it takes time to find all the right pieces for a successful rebuild.

Before we get into a Hab’s fan timeline of a rebuild, it should be noted that for the last five years, fortunately, Montreal has been stocking up on draft picks in the first two rounds. Since some are now discussing the need to ‘start a rebuild,’ perhaps this has been unnoticed, it might even be describable as a stealth rebuild? It is fair to say, the bare prospect pool Bergevin first inherited looks a lot fuller at the beginning of the Gorton/Hughes era – maybe even too full considering the 50-player contract limit. Some of these first two round draftees of the stealth-rebuild have begun playing regular NHL games (Caufield, Romanov, Poehling, Ylonen), even if most have not reached that step yet (Guhle, Struble, Mysak, Mailloux, Kidney, Kapenen). Their progression will always be the open question even when providing tools necessary to achieve success. As promising this group is, of the forwards, only Caufield, so far, has shown to be an elite player at the NHL level. What the city wants is more elite players – especially upfront.

For those who wondering why his name is omitted above, Suzuki was not drafted by Montreal but traded for in 2018, in what may be one of the defining moments of MB’s ‘stealth rebuild’. Considering how bountiful the first two rounds look, Montreal managed to find interesting players in the later rounds as well; Harris, Norlinder, Ferrell and Roy. Does not sound like a lot but if only two of those players establish themselves in the NHL that is 10% of the team’s players dressing for a game. Getting multiple stable to elite players in the later rounds is one of the keys to a successful rebuild. The failure to achieve this has been the downfall of many of the teams struggling for long periods despite getting those high first round picks. A rebuilding team should be successful if there is a multi-year influx of two to four of their drafted players, including the elite prospects brought in when they are ready and not just for their draft ranking. Montreal is in a fairly good position in this regard.

The 2022 draft evidently has lots of potential for Montreal. The best chance to land the first overall - achieved. The second first round a pick will be from 26-32 and then there is #33. A range where there will be good players available. Fans, once again, hope all these choices rise to become elite players. No pressure Mr. Gorton and Hughes but expectations are high in this market that has lost the feeling when the playoffs were a given every year and the glory days were wondering whether the Cup would be won again or was it going to be an off year? It is approaching the time to return closer to the norm.

Montreal, however, will take a few years to complete the rebuild.

As excited as we may be, the 2022 draft class may not play in the NHL next year. I am generally not a fan of the idea of any 18-year old in the NHL, even the first picks who are widely presumed to be ready for that step. There is an additional factor to consider for the 2022 draft class – they lost a season of development due to Covid. This group can benefit by refilling those lost hours playing at the junior level. Shane Wright, for example, had a good season. However, he should be given a chance to grab the OHL scoring championship and lead the Canadian World Junior team. He can work on all aspects of his game while adding some muscle. Roy similarly missed much of the preceding year and a half. By contemporary accounts his skating requires honing before he is ready to bring his skills to the NHL. Despite winning the scoring title this year, it could be a challenge for him to repeat the feat if all the other NHL teams leave their prospects another year in the Q. Hopefully this results in an increase in the overall competition level in the league, and thus help Roy develop further as a hockey player.

As a ‘fan’ I am don’t have expectation to see the first picks of 2022 until the 2023-24 season.

That is OK though for Montreal. While the prospects grow their game, the rebuild would benefit enormously with good odds in the 2023 draft. It is impossible to predict how the season goes next year, but even if a bump could happen and a lotto victory no longer an option, the gloomed hope is a repeat because of the players available to be drafted.

During 2022-23, Montreal’s defense will be going through growing pains that understandably might affect the team’s standings. A third or, at times, half of the defence are probably occupied by rookies – mainly Barron and Guhle. Harris and Norlinder, conceivably, get call-up time. Even with immediate high hopes we have as fans, players starting their careers usually are learning to survive while essentially being outplayed by most of the veteran NHLers. It can take some years before they pass the stage of just trying to adapt to being able to help shape a game.

The veteran of the bunch, Barron, played a season of AHL/NHL and seems penciled in for a regular role at RD. Guhle should also have a starting role at LD if his progression continues as it has been. He would be the 3rd LD and will get some playing time behind Edmundson. The only reason to presume, now, Harris begins in the AHL is that it helps the transition from the NCAA to the physicality of the NHL with seasons that are twice as long and more condensed compared to the university league. Harris could have first call-up status, but in the meanwhile will be playing with interesting defensive colleagues in Xhekaj and Norlinder. Potentially a high calibre trio for Laval.

The visible rookie forward candidates for this season are Ylonen, possibly even Heineman could have a spot at one point in the year. Any others would be a pleasant surprise.

Thus, 2022, should add, at a minimum, at least two players drafted by the organization.

It is lucky a development year coincides with the 2023 draft that is being discussed as a year to land generational talent early in the first round. Connor Bedard is in most potential last-placed team’s fan’s heads. Simply stated, finishing near the bottom of league gives good odds for finding excellent offensive player. Interestingly, Montreal should have approximately the same draft position set up it has for 2022; Its own early pick and a late first rounder (it’s Florida’s), and an early second [and conditionally EDM’s second]. Making 2023 another potentially defining moment for Montreal’s rebuild. Even if these draftees do not step on the NHL ice until the 2024-25 season, based on the ‘let them play a year more in Junior’ doctrine.

2023-24 is a transition year in the rebuild. When even a previous fan of the rebuilding process will no longer want to see the team’s best outcome to be if the draft lotto can be won but whether there is a legitimate push for a playoff spot. While realising making them this time would be a bonus.

The refrain is that it takes longer to develop defenceman, so it is good the D-rookies of 2022-23 integrated into the team a step ahead of all the projected young squad forwards. Romanov will be a seasoned veteran, Guhle, Barron and Harris are getting a couple of years of hockey underneath their belt. Mailloux’s may play part of the NHL season. Still a young D squad, but to state again, if the current pace of their progress continues like it has so far, this projects to be a solid defensive foundation. The mystery is who will be the veteran defensemen helping these youngsters?

What makes 2023-24 season especially fun to watch are two the highly anticipated forwards – Roy and Wright. It would naturally be nice to see Roy become a home-grown hero - one we don’t have to sell the farm trying to trade for. Hopefully, both shine in the rookie race; something Montreal has not seen in years. Exciting times. And it is not outlandish to contemplate Mysak, after a year in the AHL, and/or Ferrell cracking the line-up at some point in the season. If the team were to welcome three to four of these drafted forwards, the rest of the 2022 and 2023 class evidently keep playing an extra year in Juniors, Europe or the AHL (where they can be called up). But the next year several of these prospects have a chance to make the team – especially those late 1st/early second picks.

By 2024-25, the Suzuki-Caufield tandem presumably remain one of the top two offensive lines. The other one - we are hoping the 2021, 2022, and 2023 drafts produce. However, even if laden with talent, only the most optimistic of projections have these draftees in a position to dominate so early in their NHL career. However, elite rookie/sophomore tandems will contribute especially if ‘protected’ by playing alongside a veteran and a solid third and fourth line, all who are backed by a good defensive squad. If these factors fit together it contributes to the push to make the playoffs in 2024-25. But, many on those third and fourth lines may also be less seasoned. So, the possibility of achieving the playoffs increases dramatically with headline-worthy free agent signings – just saying, because it coincides with when Pierre Luc Dubois becomes UFA. If PLD really, really wants to be a Hab it is in his control. Free agency is one of the complicated obstacles managements must contend with in orchestrating the final steps of a ‘rapid’ rebuild.

Now 2025-26 - This is the stage when the use of the term ‘rebuild’ hopefully gets put away for a couple of decades, even if management’s ‘plan to improve the team in the future’ will always continue…. There should still be a more rookies capable of integrating into the team. That young D-squad from 2022-23 - Barron, Guhle, Harris, Norlinder - are now experienced. Mailloux and Struble have passed the rookie stage. The draft class of 2022 and 2023 are beginning to get accustomed to the NHL game. Roy is one of the team’s rising stars. In his third year, Wright shows signs of becoming a bonified #1 C. And the team is still led by the veterans Gallagher, Anderson, Suzuki, Caufield, and Romanov, all with the experience of a Stanley cup run - a great commodity for a team at that stage of a rebuild. The Montreal Canadiens become promising to play for and great to watch again. 2025-26 is the year Hab’s fans will expect to find their team in playoffs where "Anything is possible when you’re in them".

2025-26 will be the season, from my perspective, to measure how successful a team Gorton and Hughes and co. were able to construct. Knowing full well that the Montreal media pundit patience will have run out the previous year and a half - I do wish them good luck with that!

Making the playoffs is the first measure. The element of the rebuild I am curious to see is if the team’s drafting and development was able to bring up eight to twelve prospects into the regular line-up who are helping the team win; especially if several of these are elite players. This would be one benchmark that the key element of a successful rebuild had been achieved. Obviously, there will be trades that may skew those numbers. The cherry on top of the icing is if Montreal can draft and develop so well that the best outcome may be to give these youngsters an opportunity to play - for another team. In exchange the Habs can either pick up veterans or invest in the future with picks/prospects. But this time adding draft picks will not feel like it is part of a rebuild but a more of just being the process of ‘improving the team for the future’.

Of all the projections made so far, the goalie position has been by-passed until now because it is impossible to know who of the existing or future pool of prospects may end up being a good backstop. By the end of next season that picture might only be a little clearer. It is also difficult to discuss the goalie situation without personal best-world scenario bias setting in, my desire for Price to remain a Canadien until the last days of his contract – one that finishes having won a Stanley Cup. Hopefully, Carey does come back healthy soon, even it requires some form of bionic intervention. He has been Montreal’s best player over the past decade. He has the same place in my lore as the previous candidate for best Hab of the decade; Markov.

Back to our collective immediate reality and how look to forward to the rebuild timeline. Let’s build some fortitude for the rebuild. We can digest losses by focusing on the progression of the players, including the 2022 picks and other prospects, while reading the scouting reports on the 2023 draftees. After finding out if we landed Bedard or not, during 2023/24 we will watch the first steps of Wright and Roy. By the 2024 draft it should really start becoming apparent how much potential the team has for the following years. If all goes well, the Canadiens put up a challenge for a playoff spot in the 2024-25 season. In 2025-26, with all the great players drafted in the past seasons now playing regularly it will be fair for the fans’ expectations to have grown. And, in proper Montreal style, fans will want to see a team that comes into the playoffs with the intention of challenging for the Stanley Cup. For years to come.

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