The trade deadline is less than a month away, and the Montreal Canadiens are once more in a rebuilding position, looking to swap some veterans for future assets. There isn’t the calibre of rental player that Kent Hughes had in his first year as general manager, but he does have a few players garnering interest from other teams.
As playoff hopefuls look for that one defensive defenceman to secure the play in their own zone or another scoring winger to give their bottom six a boost, Hughes will try to find prospects and picks that could become those players in a few years’ time.
The GM will be thinking about a point in the future when all the pieces the organization has been putting together in recent years can compete in the post-season. That may not be next year as we’re currently seeing a young corps of defencemen find their footing in the league, Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach are getting accustomed to big minutes as top-six centres, and last year’s first overall selection, Juraj Slafkovský, only has 39 games of NHL experience. With all that development still needing to happen, this summer won’t be the time to sign free agents to fill the remainder of the spots.
The point he has in mind is perhaps the start of the 2024-25 season, when Suzuki and Dach are more comfortable in their centre roles and both Slafkovský and Kaiden Guhle have two years of experience and are in the final years of their entry-level deals. If that is the start of the competitive phase, this repurposed version of our organizational depth chart lists the options, either players currently signed through that season or restricted free agents who could be extended by then, currently within the organization for Hughes to build his roster around.
Some of these veteran players, like Josh Anderson and David Savard, could be shipped out either this year or next. We’ve already heard some speculation about Anderson this year, so it won’t just be rental players on expiring contracts that Hughes is discussing with other clubs. The general manager’s ask will likely be a combination of players and draft picks, and the selections he already possesses are key to the negotiation strategy.
Not only do the Canadiens hold all of their assigned picks, which are currently slated to be the sixth selection in each round, but four other picks to go with those seven, including another first-round pick from the Florida Panthers, a team not currently in a playoff position.
Hughes would undoubtedly like to add another first for this summer, but only four of the picks for this year’s opening round have been dealt so far, and the other three are top-10 protected (they won’t switch hands if the trading team ends up with a top-10 pick in the draft). Only the top teams most confident in a long playoff run will be moving those picks, and those teams end up with late-round selections.
Second-round picks are a more realistic goal, and the Habs only have one of those this year. The club has made at least two selections in that round the last two years and five of the last six. Given the success the team had last year adding Owen Beck and Lane Hutson, we can expect that to be a focus for Hughes, and the fact that he doesn’t need to demand a first-rounder to fill his cupboard will give him the upper hand over leaner teams in negotiations.
Players & prospects
There was a time when amassing draft picks was a necessity because the prospect pool was too thin, but several years of making a high number of picks has given the organization one of the top pools of young talent in the league. There are several prospects from those classes who are either with the team or on the verge of joining it in the next year or two, but some holes have been left unfilled in the process.
Carey Price provided the Canadiens with strong play in the net for over a decade, and it’s impossible to watch anyone else play the position without a comparison to the 2015 Hart Trophy-winner. Ideally, the team that emerges from this rebuild won’t require a goaltender posting a .930 save percentage to be competitive. If a team does have a goalie who projects to become one of Price’s ability, it’s probably not entertaining trade offers for rental players.
There are some promising goaltenders in Montreal’s system, the result of the Canadiens making a point to draft one nearly every year since 2017. Cayden Primeau may not be developing at the rate it seemed like he would in the couple of seasons after he was drafted, but the organization also has Frederik Dichow and Jakub Dobes. Neither of those two may be ready for NHL jobs in 2024 — even at 23 Dichow will be younger than the average netminder to make his debut — but there should be a better idea about their aptitude for the NHL game.
The one particularly notable unrestricted free agent whose contact is up before the 2024-25 season arrives is Samuel Montembeault. The organization should be quite pleased with how he’s developed since Marc Bergevin claimed him off waivers in 2021, and Hughes has already signed him to one contract since taking over. Montembeault may still be with the team on a further extension at the date in question, with another two years of instruction and experience under his belt.
That’s three or four goaltenders already in the system who may put everything together to become a reliable starting goaltender. It’s the hardest position to project, and most teams simply wait for a netminder to prove his ability in the NHL before making a trade. Montreal isn’t in a position to need to make that move for this season or even next. The goaltender situation can be addressed at a later point, if it needs to be addressed at all.
Since the initial aim for the roster table above was to include five players at each defensive position and there were only four legitimate options for NHL spots on the right side, it’s fair to say that right defence is the area in most need of attention at this deadline.
It’s a position Hughes was able to address a year ago, acquiring Justin Barron along with a second-round pick (in 2024) for Artturi Lehkonen. Barron, 2021 first-rounder Logan Mailloux, waiver-claim Johnny Kovacevic, and free-agent signee David Savard all have talents that could benefit the NHL team, but none of them can be confidently pegged as a top-pairing defenceman. Contrast that to the left side where Mike Matheson and Guhle will be challenging one another for that spot for the next few years, and there are multiple options with top-four potential behind them.
Hughes probably doesn’t have a player enticing enough to land that future top-pairing blue-liner by March 3 unless he has a better scouting report on a defenceman than that player’s own team, but this may still be the position he inquires about first to at least have another option in the pipeline. He may need to consider moving one of this year’s first-round picks ahead of the draft to get the young blue-liner the roster needs.
At the 2022 NHL Draft, the Canadiens’ management staff added Dach, Owen Beck, and Filip Mesar by the first pick of the second round, three players they hope can join Suzuki down the middle for a long time to come. Now the task shifts to surrounding them with complementary linemates.
Which side needs to be focused on depends on whether Cole Caufield remains in his offensive role as an off-side left-winger, or moves back to the right side to help him in defensive duties. Montreal has two players listed on the left side who have top-line potential if he he stays there backed up by Slafkovský, or those two could be the flanks for a top line if Caufield switches.
Interestingly, every one of the players listed as a centre in the table above besides Christian Dvorak shoots right, so there is the possibility for one or two of them to shift over. Even with that as an option, there is still no clear-cut second-line right-winger in the system — or even a first-liner if Caufield stays on the left. There’s also room for a middle-six winger on the left side, whether that’s another scoring option or a player with a more rounded game.
It’s a position that Hughes should be able to fill relatively easily as most teams have an excess of wingers in their player pools. The task becomes simpler if that first-round pick demand isn’t there from the Habs and the trading partner can make up the value with a higher-quality forward instead. If Hughes can’t find a right-shot defenceman in his negotiations, an established or promising winger would be a fair compromise.