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Trade Analysis: Sean Monahan is a stepping stone in Kent Hughes’s rebuild plan

Is there anything left to salvage in the once-promising centre’s game, or have injuries derailed him permanently?

Calgary Flames v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

After a quiet few weeks following the start of the NHL free agent period, Kent Hughes found himself right back to work in the middle of August as he acquired Sean Monahan and a first-round pick from the Calgary Flames. To jump right into the nitty-gritty numbers part of this trade, Monahan has just this season left with a $6.375 million cap hit and is likely going to start the season on Injured Reserve. Upon the trading going through, the Montreal Canadiens are now over the cap by $6,126,66 according to CapFriendly, with Kirby Dach and Cayden Primeau still left as restricted free agents.

Now comes the gut punch. Hughes announced that it’s extremely unlikely that goaltender Carey Price will be able to play for the Canadiens this year, and likely won’t again barring a major surgery on his knee. Price is headed for the long-term injured reserve (LTIR), and with his $10.5 million cap hit plus the addition of Paul Byron as well, the Canadiens should be able to get not only Monahan, but their two RFAs all sorted out.

In all likelihood, the plan is to allow Monahan to get back on the ice and boost his own value in a way that makes him an enticing piece at the 2023 trade deadline. It would be a stunning revelation for him to stick around beyond the end of his contract in Montreal, barring a complete and total career resurgence following double hip surgery. Therein lies the intriguing part of acquiring him — can he return to his 30-goal form, or is his decline only going to continue?

The fall from grace for Monahan started a bit slowly, as he dropped from 34 goals to 22 in a one-year span, then saw it fall to 10 goals, and finally eight goals last season. His decline can be tied into his lengthy and, quite frankly, startling injury list that started back in 2016 when he had off-season wrist surgery but was deemed good to go the next season.

In the 2017-18 season, he was shut down after 74 games and underwent four surgeries for two herniated discs, a groin issue, and another surgery on his wrist. Then, after a few relatively healthy years, everything kind of fell apart as he was shut down in 2020-21 for his first hip surgery — an injury so bad that he was struggling to walk to practice. That was then followed up with another surgery, this time on his right hip, that will keep him out of the lineup until November at the earliest.

It’s a lot of significant injuries and surgeries for a player who hasn’t even hit 30 yet. However, the biggest point of this trade is not how good Monahan can make the Canadiens, but that the Canadiens increased their overall cache of draft picks. They already acquired a first in one of 2024, 2025, or 2026 depending on an insane amount of conditions.

With that in mind, there’s also the addition of whatever the Habs can get for him at the deadline, and given that he was acquired for literally nothing (future considerations) it’s suave business from Hughes.

From an on-ice perspective, Monahan gives the Canadiens another veteran centre when he’s ready to play, and he can help shore up the bottom six if need be. He spent a good chunk of last year alongside a combination of Milan Lucic, Dillon Dubé, Trevor Lewis, and briefly Tyler Toffoli. Aside from Toffoli, that’s not exactly a group known for being offensive dynamos. Though thanks to his injuries and declining play, Monahan didn’t exactly earn himself better linemates and most of the players he lined up with performed better without him during the year.

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It’s reasonable to believe that Monahan won’t be as bad as his two injury-filled seasons before this and should take some pressure off of not only Christian Dvorak, but potentially Dach as well. This is assuming Dvorak will remain on the roster as the Canadiens now have a hefty glut of pieces that can play at centre. Obviously, both Nick Suzuki and Dach are locks for the roster, while Dvorak will hold down a role before the team figures out where Monahan fits in. Of course, if Monahan’s days as a top-six centre are well and truly over, he may bump Jake Evans out to a spot on the wing or could potentially be moved to the wing himself.

In the last two years, Monahan has underperformed his expected goals (xG) by a fair amount, after producing just slightly below or right in line with it throughout his career due to lingering hip issues impacting his ability to shoot and control play in the ways that he used to. At five on five, he’s remained a perfectly adequate possession player, and last year ran into a lower PDO, but even if things return to form it isn’t wise to assume he’s going to turn back into a 25+ goal player.

At the end of the day, this ends up looking like a potential win-win trade for both Montreal and Calgary right now. The Flames cleared the space to sign Nazem Kadri to a long-term deal, while Montreal acquires more draft capital and a flippable asset this year. Even if Monahan stays as a bottom-six forward, the Canadiens aren’t trying to win division titles this year so it’s perfectly fine if he eats some minutes while younger prospects grow.

All in all, it’s a smart bit of business from Hughes and co as they continue their vision of rebuilding the Montreal Canadiens.