The 2022 Stanley Cup Final is about to begin, as the Colorado Avalanche look to stop the Tampa Bay Lightning’s streak at two Cups in a row. The Montreal Canadiens, like 30 other teams, can only watch as they spend the summer working on general manager (GM) Kent Hughes’ rebuilding plan. After the Habs’ worst season statistically in their 113-year history, he has his work cut out for him.
That being said, there are some aspects of this offseason that are worth following. Some will have an immediate impact on the NHL roster, while others will only impact it in the future. So here are three storylines that are worth watching in the second half of this season.
1. The NHL Entry Draft
This may be the most important draft year for the Canadiens in the last 30 years. There is added pressure on Hughes as well, as this year’s draft will be hosted in Montreal, the first in-person draft in two years, in front of a passionate fan base. The Habs hold the first overall selection as part of their 14 total picks for 2022, which includes seven top 90 selections. This is why Hughes must make a selection that has a positive impact at number one but also finds secondary support players with subsequent picks. After the previous management regime missed on two third overall picks, the franchise can’t have a successful rebuild without selecting the best player that fits the plans and becomes an impact player.
The uncertainty at number one is what makes some fans nervous. Among the several draft guides, there are different top prospects. The Hockey Writers have Shane Wright at the top of their list, while others have Juraj Slafkovsky as the top prospect. There is even a list or two that has Logan Cooley at the top.
On social media, there are vocal groups arguing if whether Slafkovsky or Wright are the best possible fit. Yet based on the team identity Hughes has stated he wants, it appears Wright or Cooley will be their selection.
“I think if it’s anything, its character. We’ve talked a lot about the culture that we need and you don’t have that type of culture as a team if you don’t have character in your players.”–Kent Hughes
Hughes has repeatedly stated he will choose the best player available, but the potential isn’t the only aspect they will look at, as they will also look at the potential floor of the player, meaning, will the player at least be a true NHL player. Hughes was interviewed at the NHL Combine and said “It’ll be the player with the best potential. When I think about potential, though, I also think about a “safe bet.” We want to draft a player that has potential. But, we also don’t want to draft a player that only might make the NHL and may not make it either. The expectation is that the player will play in the NHL for many years.”
The two centers are the most likely to be the Canadiens’ selection. Centers normally impact the game at a higher rate than wingers. The caveat to this is if Slafkovsky is seen as a sure-fire star, then he could supplant them. But is he? His international play makes scouts drool, but his club play in the Liiga is far below what would be expected in a top pick. There is also no clear-cut favourite heading into the draft. With the overall potential and potential floors in mind, Hughes’ comments about Wright do hint at where he is leaning for the pick.
That is just the drama surrounding the top pick. With another first-round selection, the Canadiens are poised to add another NHL-quality player. With the surplus of prospects and draft picks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Habs trade up in the draft, possibly even into the top 15. No matter which player is selected with the top pick, fans, the media and the Canadiens themselves will need to have patience as that player follows the best possible development path, which may not include the NHL for the first season or two.
2. Canadiens’ Cap Crunch
The Canadiens’ salary cap issues are a major hurdle for Hughes to overcome, and it won’t be one he can fix overnight. With a current cap hit of $83.433 million, which is a full $1 million over the $82.5 million cap, the math doesn’t work. Especially with only 18 of 23 roster players signed for the 2022-23 season. The uncertainty surrounding whether Carey Price will be able to play or not does handcuff him somewhat as he has to ensure he keeps the cap space necessary to fit his $10.5 million cap hit.
Moves will need to be made to clear up space, and the first cap casualty is most likely Shea Weber, as it had been rumoured that his contract would be on the move to the Arizona Coyotes. That would benefit the Coyotes, as his $7.857 million would go a long way to helping the rebuilding franchise reach the cap floor, and would cost almost nothing as he is only due $6 million in actual money over the remaining four years of the contract. It will likely only cost Hughes a draft pick to move him out as it’s beneficial for both teams. Darren Dreger, on TSN 690 radio, has said that the trade almost happened at the trade deadline and he expects the trade to occur this summer.
Something will need to be done to free up cap space as restricted free agents (RFA) Rem Pitlick and Alexander Romanov also need new contracts. The good news is there is no chance of an offer sheet on Romanov as he is a 10.2c RFA which means he is not eligible to receive one.
3. Trades and Free Agents
Hughes will also be busy talking to other GMs as he will have some assets that could interest teams looking for immediate help. The first possible player trade could involve Jeff Petry. Hughes has repeated that Petry is available, but only for the right price. His three years remaining at $6.25 million is a reasonable contract for a team looking for a 40-point puck-moving right-handed defender. The return, based on previous deals Hughes has made, is likely to have a combination of a first, prospect and an inexpensive roster player.
Josh Anderson hasn’t been placed on the trade block officially but has received significant interest around the league. Without a godfather-type deal, an “offer they can’t refuse”, he will be a member of the Canadiens at the start of the 2022-23 season.
Jonathan Drouin is another possible trade target, as it will be his last season earning $5.5 million. His value won’t be very high as he is coming off another wrist injury, his second, and hasn’t played a full season since 2019. When he has played, he has averaged 50 points per season if prorated over an 82-game season. It may be that he will start the season as a Canadien, but if head coach Martin St. Louis can improve his game as he has everyone else so far, then the interest for Drouin will be much higher at next season’s trade deadline.
Other possible cap casualties include Joel Armia, Mike Hoffman and possibly even Christian Dvorak. The returns for these players aren’t expected to be high-value assets, but cap space is the biggest asset in those types of deals.
Some may hope for massive changes to allow Hughes to make offers on significant unrestricted free agents (UFA). But until a few more prospects graduate, and the team looks like a more competitive franchise, most UFAs are likely to avoid Montreal. For now, he will need to focus on drafting and trades to make improvements to the roster. The upheaval in how the Canadiens do business on and off the ice will take more than just one summer. However, continued changes will be necessary and this will provide fans with storylines worth following all summer long.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.