It’s no secret that the Montreal Canadiens are in a great position. They have a team that could make the playoffs this season. They also have one of the deepest and most talented prospect pools in the NHL, and boast a ton of salary cap space. They are loaded with 2020 draft picks. Should they continue to build from within? Or should they use their assets to expedite their path to contention?
Taking a look at the present roster, they have a good mix of young players making their way into the NHL and some great veterans. The question facing the organization is how many “prime years” do stars such as Carey Price and Shea Weber have left? It’s the elephant in the room for many Canadiens fans. No question both players are generational players, who have greatly impacted the game positively on and off of the ice. Both deserve a Stanley Cup, no doubt about it.
However, if you look at the current roster, it’s hard to see this team winning Lord Stanley’s Cup with the current roster composition. The Habs are loaded with futures (prospect, picks), which could land key missing pieces for a cup run or two, but is that the direction the Habs want to go? Or do they play the long game, continue developing their talented younger players but at the expense of wasting some of the last best years of Weber and Price’s career? It’s the biggest question facing this current Habs’ group, and management has to decide on a solution relatively quickly.
Play the Kids?
The Habs are stacked at virtually every position in their prospect pool. They have incredible skill and depth at center, in goal and on the right-hand defensive position in particular. They have the most intriguing and dominant pure-goal scoring prospect in hockey in Cole Caufield. The only position of need is on the left-side of their blueline, where their prospects might be a little bit further away from the NHL.
The question ahead is how soon do the Canadiens’ transition their youngsters into key roles on the roster? For instance, a common thought that has been floated around is that Max Domi will eventually be moved back to wing, as he’ll be displaced by either Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki or Ryan Poehling. However, lost in this thought is the fact that Domi has produced 72 points in his first year at center and his play this season is not making that production look like a fluke. It’s doubtful any of the kids could replicate that production at this point in their careers.
Philip Danault has taken Tomas Plekanec’s spot as the Canadiens’ “do-it-all” center, and is one of the most underrated centers in the NHL. He’s still young and appears to have found his niche under Claude Julien. Finally, Nate Thompson is having, what may be, a career year this season as the 4th line center. So where do the kids fit in, and how can the Canadiens’ best develop their youth without sacrificing wins?
To date, Claude Julien seems to be doing an excellent job at giving his kids, like Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Cale Fleury and Poehling ice time, exposure and more responsibility when earned. He is effectively putting them in positions to succeed early on in their NHL careers in limited roles. Right now, this is the best route for the Canadiens to best develop their top prospects without sacrificing production. While, it may mean more time until Kotkaniemi, Poehling or Suzuki develop into front-line centers, it ensures they can contribute while being insulated from tough match-ups.
Going Outside the Organization for Help
There is no other player in the NHL more deserving of a Stanley Cup than Carey Price at this point in his career. He is one of the most competitive professionals in the game of hockey. He’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Yet, he hasn’t participated in a meaningful playoff game in over three seasons. This has to change, but can the Canadiens do this without sacrificing their young promising prospect pool?
Looking around the NHL, there are struggling teams with components that could really help the Canadiens accelerate their ascension into contention. There have been rumors abound about Jamie Benn, Taylor Hall, and maybe Jonas Brodin being available for hefty price tags. These are players that would fill immediate needs for the Canadiens.
The asking price for the types of players the Canadiens need is likely astronomical. Untouchables on the Habs should be Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, Caufield, Poehling, Fleury, Cayden Primeau and Alexander Romonov. All of these players bring in elements that are key for Montreal to continue to build from within.
Aside from these prospects, the Habs have 10 draft picks in the 2020 NHL Entry draft. They have plenty of cap space to make a bold move, and could even take on a bad contract in a trade package for the right piece. These are the assets the Habs should be using to improve their current roster.
Their prospect pool is saturated with quality youngsters to a point where losing some top draft picks won’t hurt too bad at this point in the Canadiens’ retooling process. This is a good middle ground for the Canadiens to retain it’s core prospects while improving the current roster, taking them one step closer to contention.
Potential Trade Targets
Benn is having a slow start the season, as he only has one goal and only six points in 19 games this season for Dallas. He is 30 years old, and makes $9.5 million per season through the 2024-25 season. However, Benn is a big-time power forward at the NHL level and has been for some time.
The Habs lack size and strength on their roster, and only Ryan Poehling has the set of traits that addresses this component in their prospect pool. To contend, the Habs will need a power-forward in their top six. Jamie Benn would be a great addition and push the Habs closer to contention immediately.
Brodin is 26 years old and is a legit top-four puck-moving defenseman. He’s coming off of back-to-back 30 point seasons for the Minnesota Wild, but he’s just entering his prime years. Brodin brings a mix of smooth skating and puck-moving elements to his game that would definitely mesh well with Montreal’s speed upfront. The cost for Brodin will be high if he’s moved at all.
However, Brodin remains the best option available of potential targets to fill the top pairing left-handed defenseman position alongside Weber. Minnesota is a team that is in a transition year and their new meneral manager Bill Guerin, will be looking to stock up on picks and prospects as he attempts to retool the roster his way.
There is no question that Taylor Hall is one of the best players in the game of hockey, and has MVP potential when healthy. Hall is a free agent after this season and will receive many massive contract offers from various teams in the NHL. The Canadiens are a team that has the draft picks, prospects and cap space that could facilitate a trade for Hall mid-season. He would be a great fit in Montreal, as he has the speed and strength that would make Montreal’s forwards a far more dangerous group. However, my expectation is that the Devils would base any trade package for Hall around Cole Caufield in an attempt to reconnect Caufield with Jack Hughes.
Together, the pair destroyed USA National Development Team records. From the Canadiens’ perspective, under no circumstance should they consider moving Caufield. If they could acquire Taylor Hall for picks, prospects not named Kotkaniemi or Caufield, it’s a risk worth taking for the Canadiens.
Anderson is coming off of a career year where he netted 47 points in 82 games last season. He is a big-bodied player whose prime years are still in front of him. He plays a similar game to Tom Wilson in many respects. He’s making $2.1 million per year and is a restricted free-agent after this season. Josh Anderson would bring the combination of size-grit and skill to the Habs’ top nine that is missing right now. On top of that, Columbus looks like they may be retooling on the fly this season and in the summer. They could use draft picks in this effort, which the Habs have plenty in the bank.
Research Analyst with over 16 years of experience in data collection, analysis, report writing and evaluation. An experienced hockey-coach and also a former JR scout. Now covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers. Twitter: @JPRTerp