Canadiens: 3 Burning Questions Heading Into Training Camp

The Montreal Canadiens’ offseason started with non-stop activity. They won the draft lottery, they made some minor moves, made decisions on who to keep under control, and who to let walk away. They followed it up with a memorable NHL Entry Draft hosted in Montreal, one where they surprised some with the choice of Juraj Slafkovsky and a blockbuster trade for centerman Kirby Dach.

Since the opening of unrestricted free agency on July 13 however, things have fallen silent. This makes sense as most teams are near the edge of the salary cap and August is the time of year when general managers (GM) take some time off to spend at home. Despite that, there are still multiple burning issues that GM Kent Hughes will need to address prior to the start of rookie camp. Here are three of them.

Canadiens’ Electric Youth

The Canadiens have a large prospect pool filled with NHL hopefuls. Names like Joshua Roy and Riley Kidney are still a couple of years away, while others such as Jan Mysak, Kaiden Guhle, and recent acquisition Emil Heineman are all entering their rookie professional seasons. As a result, this year’s rookie camp will be highly competitive and entertaining.

Part of the question marks at rookie camp will be the play of Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar to see if they’re ready to graduate to the main camp to compete for NHL jobs. They will be in direct competition with Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylonen who had shown wonderful progression during their NHL call-ups last season.

Related: Canadiens Focused on Development not Wins in 2022-23

This is when the rubber hits the road on the Canadiens’ newfound focus on player development. No player, including Slafkovsky, will need to be rushed into a role they aren’t ready for, as it has been argued that former Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi had been. It is possible that there could be a darkhorse rookie that cracks the lineup due to the sheer number of young players expected to attend main training camp, yet, it isn’t likely.

Juraj Slafkovsky Montreal Canadiens 2022 Draft
Juraj Slafkovsky, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With 13 forwards under NHL contract on the roster, it will require an impressive showing at camp to have one of the rookies other than Slafkovsky, who is expected to play as the first overall pick this summer, make the opening night lineup. At the very least, this gives Hughes a number of options for if and when he begins trading veterans out during the season up to the trade deadline.

Canadiens’ Salary Cap Issues

The Canadiens are inching ever closer to training camp and still haven’t signed restricted free agents Dach or Cayden Primeau to an extension yet, and some of that is because there is only about $250,000 in cap space remaining. Now, Primeau’s contract won’t factor into the NHL cap as he is set to be the starter for the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Laval Rocket. Dach, on the other hand, is likely to be relied upon as a top-six centerman.

There has been much speculation as to what Dach could likely be signed for, in comparison to other young players, he could fetch anywhere from $1.75 to $2.5 million. This means someone’s contract on the roster will need to be sacrificed. Everyone would prefer to see Mike Hoffman moved as his $4.5 million for two more years seems unpalatable for someone that scored 15 goals and isn’t known for good defensive play. Not to mention he was unable to raise the effectiveness of the power-play (PP) as he was advertised to be able to do.

It would most likely cost Hughes added assets to move that contract, or for him to take on an equally undesirable one in return, leaving the Canadiens no better off. Perhaps if Paul Byron’s injury is as bad as expected, he might be placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) to start the season. However, that $3.4 million will only be available while he is out and the cap space would need to be used upon his return.

Paul Byron, Montreal Canadiens
Paul Byron, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It may take moving a player of value to make the space. One name that has been mentioned is Jake Allen. With a cap hit of only $2.875 million for one more year, he becomes an attractive option for playoff-contending clubs looking to add an experienced veteran to play in a tandem. The return for Allen may not equal his impact or value to the Canadiens, however, it may be the best option to create cap space without sacrificing futures in a season that they are expected to be near the bottom of the standings. But this is a move that only makes sense for Montreal if there is an answer to the next, and perhaps most important question.

Will Carey Price Play?

That is the big one, will Carey Price be able to start the season healthy? Will he even play at all this season? Will he? Won’t he? This question, if Price can play or not, is what Hughes must have an answer to before he can make any large-scale moves. Even if healthy, the days of Price stealing wins, or playing at an elite level are likely behind him. At 35 years old and with chronic knee issues, he is entering the twilight of his career.

The latest information from Stephane Waite (Price’s friend, and former long-time goaltending coach) is that he is forecasted to be back on the ice with the Canadiens at the start of next season. If this is true, that would mean his full $10.5 million cap hit will be on the books, but also, it would mean they could manage his starts and use Samuel Montembeault as a backup. With simply keeping the team competitive and not focused on sacrificing player development for wins now, relying on Montembeault to play half of the season as he did last year is acceptable.

This season will undoubtedly be an improvement over 2021-22 as the Canadiens return with a more healthy lineup. Last season saw the wheels fall off due to several factors, the largest of which was the NHL-leading 732 man games lost to injury. As for 2022-23, Hughes and the Canadiens will need answers to all of these issues mentioned above as soon as possible. While this season’s success doesn’t rest on any of them, the future success of the franchise does. No matter the answers, this coming season for Montreal should prove to be entertaining on and off the ice.

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