The countdown to Christmas is on which means that people around the world are getting in some last-minute shopping and checking off the final items on their lists. NHL teams, they’re just like us and each has gifts they’re hoping to find under the tree on the big day. The Montreal Canadiens have a few items on their wish list this year that will help make a surprisingly decent 2022-23 season even better.
One of the main reasons for the team’s recent struggles is mounting injuries, especially to valuable veteran players. Mike Matheson returned to the lineup on Dec. 17 against the Tampa Bay Lightning which gave the blue line a boost, but Brendan Gallagher, Sean Monahan, and David Savard remain sidelined.
As a result, Montreal’s depth, both at forward and on defence, has been tested in a big way. Secondary scoring has been an issue all season and the problem has only been compounded over the past few weeks by injuries. The Habs really miss Monahan and everything he brings to the table as a solid top-six centre. The power play has struggled immensely in his absence since he’s their only threat down low. With him missing down the middle, the lines are suddenly imbalanced. Not to mention that a healthy Monahan, who will be out a few more weeks, will be even more valuable as the Trade Deadline approaches. Management will be crossing their fingers that all of their potential trade chips avoid the injury bug.
Strong Player Development Continues
One of the top storylines through the first 30 games of the 2022-23 campaign for the Canadiens has been the development and progression of their young players.
They have been playing with four rookies on defence most nights and the quartet has made significant contributions to the team’s success with the highlight being Kaiden Guhle earning recognition as a Calder Trophy contender. Meanwhile, Juraj Slafkovsky, this past summer’s first-overall pick, has shown improvement every game and is currently thriving in his new top-six role. Justin Barron, Anthony Richard, and Jesse Ylönen have been standouts with the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League.
Given that the Habs’ schedule is about to get tougher, continued strong player development will be key during this transition year even if the losses start to mount. It’s all about the future for the Canadiens and it is very much starting now.
No Florida Hot Streak
Last season at the deadline, general manager Kent Hughes dealt Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers and received a 2023 first-round pick as part of the return package.
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As of right now, with the Panthers on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, that selection will be a lottery pick in a deep draft. Add that to Montreal’s choice and the Canadiens could have two lottery picks in the first round if Florida doesn’t catch fire soon. Their remaining schedule isn’t exactly easy either so there’s no guarantee they make up the ground needed to book a postseason berth and the Habs are not so secretly hoping they don’t.
A Successful Trade Deadline
Hughes delivered a master class during his first Trade Deadline as Canadiens’ general manager last season, and he’ll be looking for a repeat performance leading up to March 3 this year.
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He’s already stated his intention of acquiring a third first-round pick for next June’s draft in Nashville and has the assets to accomplish that goal in Monahan and Joel Edmundson, who has been garnering a lot of interest on the market in recent weeks. Beyond another first-rounder, he’ll be looking to maximize the returns for his other pending unrestricted free agents and attempt to add more young talent to the organization as the roster transformation enters the next phase. The focus must remain on the future and building the foundation for sustained success, a foundation that already includes several key pieces.
A Better Power Play
It’s been well-documented that Montreal’s power play has been a thorn in their side for far too long with no end to the bottom-dwelling man advantage in sight. The ineptitude can be attributed to a multitude of factors and while the available personnel isn’t likely to change much this season, patterns of play and strategies can.
The players and the coaching staff must find a way to at least make the power play a threat rather than a liability and a momentum killer. It should be able to give the offensive players some confidence and right now the opposite is happening. If the Habs hope to take the next step towards eventually becoming contenders, their special teams need to improve dramatically and if nothing else, become more consistent.
This year’s Canadiens’ Christmas list may seem a bit greedy, but even if all these wishes don’t come true, there are still many positives and bright spots to work with and take forward with them into the new year.