The Montreal Canadiens have found their groove. Interim head coach Martin St. Louis has the Habs re-focused and providing entertaining hockey again. In his first 11 games behind the bench, he has worked the Habs to a record of seven wins and four losses. In that time the Canadiens goals-for per game rose to 3.27 while their power play improved to 12.8 percent.
Those stats demonstrate that St. Louis has the team playing a style based on speed and possession, which is essentially what general manager (GM) Kent Hughes declared was the style he wanted the Canadiens to play on a nightly basis. But there are still serious holes in the franchise’s system that need to be filled if they hope to one day compete with the contending teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche.
Canadiens Must Sell, Sell, Sell
Regardless of the recent success the Habs have enjoyed, Hughes must carry through on the plan to be an active seller at the trade deadline. There simply isn’t enough firepower in the system to be able to make the leap to a contender at this point. This is a team in need of clearing salary cap space and adding futures so as to be able to afford to add players that fit this new identity.
Related: Canadiens Shouldn’t Rely on Free Agency to Rebuild
Several fans on social media are now talking of keeping players such as Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry.
Keeping players like Chiarot, Petry and even Artturi Lehkonen would mean missing out on the value they possess on the trade market. Being a seller now, as the Canadiens begin playing some highly entertaining and competitive hockey means they can sell high on their assets. Opposing GMs don’t have to wonder if these players can step in and play at a high level as they are currently doing so.
Canadiens Going Younger
You may ask, but why trade players who are playing well? The answer is, sell high. Also, you cannot change the makeup of a team if you keep the roster the same. With players such as Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, and Jesse Ylonen in the system, you’ll need to make room for that generation to step in at some point.
There are also the cap implications, Chiarot is currently earning $3.5 million and Lehkonen is at $2.8 million. Both players will be able to demand raises to their current salaries on their next contracts, something that could cause problems for management to control spending and provide depth to the roster.
Getting creative in adding more future assets in picks or prospects will be necessary as well. By being willing to trade Shea Weber’s contract to a team that wants to reach the salary cap floor without spending the money to do so, Hughes can add to the prospect pool, but also provide a clean break from their team captain. This will allow the selection of his replacement to be done without any lingering questions from the media on how his presence in the organization could be a distraction.
To sign some of the top prospects that are already in the system, as well as any that may be drafted using the draft picks they will hold in the top 64 at this upcoming draft, clearing out contracts will also be necessary. All of this will help Hughes be able to put his development plan into action under the newly hired director of hockey development, Adam Nicholas. This would give the franchise a significant advantage in developing their players with the team’s identity of speed, possession, and skill in mind.
What Are the Canadiens Still Missing?
With the Canadiens looking to be significant players in the free agency market this summer, going younger provides management control on two fronts, salary and the ability to incorporate players that fit the new identity.
By being a seller at this year’s deadline, Hughes can use the additional roster spots, cap space and assets acquired to attempt to rebuild by aggressively pursuing trades for young players who can fit in and grow with the current youthful core group. He could then use the free agency market as a fallback plan to help improve the roster immediately. He could wait patiently to see if a defenceman such as John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars, or a center such as the San Jose Sharks Tomas Hertl reach the open market, then use the team’s new direction under an exciting new coach to sell Montreal as a premier destination.
Hughes will need to target the essential building blocks of a Stanley Cup contending team, a one-two punch at center, two high-end defencemen, and two quality scoring forwards. He already has a top-line center in Nick Suzuki, a power forward in Josh Anderson, and a sniper with Cole Caufield. What he is missing, however, is a high-end center to complement Suzuki and two puck-moving defencemen who can each play in all situations, put up points and play well above 25 minutes per game.
This trade deadline will play a significant role in the plan Hughes will need to put into motion to transform this Canadiens roster into a contender. The current performances under St. Louis these last 11 games can’t be allowed to distract from the necessary changes to be able to climb into the upper echelon of the NHL. He will need to make several moves to place his stamp on the franchise and instill his desired identity of a skilled, possession-based team. To do that, Hughes will need to stay the course and continue to rebuild.