Canadiens Entering Important Rebuild Window

Building a team is like stitching new cloth onto an older one. Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Kent Hughes will need to thread the needle and stitch the right parts if he wants to keep the rebuild moving steadily upwards. 

After the first 18 games, the Canadiens hold a 9-8-1 record. The expectation was that they would be entertaining, which they are, and that they would win a few games, which they have. But being above .500 was not the expectation of anyone outside of the Habs’ dressing room. With that said, the team is still in a transitional phase of the rebuild, and to envision them competing for the playoffs this soon after finishing 32nd overall in the 2021-22 season is premature. Hughes has his work cut out for him. 

Canadiens Trade Window

Trades are tricky, especially when in a sensitive phase of a rebuild such as this one, where Hughes must make moves for salary cap reasons as well as to make way for more prospects to move forward. But the balance of personalities, attitudes, and skill sets is important to retain to continue the upward climb. While the head coach plays a major role in that culture, leadership in the dressing room and player personality do as well. Each team is like a family, and they all have the “dad,” the “fun uncle,” the “strait-laced cousin,” the “prankster,” or the “protector.” Each of these is necessary to create a healthy culture in the dressing room. 

Brendan Gallagher Montreal Canadiens
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As the rebuild continues, it’s clear that he is following a blueprint, the same one any successful franchise has. He is building on quality centers, a scoring winger or two, and a highly mobile blue line led by an all-around talent that can play heavy minutes in all situations. Looking at the Habs roster, while there are no poor players, he has work left to do. Who to trade? What to trade for? These are important questions Hughes faces.  

To address the deficiencies he has identified internally, the most likely approach to fill the missing roles is the NHL Entry Draft. 

“We’ll make moves here. We could do it in October, we could do it in January, we’ll do it at the trade deadline. But we’ll make moves, generally speaking, and those moves are going to be to acquire either prospects or picks again,” said Hughes to Godin. “We have two first-round picks. In a perfect world, we end up with three first-round picks. And then we use that collateral to see what we can do in terms of moving up to have higher picks or whatever, depending on what we see at the draft.”

– Kent Hughes (from ‘Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes chose development instead of tanking, and the strategy is timely,’ The Athletic, Oct 7, 2022) 

So, to meet that desire, the Canadiens have a select few assets they would part with that could get them that type of return under the right circumstances. Move-out expiring contracts? Of course, but only Sean Monahan’s expiring contract has the chance of getting a significant return. If that were to materialize, the trade tree around taking on Monahan as a cap dump from the Flames could be looked back on in a few years as a turning point in the rebuild if Hughes could get a first-round pick in return being paid a first-round pick to take on his contract. 

Can he choose to move out younger prospects? Again, of course. However, those assets are best retained for when the team needs to buy, and now isn’t the time to do so. It really should only be done for a significant piece that would form a part of the core group moving forward. 

Related: Canadiens’ Anderson Can Meet the Flames’ Scoring Forward Need 

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Trading veterans? Yes, but as mentioned above, only if Hughes can add that much-desired 2023 first-round pick. Monahan is turning out to be an ideal candidate to be a highly sought-after rental. The 28-year-old center has 10 points in 18 games played, positive possession stats, including a 53% Corsi For percentage, a faceoff percentage of 52.3%, and the ability to play the wing as well as center. All this while playing second-line minutes as well as time on special teams. He could become Hughes’ home-run deal. 

Josh Anderson is another name that could net Hughes a first-round pick in a trade. However, this is one of those players that is not only important for what he brings on the ice as a power forward but also off the ice as a member of the leadership group, making any deal he is in one that needs to be thoroughly vetted. Finally, others could fetch a solid return, such as Joel Edmundson and Christian Dvorak. Their values may not be as high, but Hughes has been able to squeeze every ounce of value in his trade thus far, so it is impossible to rule out another trade deadline surprise like the Ben Chiarot trade.  

Defining Canadiens Culture 

In a rebuild, success is measured differently than when in a contender status window. When contending, it’s about results. In the rebuild, it’s about the process. Did the younger players gain experience in challenging situations, have they learned what it takes to kill a key penalty, score a late goal, and defend a lead? These game situations are all necessary for the development of not just a player, but a team. 

The Canadiens have trailed in more games than they haven’t, mounting comeback wins several times this season, most recently on Saturday, Nov 19th, at home to the Philadelphia Flyers, when they came back from 0-2 and 4-3 deficits to earn 5-4 a shootout win in dramatic fashion. What this demonstrates is a never quit attitude. That level of determination is a primary pillar of any winning culture. That determination stems from the examples provided by head coach Martin St. Louis and the veterans in the room.   

To move the rebuild forward, Hughes will need to be careful in who he removes from the room and what can be brought in without damaging or even slowing the development of players such as Cole Caufield, Kaiden Guhle, and the rest of the young core. In the end, Hughes will need to thread the needle to keep the gains in culture while adding to the core.  

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