Now’s admittedly no time for second thoughts for the Montreal Canadiens. Undergoing a full-scale rebuild for all intents and purposes, one that has already resulted in a first-overall pick (Juraj Slafkovsky), the Canadiens have effectively bottomed out for the 2022-23 season.
So, any players the Canadiens might have let go in the recent past, even if they’ve found success elsewhere, it’s probably best to move forward. Nevertheless, for the fans who can’t help but play “what if,” here are the top five still-active ex-Canadiens the Habs would have room for (or would perhaps like to make room for) this season:
5. Artturi Lehkonen
There’s no disputing Artturi Lehkonen has taken his game up a level since the Canadiens traded him at the last deadline. Of course, playing on the Stanley Cup champion-Colorado Avalanche will certainly help, with Lehkonen scoring 14 points in 20 playoff games last postseason, including the championship-winning goal.
However, there was also never a doubt Lehkonen was a useful player, even as he developed a reputation as being snakebitten while with the Canadiens. He even displayed scoring potential with an 18-goal rookie season in 2016-17. Nevertheless, general manager Kent Hughes decided Lehkonen was worth trading even as a pending restricted free agent. After all, they got back Justin Barron, who fills a position as a right-handed defenseman at which the Habs are much weaker (compared to on Lehkonen’s wing).
Of course it remains to be seen if Barron pans out or not. Regardless, there’s also the fact that someone up front kind of had to go, with 16 NHL-caliber forwards currently vying for far fewer permanent roster spots. It didn’t necessarily have to be Lehkonen, but, even if the Canadiens did magically get him back somehow, they’d have an even greater logjam up front. That’s why Lehkonen, for all he would bring, only takes the No. 5 spot.
4. Phillip Danault
Phillip Danault is often cited as one of ex-general manager Marc Bergevin’s greatest acquisitions and biggest mistakes, at least with how the center was allowed to hit free agency two offseasons ago. After all, all the defensive specialist did was score a career-high 27 goals in his first season with the Los Angeles Kings. It makes on wonder if he was miscast while with the Habs, as he had never scored even half that amount before.
Keep in mind, Danault was allowed to walk in large part because the Canadiens had theoretically wanted to focus on their youth down the middle. They still had both Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi at the time and Danault still saw himself as a top-two center capable of contributing offensively. Considering his financial demands, it did make sense to not re-sign him… and then Kotkaniemi signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, opening up a spot down the middle.
So, forget asset management. Bergevin probably could have used better timing, at least in this one instance. Having since replaced him, Hughes has gone to great lengths to fill that hole down the middle though, by trading for Kirby Dach as the team’s second-line center of the future and then Sean Monahan as something of an insurance policy.
As a result, there’s probably no real room for Danault, even if he’d arguably be an upgrade in several ways over both those players. In fact, if Danault were still around, there would have been no reason to acquire either of them, which in some ways would be regrettable, as the Monahan trade specifically seems to have been expertly crafted to continue to set the Habs up for the future. It comes down to the question of who you’d rather have: Danault or Dach, Monahan, the conditional first-round pick the Habs also got in the trade, not to mention whatever the Habs can get for Monahan at the next trade deadline. It’s a close call.
3. Ryan McDonagh
If you ask any Habs fan which trade of the current century they’d most like to have back, the overwhelming answer would probably be the Scott Gomez one. It’s not just because Gomez infamously went a full calendar year without scoring only to eventually, almost mercifully get bought out. It’s also because the Canadiens gave up then-prospect Ryan McDonagh, who at one time had developed into a legitimate top-pairing defenseman.
Now 33, McDonagh’s obviously not the same defenseman he was, but, from a leadership perspective, he still holds value, especially for the Habs. After all, Joel Edmundson is out indefinitely, and, as shallow as the right side on defense is right now in terms of talent, that makes Mike Matheson the only sure thing on the left. McDonagh would help out loads.
It’s funny, because another trade Habs fans generally want back is the one that sent fellow-lefthanded-defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Jonathan Drouin. However, while Sergachev holds more upside than McDonagh especially considering the respective stages of their careers, McDonagh’s contact is much more palatable.
Sergachev just re-signed with the Bolts for a curious $68 million over eight years. McDonagh has four years left at a relatively affordable cap hit of $6.75 million. Also, the Canadiens’ left side is in the process of taking shape. The Canadiens have the prospects (Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, etc.) to compete. It could just take a five-year plan to get there. McDonagh’s term, while certainly not a perfect fit, does still work to a certain extent.
2. Charlie Lindgren
It’s not that goalie Charlie Lindgren would be a long-term solution in net for the Canadiens. It’s that he never got a fair shake while with the Habs, as evidenced by the .958 save percentage and 1.22 goals-against average he put up with the St. Louis Blues last season.
Granted, it’s a small sample size (five games), but so too was his actual tenure as a Canadiens goalie, even it spanned parts of five seasons. He ended up getting in just 24 games total, generally as a last resort and an otherwise mainstay in the American Hockey League.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Canadiens are going with a tandem of Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault, with Carey Price having been put on long-term injured reserve, potentially never to return. Based on the amount of injuries the Canadiens sustained last season, forced to throw the team’s top goaltending prospect, Cayden Primeau, to the lions time and again, a little more goaltending depth certainly couldn’t hurt.
1. Jeff Petry
Hughes did relatively well, when he traded defenseman Jeff Petry, getting Matheson back in exchange. Even so, Petry is the superior defenseman on paper, meaning the Canadiens arguably lost the trade, at least right now. It also means the Canadiens are currently without a No. 1 defenseman, a role Petry had for all intents and purposes assumed last season.
Of course, Hughes was put in an impossible position, with Petry having requested a trade. That just means that he didn’t necessarily want to trade Petry, though. He shouldn’t have wanted to anyway, with a right side now comprising David Savard, Chris Wideman and potentially Barron.
Even if he did get younger by acquiring the 28-year-old, lefthanded Matheson (compared to 34), there’s far weaker organizational depth on the right side. With Petry under contract until 2025, he could have come in handy during the rebuild, even in decline, as someone like Barron moves up the lineup at the same time.
That Petry is on the back nine of his career though goes to show that, if he is in fact the ex-Hab they would want back the most, the franchise is in good shape, at least based on its goals at the present moment. A similar argument goes for the rest of the names on the list, which is largely devoid of star talent. So, as long as the Canadiens stay the course, patient fans can rest assured, reasonably certain they’ve got the right personnel in place both off the ice and on it.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.