Spotlight Shines on Canadiens GM Hughes in Habs-Panthers Game

The focus isn’t completely on the Montreal Canadiens themselves as they visit the Florida Panthers Dec. 29. At least, it most certainly won’t be on defenseman Ben Chiarot, who was the centerpiece of the trade-deadline deal between the two teams last season, which is telling.

Ben Chiarot Montreal Canadiens
Ex-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s of course to be somewhat expected. Chiarot had been a pending unrestricted free agent at the time. Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes had little choice but to trade the defenseman so as to ensure they at least got something for him, safely assuming he planned on testing the market come the summer.

Hughes Maximizes Return on Chiarot

Chiarot since signed with the Detroit Red Wings, where he has similarly been miscast as a top-pairing defenseman, like he was when he was with the Canadiens. Needless to say at this point, the Canadiens won the trade with the Panthers that sent a 2023 first-round pick, 2022 fourth-round pick and prospect Ty Smilanic to the Habs.

Maybe had the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers gone further than the second round in the playoffs, there would be a case to the contrary. However, they didn’t, getting swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning for their trouble of going all-in, bringing into question just how complete of a team they actually had, headed into the postseason.

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One season later, the Panthers are significantly weaker, at least based on a cursory glance at their roster, which features a defense headlined by Aaron Ekblad and not much else. True, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling are having good offensive seasons, but, as a team, the Panthers are giving up a middle-of-the-pack 31.9 shots against, backstopped primarily by an unimpressive 34-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky (7-11-1, 3.29 goals-against average and .895 save percentage), whose inconsistency has always been an issue, even in his prime.

Canadiens vs. Panthers

Granted, the Canadiens aren’t ones to talk, based on their arguable lack of a No. 1 goalie, looking at the organizational depth chart from top to bottom, whereas the Panthers at least have the upstart Spencer Knight backing up Bobrovsky. And, while the Canadiens’ defense is taking shape as we speak, comprising rookies like Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj, it’s clearly a work in progress.

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However, seeing as the Canadiens are undeniably rebuilding, it’s not as much a problem for them. At least it shouldn’t be, this season of all seasons, where everyone’s looking onward toward the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, where projected generational players like Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov will be available. It’s more so a problem for the Panthers, who are a mediocre 15-16-4, just a single point above the Canadiens in the standings, especially as the Habs own their first pick as a result of the Chiarot trade.

Things can obviously change. The underlying numbers do say the Panthers are playing better hockey than their record indicates, but, based on their remaining schedules, things only get harder from here on out for both teams. For example, the Panthers reportedly have the toughest schedule left of all NHL teams as of the start of December, while the Canadiens’ is hardly easy in its own right.

For example, only four of the Canadiens’ 15 games this month were at home. With two games left (both on the road, including the Dec. 29 game against the Panthers), the Habs are 4-7-2. It’s disappointing, looking at it from the perspective of a team that had been in playoff contention heading into the holiday season.

However, looking at it from the perspective of a team that finished last in 2021-22, in what was one of the worst seasons in franchise history? At 15-17-3, the Canadiens are still showing significant season-over-season progress. Even though the Habs have made significant one-season turnarounds in the past, this time the deck was stacked against them without that No. 1 goalie (after Carey Price’s unofficial retirement) and without a No. 1 defenseman to boot (with neither Shea Weber nor Jeff Petry still in the picture).

Related: Are 2021-22 Canadiens the Worst Habs Team of All Time?

On top of it all, Hughes made a conscious decision to use the cap space made available through Price’s injury to trade for center Sean Monahan instead of getting a replacement in net. Having already acquired Kirby Dach to complement Nick Suzuki down the middle, Monahan was more of a luxury than anything else.

All Part of Hughes’ Master-Plan

If Hughes was truly intent on making the playoffs this season, he would have tried harder to secure better goaltending. Just like it was with the Chiarot trade, the centerpiece in the Monahan deal for the Habs was the first-round pick they got as thanks for taking on the big contract (with potentially more from where that came). So, in a weird way, the rebuild is right on track for the Canadiens, even if they continue to struggle down the stretch.

In other words, this is part of Hughes’ master-plan, like it or not.

Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens GM
Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes – (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Fans may be conflicted as a result, not knowing whether to cheer for the team to win or lose. However, against the Panthers? Seeing as the Canadiens stand to benefit the worse off the Panthers finish in the standings? It’s one game in which the choice should be clear.

So, yeah, instead of on the players, eyes will more so be on the final score. It’s one game believers in the team having to tank can actually feel good cheering on the Habs, hoping for a victory. As long as the Canadiens avoid a three-point game, the Habs and their fans are golden, though.

Either way, the Canadiens are in an enviable position, thanks in large part to the work done by Hughes. He may not have been able to predict how badly the Panthers’ 2022-23 season would go, but, in securing the futures he has, he’s helped secure a bright future overall for the Canadiens. It’s important to look at it that way, regardless of where the Canadiens finish in the standings (especially since they have another theoretical shot at first overall, with the Panthers’ pick).