The Montreal Canadiens have several top 60 picks in this draft, including a top-five selection. But none of those players should be expected to step into the NHL this coming season, let alone become impactful players. This means general manager (GM) Kent Hughes will need to get creative if he wants to address the Canadiens’ needs immediately.
Before he can look at filling needs, he needs to know what he will have in his lineup, how much money he needs to spend to retain players they will need to compete, and who needs to be let go or traded. Nick Suzuki’s $7.86 million extension will begin in the upcoming 2022-23 season, Alexander Romanov will need a raise, depth signings will be required, and it will all have a major impact on the $82.5 million salary cap.
Here I’ll look at who should stay, what roles they’ll fill, and what will be left. If a player is not named, they either need to be allowed to walk away, not given a qualifying offer (QO), or are replaceable internally by graduating prospects from Junior, Europe, and the American Hockey League (AHL) and/or by unrestricted free agents (UFA).
Hughes, who has stated he wants to be active on the UFA market, has a busy offseason ahead of him in just deciding who is worth keeping on NHL contracts and who to let go, as the Canadiens sit at 47 of 50 contracts signed. Part of that pressure is felt by the need to sign prospects whose rights will be expiring this summer, such as Jack Gorniak and Brett Stapley. But also deciding if it is better to sign now or wait another season to sign players such as Riley Kidney or Frederik Dichow to ensure there is no added pressure the following summer to keep them.
The Canadiens’ UFAs that are deserving to sign and fit a need in the system is a very short list. Two to be exact; Lukas Vejdemo and Chris Wideman. For Vejdemo, signing him to a team-friendly two-year contract shouldn’t be an issue. He would provide the NHL coaching staff with a versatile bottom-six player who can play any forward position, making it possible to keep only 13 forwards on the roster and save some cap space for later in the season. Wideman is the other UFA and could be convinced to take a short-term two-year deal. He provides a right-hand option on the third pairing who can play a puck-moving role, play on the power play (PP), produce points, and add some veteran experience to a young blue line.
The Canadiens have several young restricted free agents (RFA) that can fill needs within the Habs’ system. At forward, waiver pickup Rem Pitlick has shown capable of providing speed, strong puck pursuit skills, and solid two-way play with some offense in a bottom-six role. Micheal Pezzetta is an interesting choice. His game doesn’t stand out, but his elite work ethic and willingness to step up physically to defend himself and his teammates are something that the Canadiens can use. If he is sent down to the AHL, they would risk losing him to waivers, so he’s worth taking a chance on keeping.
On defense, two RFAs stand out. The obvious one is Romanov, who has steadily been developing into a quality second pairing physical two-way defender. It may be more beneficial for the Canadiens if they were to sign him to a long-term deal now to pay for potential and gamble that he exceeds the contract value. The other is Corey Schueneman, who has taken full advantage of the opportunities he received this season. He can provide depth on the blue line, and when called upon, he can be relied on to play a steady defensive game with good mobility and transitional play.
In goal, the Canadiens are set for next season. Jake Allen is under contract, and once healthy, he can be relied upon to start 40 or more games if need be. The big question marks are around Carey Price. If, and there will be serious concerns that need to be addressed here, Price is healthy and wants to stay in Montreal. He may very well choose to ask for a trade or be facing health issues again.
There isn’t much difference in the top 12 at the moment, with the exception that the hope is everyone can start the season healthy. With that said, this is the group that ended the 2021-22 season with the 31st ranked offense, scoring at 2.54 goals per game pace. Only the Arizona Coyotes were less capable, but at least they were purposely trying to rebuild, the Habs slid into offensive mediocrity naturally through poor performances and injuries.
One of those who sorely underperformed is Mike Hoffman. There is no question that he will be available this summer, but it may cost the Canadiens assets to get rid of his contract.
They may have to start the season with him and hope he lives up to his billing as a PP weapon to bring his trade value up.
The blue line began making a dramatic, unplanned, yet necessary shift to taking a modern approach by becoming much younger and more mobile. Romanov, Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, and even Schueneman all bring youth and varying levels of physicality, mobility, and offensive skill. David Savard and Joel Edmundson would be the veteran voices on the ice and in the room. The team will desperately need a healthy Edmundson all season and a much better overall performance from Savard if they hope to mentor this young blue line and compete for a playoff spot as management seems to desire.
Possible Canadiens Targets
Jeff Petry’s trade demand adds a degree of difficulty to Hughes’ job juggling needs and cap space. This lineup, without Petry’s salary on the books and assuming no salary needs to be retained or have any coming back, could leave the Habs with approximately $74 million to add to the 22-man roster. Instead of waiting for free agency, Hughes should get busy on the trade market first. With his vast stockpile of picks and prospects, it makes it possible to rid the Canadiens’ salary structure of problematic contracts but also to make trades that could speed up the rebuild process.
One such player that Hughes can pursue that fits a desperate need for top-six centers is Pierre-Luc Dubois. In a recent 32 Thoughts during a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, Elliotte Friedman reports that the Winnipeg Jets may trade Dubois. Montreal would benefit from acquiring the 6-foot-3, 218-pound center, as he’d be an excellent fit in a tandem with Suzuki. Dubois’ two-way power forward style not only fills a need at center but also the need for more offense and size in the forward group.
If Hughes can’t fill the need to add a big-name player via trade, he is likely to do it through the UFA market. One name to keep an eye on is former Hughes client, defenceman Kris Letang. If he can be added in the short term, he would be an upgrade on what Petry provided. While Letang does have an injury history, the value of adding a defenceman coming off of a 70-point season who is also a premiere PP quarterback cannot be ignored.
Any team that finishes the season at the bottom of the standings will have glaring needs, especially if they wish to improve over the offseason. While another season of poor results leading to the bottom of the standings might be what fans feel is best, to have a chance to select Connor Bedard at the 2023 Entry Draft may not be what the GM wants. It would seem Hughes wants the Habs to become competitive immediately. If he is going to fill needs, he is best to swing for the fences on players that fit into the long-term plans and risk not filling them. At least if he misses, he can fall back onto the draft and hope for a lottery pick win.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.