It’s going to be a busy summer for Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes as they prepare to continue their transformation of the Montreal Canadiens roster. The offseason to-do list is already long for the new management group, but one of the priorities should be finding a winger to play alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, the team’s most prolific offensive duo that needs to continue progressing to reach their obvious potential.
The missing piece has to see the game well, have some creative playmaking ability, and a capacity to finish off plays. Here are some of the different avenues that can be explored over the next few months to fill an important role in the lineup that will significantly influence the current and future path of this team.
Since trading Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames earlier this season, it has been somewhat of a revolving door next to Montreal’s two young stars. Josh Anderson, Mike Hoffman, and Rem Pitlick have all gotten looks on the top line with varying degrees of success and it doesn’t seem like any of them are a long-term solution.
Anderson has probably proven to be the best internal option so far, but his occasional inconsistency and lack of offensive creativity aren’t ideal for a long-term fit. He’s too much of a north/south player to adequately complement Suzuki and Caufield. Pitlick’s speed and finishing ability were a nice addition to the line for a time, but he is likely better suited for a different role.
One player on the current roster who has the potential to create strong chemistry with the pair beginning next season is Jonathan Drouin. He has the skills to create and see the game alongside them. The problem is his future with the Canadiens and long-term health following a second wrist surgery are both question marks at the moment. At best, he is a viable short-term solution for the 2022-23 campaign and then will need to be replaced once his contract is up.
There should be several interesting candidates available on the trade market this offseason who could fill the roster hole.
It appears that the Edmonton Oilers will be facing a tough decision when it comes to Jesse Puljujärvi and could decide to move him. He’s young, talented, checks the boxes in terms of what the Habs would be looking for, and could grow alongside Suzuki and Caufield for many years to come. Vitali Kravstov of the New York Rangers fits the same mold. Plus, it’s no secret that he could use a change of scenery and that Gorton knows him well from his days as general manager in the Big Apple.
Another trade option is Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks, a player that Montreal was linked to at the Trade Deadline. The $7.5 million qualifying offer he’s due as a restricted free this summer may scare the Canadiens away considering their already challenging salary cap situation, but there is no doubt that he would be a significant upgrade for the first line.
Free Agent Options
It is known that Hughes and Gorton would like to make a splash in free agency during the offseason. While there have been rumors swirling about Kris Letang coming home to play in Montreal, it wouldn’t be surprising if a notable acquisition is made to bolster the forward group as well.
If the Habs want to swing for the fences, they could go after two of the biggest names in free agency, Filip Forsberg and Johnny Gaudreau. It’s not hard to imagine how much Suzuki and Caufield would benefit from playing with either of these two stars or how much players of their caliber would accelerate the roster transformation.
More realistically, the Habs could be tempted to pursue Nino Niederreiter or veteran David Perron. Both are a bit older than the potential targets mentioned, but they still have a lot to offer, especially in this context. Niederreiter combines size with a diverse set of skills while Perron is aging like a fine wine and his experience would be invaluable.
Big offseason changes are on the horizon for the Canadiens and how they choose to alter their top-six forwards just may ultimately have the most significant impact of all the player movement forthcoming in preparation for next season and beyond.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media & Marketing Manager as well as co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.