All Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis can realistically ask of the Habs during a rebuilding 2022-23 season is an honest effort every game. Sometimes even that isn’t enough to hold onto a roster spot on such a young team, though.
At a surprising 2-2 so far, the Canadiens are proving analysts wrong, having already knocked off two arguable contenders in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. Nevertheless, the Canadiens can’t lose sight of what should be their ultimate goal: prospect development, without getting hung up on results in the standings. With that in mind, here are the top five Habs who could lose their respective roster spots:
5. Arber Xhekaj
It’s nothing that defenseman Arber Xhekaj necessarily did. In fact, his game has showed marked improvement with each passing outing to the point it’s easy to envision him earning a regular NHL spot eventually. However, it’s somewhat unrealistic that regular spot will come this season, assuming one of Mike Matheson or Joel Edmundson, two fellow left-handed defensemen, make it off injured reserve (IR).
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Simply put, Xhekaj projects as a bottom-pairing defenseman, which is reflected in his defense-low 14:28 per game. Both Kaiden Guhle (20:59) and Jordan Harris (19:22) have gotten significantly more ice time, impressing in the process.
Some form of a rotation in and out of the lineup between the young defensemen had been expected. However, if Edmundson comes back soon (with Matheson expected out for months), that still leaves two open spots on the left side on defense. It makes sense for Guhle and Harris to get them in the interim.
4. Corey Schueneman
Defenseman Corey Schueneman is also on the bubble, but under a different set of circumstances. Schueneman had been in the conversation to fill the role of seventh defenseman after a relatively strong showing in 2021-22, albeit through just 24 games. However, after an underwhelming training camp to start 2022-23, he fell down the depth chart to the point the Canadiens deemed it worthwhile to give the three rookie left-handed defensemen the nod instead.
In fairness, Schueneman did get called up after Matheson got injured to end training camp, to serve that same seventh-defenseman role in theory. On the other hand, he also got sent down just to make room for goalie Cayden Primeau when starter Jake Allen went on parental leave. Even though Schueneman’s now back, in spite of the progress he’s made in his career, finally making it to the “show” last season, it’s like one step forward, two back with regard to his value in the eyes of management.
It’s still possible the Canadiens determine it’s best to send Xhekaj down to get regular ice time with the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League, in which case Schueneman stays in the picture (albeit still as a reserve player). That’s only once Edmundson returns though. Once both Edmundson and Matheson return though, Schueneman is destined for the AHL, regardless of the Canadiens’ plans for the rookie trio on defense.
3. Evgeny Dadonov
Whenever you have a surplus of forwards, you have to expect at least a few to be on the hot seat. When healthy, the Canadiens have 16 forwards. So, something has to give, with someone like Evgeny Dadonov, a pending unrestricted free agent in whom the Habs can’t possibly have future plans, probably at risk of drawing the short straw and even being sent down.
True, Paul Byron is unlikely to return in the short or maybe even medium term. That leaves 15 once Joel Armia returns from injury. So, at least one forward will have to go. Dadonov is at least a logical choice in that regard, based on his zero points to date and 13:19 of ice time per game, which ranks No. 10 of 13 forwards to be played (Michael Pezzetta being the odd man out).
However, points aren’t everything, and Dadonov has been seeing a significant amount of time on the seventh-ranked penalty-kill unit (91.7%). Among forwards, he’s gotten a fourth-ranked 2:18 per game to be precise. Needless to say, the fact that St. Louis is entrusting him to that degree is a sign the Canadiens see something more in him than meets the eye, especially as someone who has a reputation of being a defensive liability.
2. Mike Hoffman
The same defensive-liability tag applies to forward Mike Hoffman. To his credit, Hoffman hasn’t been held scoreless. He picked up a secondary assist, his only point on the season, on Nick Suzuki’s goal in the team’s 3-2 comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 17. Call a spade a spade, though. It was all Suzuki on the marker in question, where the Canadiens captain took the initial shot and knocked in the rebound on a wraparound.
Overall, Hoffman’s performance has left most people wanting. In most cases, wanting him to be traded. However, that’s the problem, as, for Hoffman to become trade bait (without the Habs having to add a sweetener to convince another team to take him), he’s going to have to be showcased.
With Hoffman having one more year under contract past this one, the Canadiens are arguably more desperate to find him a new home, with the AHL serving as a last resort. After all, like with Dadonov, burying his contract only entitles the Canadiens to $1.125 million in cap relief. That means the Habs would still be on the hook for $3.375 million in Hoffman’s case ($3.875 million in Dadonov’s). So, it’s not a cure-all.
On one hand, it shouldn’t really matter how badly Hoffman is playing. As has been established, the Canadiens shouldn’t be concerned with final scores this season. On the other, if it comes down to Hoffman/Dadonov and, say, a prospect who needs ice time in the NHL to properly develop, the choice should be clear.
1. Juraj Slafkovsky
There’s arguably no prospect in the Canadiens’ system in need of more ice time than Juraj Slafkovsky. He’s just not getting it in Montreal. The first-overall pick from this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft may have made the roster out of training camp, but he’s also getting a team-low 10:41 per game. As a result, it’s probably best that he get sent down at the nine-game mark (if not earlier), so he doesn’t burn the first year of his contract.
Ultimately, there’s no reason to rush Slafkovsky. He’ll figure in as a big part of the team’s offense for many years to come, just not now, as evidenced by his lack of production/deployment at this point, with zero points to start his NHL career.
Truth be told, a demotion at this point would be the best thing. For starters, he’ll get much more ice time in the minors, acclimating to the North American game in the process. Plus it would theoretically give someone like Jesse Ylonen, a prospect who’s arguably more NHL-ready, a chance to jump into lineup.
As someone who could end up a replacement for Artturi Lehkonen (from ‘Canadiens by the numbers: Jesse Ylonen offers more than meets the eye,’ Montreal Gazette, June 17, 2022), Ylonen can be deployed anywhere in the lineup. Whereas Ylonen has displayed a penchant for two-way play in limited NHL action, Slafkovsky, as the team’s top prospect, should instead be put in a position to succeed offensively and consistently.
With so much riding on Slafkovsky, his success is the team’s… just more so a few years down the road when the Habs are ready to compete again. They may have impressed early, but it’s a long season. The sooner he gets deployed more in line with realistic expectations surrounding his development, the more opportunity he’ll have to reach his potential, because he’s just not getting those opportunities with the Canadiens, at least not now and not in large enough quantity.
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.