The Montreal Canadiens have suffered through COVID-19 infections, injuries and roster upheaval that leaves a team incapable or unwilling to play the system the coach had begun the season with. This has meant they have yet to find their identity this season and have plummeted to the cellar, meaning they will likely have one of the top odds in the draft lottery to pick first overall. If they did win the lottery, it would be the first time they chose No. 1 overall since the 1980 NHL Entry Draft.
This season is on pace to end as the worst in the 112-year history of this storied franchise on many levels. However, with a new management team and their new plan, it will be an important step forward for a fan base that is craving to see a Stanley Cup contending team. Any trades they now complete will need to fit into the identity that general manager (GM) Kent Hughes is planning to build to reach that elusive contender status.
Hughes hasn’t outright laid out his plan in a letter to the fans as executive vice president Jeff Gorton did when he was GM of the New York Rangers. But in his opening statements to the press, Hughes tipped his hand:
“I envision a team that plays fast with the puck, a possession hockey team. But I also understand that you have to build a team around the players that you have and that’s going to be a process for as we move forward…. As part of this process, we have to identify and put a team together that fits our identity, fits how we want to play, and choose a coach who’s able to coach those players.”-Kent Hughes
Hughes wants a fast, skilled team that will play with possession, which is the direction that several of the top teams in the NHL have taken and a style that older Canadiens fans may recognize as Fire-Wagon hockey, the style that brought the Habs success when they were rolling out dynasty after dynasty.
Canadiens’ Trade Block
The Canadiens have a few players in the system already that fit that plan; however, they will need several more. Being a team at the bottom of the standings means they will be sellers, and the good news is that some of the players that are gathering trade interest could help Hughes add some picks and prospects to the system that could meet that identity.
The obvious choices to be traded out are the upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFA). Chris Wideman, Brett Kulak, Laurent Dauphin, Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault will likely move, but will not bring back anything more than middle- to late-round picks. That being said, their movement out would help as it frees up salary cap space, opens up space under the NHL contract limit of 50 and provides an opportunity for younger players an opportunity to graduate and earn these NHL roles.
Who Should Kent Hughes Target?
However, there are several highly sought-after commodities on the Canadiens’ roster. Ben Chiarot has been linked to teams such as the St. Louis Blues, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames. There are others who still have term or team control beyond this season, such as Artturi Lehkonen — as confirmed by Frank Seravalli — has been linked to several teams including the New York Rangers and, according to David Pagnotta of the fourth period, Jonathan Drouin hasn’t been openly linked to any teams, but has been tied to the Colorado Avalanche in the past. The value of these players are much higher and could get a return that would be beneficial, such as late first-round picks and possibly even a top prospect.
If possible, instead of targeting first-round picks, Hughes should use his top trade assets to target a return of prospects that fit his desired identity.
From Calgary, Jacob Pelletier should be targeted as he fits the identity Hughes is in search of. The former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) star plays a possession style with speed and has excellent offensive skills. He is already one of the team leaders in points for the Flames’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Stockton Heat.
This demonstrates that the Quebec City, Quebec native can compete and produce offence in the professional ranks despite his diminutive 5-foot-9 and 161-pound stature. It may take someone like Tyler Toffoli to make that happen, but in the long term it could be beneficial.
From St. Louis, 2021 first-round pick Zachary Bolduc fits the desired future identity for the Canadiens as he plays with pace, has an ability to make plays at top speed and has a great shot. He displays a high hockey IQ with his defensive reads as well as his on-ice vision in creating plays for his linemates.
“He’s a player with a high skill level who can skate, which is immediately intriguing. Bolduc has the ability to play fast and make tough plays with the puck on the move. He’s not an elite playmaker, but he moves the puck very well and can clearly finish plays.”-Corey Pronman (From “The 2021 NHL Draft ranking: Corey Pronman’s top 35 prospects”, The Athletic, 10/8/20)
Being a native of Trois-Rivières, Quebec would also be beneficial in a market like Montreal’s as he adds some local talent to the system.
From the Panthers, the prevailing comments will be Anton Lundell, but it is unlikely that anyone the Canadiens have available could entice the Panthers to trade their top prospect. Grigory Denisenko, on the other hand, could be. He is a classic Russian trained winger who plays with pace and creates offence using his teammates and puck possession. He also possesses leadership abilities, having captained Russia to an under-20 World Junior Championship silver medal in 2020. However, he does have consistency issues, but with some added time and coaching in the AHL, that could be rectified.
From New York, one prospect that could fit the long-term plans for the Canadiens is right-handed defenceman Braden Schneider. At the NHL level with two star top-four, right-handed defenders in Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, it will be difficult for him to graduate and win a roster spot, making him an ideal trade candidate to fill other needs for the Rangers.
“Big, strong defender who has some nasty sprinkled on top. Will never be mistaken for a new-age defenseman, he does make smart decisions as an attacker on both the power play and even strength. This big man is good in his pivots, an excellent puck mover, and a crisp passer in transition. He has no qualms about jumping into the play, but he makes the most impact as a devastating checker and smart defensive zone player who has an active stick that disrupts the passing lanes. Is developing some offensive upside, which might dispel the opinion that he is a big, mobile, stay-at-home defender and just that.”– Bill Placzek
At 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, he already boasts NHL size, excellent skating ability and his mobile, puck-moving style is desperately needed to bolster the right hand side of the Canadiens’ right-side, blue-line depth. He could also be highly prized by the Canadiens as Gorton, while as the Rangers GM, targeted him at the 2020 Entry Draft, trading up from 22nd overall to 19th to acquire him.
Targeting prospects that can fill team needs, who add desperately needed offence, skill and an ability to play the possession game Hughes identified as his plan for the team’s future, may prove to be more beneficial than just asking for draft picks. Regardless of whether Hughes identifies this roster as needing a complete rebuild or simply a retool, by targeting prospects one to two years after they were drafted would help to accelerate his plan. The extra season or two would provide the scouts more data to confirm if they could reach their potential, and they would be closer to being NHL ready.
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.