The Montreal Canadiens are in a transition period where they are trying to build a team for long-term success. This is a complete 180 from what the previous management accomplished, where they were trying to compete well enough to make the playoffs and hope for the best. With this strategy, former general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin signed many mediocre players to long-term contracts because they were good playoff performers. New management, consisting of GM Kent Hughes and senior vice president of hockey operations (VPHO) Jeff Gorton, are trying to rid themselves of these contracts and build a younger, more mobile team for future long-term success.
For the new strategy to work, the younger players must play well enough to fill the skates of the players leaving – maybe not right now but within the next couple of years. One young player starting to show signs he will be exactly what they hoped for is 2022 first-overall draft pick Juraj Slafkovsky. The enormous power forward has improved his game throughout the season and is being rewarded with top-six minutes; if this trend keeps up, he could render current top-six power forward Josh Anderson expendable.
Slafkovsky’s Development is Working
Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis wanted to take a slow approach to Slafkovksy’s play by minimizing his minutes and not rushing him into situations he wasn’t ready to handle. The top pick in last summer’s draft had never played on North American ice, and many speculated at the start of the season he would play with the Habs’ farm team, the Laval Rocket, to get his feet wet. With a few injuries to Montreal’s forward core, there was room for Slafkovsky to start the season with the Canadiens. With past failures in developing young players, many fans saw this as the wrong approach and feared the same mistakes would be made.
Slafkovsky started slow, playing on the fourth line and averaging around ten minutes a game. It took him five games before getting his first point, a goal against the Arizona Coyotes; he also scored in the next game, giving him two goals in his first six games. St. Louis’s slow-burn approach allowed Slafkovsky to adjust to the smaller ice and speed of the NHL; playing with the Canadiens also allowed him to work more closely with Adam Nicholas on the things he needed to improve on away from the puck, like board battles, defence, and his skating. As the season has gone on, he has improved immensely in all areas of his game, and since his first goal, he has not gone more than two games without getting at least a point. If Slafkovsky keeps his upward trend, he could be ready for top-six minutes on a full-time basis sooner than later.
Anderson Trade Rumours Keep Swirling
It’s no secret that the Canadiens are trying to shed salaries and improve their cap situation. It’s also no secret they have a few long-term, high-priced contracts they would like to part with. They have a handful of players who are ready to move when the proper return becomes available. Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Sean Monahan have expiring contracts, and the Habs hope to move them for assets. However, only Monahan is playing to the potential of getting anything worthwhile. Dadonov could get something at the deadline if his game improves, while Byron and Drouin are battling injuries and will probably go unsigned at the end of the season. There are a few players with term on their contract that other teams could and have inquired about. One player teams are very interested in and have been contacting Hughes about since he was hired last season is Anderson.
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Anderson is probably the best option right now for Hughes to shed salary off the cap and get a good return in a trade. The immense power forward is fast, big, and can be a productive goal scorer if he can put it all together. Every team in the NHL wants a player like him not just for his size, but his ability to open up the ice for his linemates and the way he can blow past defencemen on the outside and power himself in for a scoring chance. He can provide any contending team with excellent secondary scoring and a tough, gritty player in the top six. These qualities are why many teams have been calling Hughes’ to try and pry him away. If the return is correct, he won’t hesitate to drop Anderson’s $5.5 million over the next four seasons. Anderson’s name has been linked to the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and New Jersey Devils already, but Hughes hasn’t flinched yet. With this much interest, he can wait until he gets exactly what he wants.
Slafkovsky’s Fast Development Could Help Hughes
With Slafkovsky getting better every game and using his size more to help kickstart the offence, it could help Hughes decide sooner rather than later what to do with Anderson. Hughes doesn’t have to move the 28-year-old if he doesn’t want to, but he is the team’s best option if they want to improve their salary cap situation and get a high-end return. As Slafkovsky improves and plays more minutes, Hughes will better understand where his first-overall draft pick is in his development. With players like Mike Hoffman, Brendan Gallagher, David Savard, and Drouin all returning soon or just after the Christmas break, Hughes will need to make some roster moves to make room for everyone to fit in the 23-man limit.
Hughes has already proven he wants the young players to stay in Montreal when he put Rem Pitlick on waivers to keep Slafkovsky, Arber Xhakej, Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, and Jonathan Kovacevic on the roster. If he wants to continue maintaining the rookies on the team, he will either need to risk putting another player on waivers or start making some trades. If there is no movement by the Christmas roster freeze, expect things to get hot and heavy between New Year’s and the trade deadline, and don’t be shocked if Anderson is a player moving to another team. Slafkovsky is learning quickly and succeeding when put into the top six with three points in five games. He’s proving that with better, more skilled linemates, he can play at the top of his game, and it will be an easier transition if he needs to play there on a full-time basis.
Hughes is saying he wants another first-round pick in this year’s draft. He already has two, and if the season ended right now, he would be drafting 11th and 15th, two excellent spots for this deep draft. Anderson gives him a good chance of getting that third pick, and with Slafkovsky improving faster than anticipated, he doesn’t need to hesitate in moving Anderson to get it. If you look at it, Monahan could also potentially get them a first-round pick; imagine how fast that will push the rebuild if they get four choices in the first round of the 2023 Draft.