The Montreal Canadiens are in an enviable position, with priority selecting players off waivers until Nov. 1. However, to benefit, they have to use it just right, targeting players at specific positions, players with specific profiles to boot. To do otherwise would be to arguably squander the advantage altogether.
As teams finalize their rosters to start the season, the Habs do have their pick of the litter in terms of players who still have upside but are on the outside looking in on their respective rosters, potentially due to a variety of factors, like too much organizational depth. That’s one problem the Habs the Canadiens share up front.
Picking up a forward, like Los Angeles King Lias Andersson who was put on waivers late this week (and later cleared), would theoretically mean one less roster spot for someone like Michael Pezzetta or maybe even first-overall pick Juraj Slavkovsky. So, even though Andersson is a relatively recent seventh-overall pick (2017) with undeniable upside, it’s a risky proposition.
That’s especially true in the case of the former, as Pezzetta would have to go through waivers, with a one-way contract. They have different skill sets as well, with Pezzetta better-suited for a depth/reserve role, while Andersson would more so thrive in the top six, taking away ice time from another Habs forward projected to be played higher up in the lineup, with no fewer than 16 Canadiens fighting for 12 regular spots up front.
Think Kirby Dach, for example. And, if not, if the Habs simply pick up an “Andersson” only to play them in the bottom six, why even bother? All that to say, the Canadiens need to be incredibly strategic here, with anyone they would pick up to play a different position set to similarly push someone, realistically a forward, off the roster.
Thankfully, the same logjam issue doesn’t ring true anywhere else in the lineup. If the Habs go for a defenseman or goalie, the move would be much more of the low-risk, high-reward variety. Here are those needs ranked in decreasing order of how worthwhile addressing them via waivers would be:
3. Left-Handed Defenseman
With Joel Edmundson out indefinitely, the only veteran on the team’s left side on defense is Mike Matheson. Maybe, if you’re being generous, you can fit 27-year-old Corey Schueneman, who’s only 1.5 years younger, in that category too, even if he only has 24 NHL games under his belt. However, Schueneman has far from impressed this training camp, with prospects like Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj vying for one of the potentially several jobs up for grabs as a result.
Related: Canadiens’ Defensive Depth Gets Tested with Edmundson Injury
So, the Canadiens don’t necessarily need a left-handed defenseman, but it would be preferable to have the option to bring several of the above young guns along more slowly. Consider the team’s veteran core on the blue line now effectively comprises Matheson, David Savard and Chris Wideman, the latter having played more games in the minors/Kontinental Hockey League than in the NHL in his career.
So, someone like Slater Koekkoek, who had been placed on waivers alongside Andersson holds value, even if his long-term NHL prospects are considerably lower. Koekkoek isn’t ideal here, but rather just an example of the type of defenseman the Canadiens should target, if they’re focusing on the left side. Claiming another young fringe NHLer like Kale Clague last season would only water down the prospect pipeline in comparison, adding one more name to a hypothetical rotation in and out of the lineup.
In net, the Canadiens’ needs are far greater, yet curiously less defined. According to general manager Kent Hughes, the Habs lack a goalie who’s proven capable of playing as a No. 1 in the organization (with Carey Price out for the foreseeable future, if not forever).
That may be overdramatizing the situation a tad, as Cayden Primeau at least has potential to develop into a starter, based on his success last American Hockey League playoffs. However, to so much as have a chance to become a No. 1, Primeau needs time to continue to develop in the AHL.
That’s where the situation gets dicey, because the Habs’ de facto starter, Jake Allen, isn’t a No. 1 based on the endurance or lack thereof he’s shown over his career. With numerous injuries sustained during his time with the Habs, it’s all too easy to envision him getting hurt again at some point this season, at which point the need for additional goaltending depth becomes critical so as to not put Primeau’s development further at risk, forcing him to play behind one of the league’s worst projected defenses this coming season.
So, putting in a claim for a goalie makes some sense, just like the Habs did last year with this season’s projected backup, Samuel Montembeault. It would force the Canadiens to try to sneak Montembeault through waivers (lest they devote three ever-valuable roster spots to goaltenders), but, as a third-string goalie, who has really yet to prove himself as anything other than that, Montembeault is relatively expendable. If he does sneak through, the Canadiens suddenly have a much-needed contingency plan in case of injury.
So, think someone along the lines of ex-Hab Keith Kinkaid, who was just put on waivers himself. The Canadiens aren’t going to compete this coming season, so, whoever they pick up, it doesn’t really matter, even if they’d only be an NHL goalie in status only. True, ideally, you’d claim a goalie with that aforementioned No. 1 potential, but pickings are fairly slim in net. So, at this point, it’s more so about insulating who you’ve already got in Primeau.
1. Right-Handed Defenseman
In terms of organizational depth on the right side on defense, the Canadiens are arguably in far more dire straits. In terms of prospects with NHL upside, they’ve got Justin Barron (also having just signed Logan Mailloux). However, it would be a mistake to assume Barron is ready for full-time NHL duty, despite how he got in regular NHL ice time after he had been acquired at the trade deadline last season. The aforementioned hypothetical rotation applies to him too.
In such an instance, the Habs’ right side comprises Savard and Wideman, with AHL-regular Madison Bowey potentially factoring in, if necessary. It kind of makes acquiring a right-handed defenseman a priority, to the point Hughes himself has gone on record as saying picking one up via waivers is a possibility.
The silver lining for the Canadiens is their weakness on that left side lends itself to a greater degree of flexibility here. While Savard is a likely mainstay in the lineup (when healthy), Wideman doesn’t necessarily have to be deployed regularly. He’s a depth player. He was after all a projected seventh defenseman when he first got signed last season.
So, the Canadiens can go after another veteran defenseman, who may similarly not have much of a future in the NHL beyond depth duty. They can alternatively claim someone with more upside, giving them ice time at Wideman’s expense (or Barron’s, if the Habs deem it more beneficial to the waiver-exempt defenseman’s development to send him to the AHL altogether).
There’s undeniable value to be had, with Paul Byron and Rem Pitlick being Habs-specific success stories up front. In net, current-Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Matt Murray was placed on waivers just last season (although it remains to be seen how he fares this one). On defense, Gustav Forsling has enjoyed significant success with the Florida Panthers ever since being claimed by them in 2021.
So, the Canadiens are in a decent position, in spite of how they finished in last place last season and aren’t expected to do much better in 2022-23. Really, they’re in a decent position because of those facts. The waiver wire may not be the sexiest way to fill holes on one’s roster, but, with the priority the Canadiens have, it can be effective. It’s just up to them to use it wisely.