Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki went against the grain last season. Despite a last-place finish in the standings and a record man-games lost, Suzuki was firstly the only Habs player to get in all 82 games in 2021-22. He also led the team with a career-high 61 points, breaking out as the team’s No. 1 center in the process.
To be fair, Suzuki did score 41 points in 56 games the previous pandemic-shortened season, en route to helping to lead the Canadiens to a playoff appearance and an eventual Stanley Cup Final berth. However, he proved he could put it together over a complete 82 games in the face of unprecedented adversity.
If the Canadiens want to show significant improvement in the standings in 2022-23, they’re going to need several players to follow in Suzuki’s footsteps. It’s not going to be easy though, as the Habs continue to get younger. With that in mind, here are the top five candidates to break out in decreasing order:
5. Juraj Slafkovsky
First-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky is the youngest player of them all at just 18 years of age. Considered to be the most NHL-ready prospect taken at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Slafkovsky could not realistically be left off this list. However, he ranks last just as realistically.
Even if Slafkovsky makes the NHL in 2022-23, which is admittedly a possibility, there are no guarantees Slafkovsky enjoys a Calder Memorial Trophy-caliber campaign. Being the most NHL-ready just means Slafkovsky is the most likely to be able to step into the NHL, not necessarily produce right away, especially considering few if any analysts saw his draft class as having elite talent.
For some context, the last Canadiens player to win the Calder was Ken Dryden in 1972. Since then, only a handful of Habs have come close to capturing rookie-of-the-year honors. All of the ones on that list are 20 and older. In fact, the closest was Michael Ryder in 2004. He was 24 at the time.
Now, expectations as to what the Canadiens will accomplish in 2022-23 are low to say the least. So, there’s no real benefit to, first, dropping Slafkovsky into the deep end right away (even if he is listed at 6-foot-4), in the mere hope that he breaks out and become a force out of the starting gate. Secondly, if he does make the Canadiens out of training camp, there’s also no benefit to putting pressure on him to produce.
Easier said than done in hockey-mad Montreal, but it should still go without saying: Don’t rush Slafkovsky to the NHL and don’t assume he’s going to be great to start his career. He undeniably figures into the Canadiens’ long-term plans and has the potential to become a big part of the Canadiens’ offense for many years to come. It’s just unlikely it begins in 2022-23.
4. Jordan Harris
Defenseman Jordan Harris ranks No.4, because, like Slafkovsky, he’s still waiver-exempt. So, he can get sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) without any problem.
True, Harris played 10 games with the Canadiens last season. However, starting the season with the Habs, when the campaign is not yet lost, is a different animal than getting played immediately after having signed your first NHL contract with a month to go in a last-place season.
That having been said, expectations for the Canadiens may be higher, but not to the point where they’re in a position to go for it right now. Just the opposite in fact. They’re in a position to play the young guys and let them make mistakes.
Furthermore, Harris is undeniably likely to stick with the team, due to a general lack of NHL-ready left-handed defensemen in the organization. It just remains to be seen where in the lineup he’ll get played, especially following the acquisition of fellow-leftie Mike Matheson. As it stands, you’ve got the latter, Joel Edmundson and Corey Schueneman in the running for spots, maybe even prospect Kaiden Guhle.
As a result, even if Schueneman is more of a seventh-defenseman candidate, Harris is likely destined for little more than third-line minutes, at least to start his NHL career. In fact, he averaged the ninth-most minutes among Canadiens defensemen last season. Look for him to only make slight inroads in that department in 2022-23.
3. Justin Barron
On the right side, Justin Barron doesn’t have nearly the same logjam with which to deal. He can similarly be sent down to the AHL, but, with just David Savard and Chris Wideman projected to be in the running for regular ice time, Barron should conceivably be given significant looks right away.
He at least was to a greater extent than Harris, including on the power play after getting acquired at the trade deadline. Then an ankle injury took Barron out of the lineup to end the season. In five Habs games, Barron played a sixth-ranked 19:01 per game, including a fifth-ranked 1:15 with the extra man. The only incumbent ahead of him was Wideman.
So, Barron will likely get opportunities in 2022-23. What he does with them? As a projected all-around defenseman with offensive ability, Barron has a good chance at burying a few at least.
2. Kirby Dach
Forward Kirby Dach proves there’s a difference between making the NHL and making it in the NHL. This coming 2022-23 season could be the year he takes that next step, already poised for a bigger role with the Canadiens.
Dach was of course drafted third overall in 2019 as a 6-foot-4, 197-pound center by the Chicago Blackhawks and made the team as an 18-year-old. Unfortunately, his development hasn’t gone that smoothly, with a notorious wrist injury sustained at the 2021 World Juniors contributing to an 18-game 2020-21 campaign.
The next season went better in terms of games played, as Dach got in 70. However, from a deployment standpoint, 2021-22 was arguably a step back as Dach got moved to the wing. Perhaps related, perhaps not, Dach has won just 34.6% of faceoffs in his NHL career so far.
Nevertheless, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has made it clear the idea is to develop the still-21-year-old Dach as a center. Seeing as the Habs are especially weak down the middle, Dach should get quite a few shifts down the middle in a Canadiens uniform.
Ultimately, the Canadiens didn’t give up Alexander Romanov to get Dach just to play him in a supporting role. Romanov was an up-and-coming defenseman who had still established himself as key component of the team’s core. Logically you’d expect the Canadiens to see something similar in Dach, just up front.
After all, Romanov did technically break out last season as the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy winner. Dach is a year younger, with defensemen notoriously taking longer to develop. That isn’t to suggest Romanov is a star right now, only that Dach is at least due to jump forward from a production standpoint after having been limited to a career-high 26 points in 2021-22. The Canadiens have committed to making that a reality eventually, potentially as soon as this coming season.
1. Cole Caufield
In contrast, forward Cole Caufield found success in the NHL right away, maybe too soon in retrospect (albeit as a 20-year-old). He did technically begin his professional career in the AHL, but, after just a few games, Caufield got promoted to the Habs to end the 2020-21 regular season, becoming a key contributor on the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, during which he scored 12 points in 20 games.
As a result of the immediate success, Caufield became a favorite to win the Calder last season, only to struggle under ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme. Caufield scored just one goal and eight points in 30 games, even getting demoted back to the AHL at one point, before Ducharme got replaced by Martin St. Louis.
The improvement in Caufield’s game was sudden to say the least. Right off the bat, Caufield scored in two straight games. Overall, under St. Louis, Caufield scored 22 goals and 35 points in 37 games. That’s almost a point per game. Perhaps more impressively, it translates to 49 goals over 82.
Small sample size or not, it showed Caufield’s potential as sniper, which he was drafted to be. However, because it was a small sample size, it’s hard to give Caufield credit for breaking out up to this point. Even when he was initially called up to end the 2020-21 season, it was for just 10 games, with the four goals he scored admittedly being representative of the pace fans envision him hitting at full stride.
In the end, the Canadiens have just seen flashes of Caufield’s talent. This coming season can be the point at which it finally comes together over a full campaign. No one is saying he’ll score 50 goals or close to it, but first-line production, playing with Suzuki, is a fair benchmark to use in assessing his development in 2022-23.
A full season under St. Louis should work wonders. Considering the turnaround for the team in general after the coaching change, that goes for just about everyone on this list. However, expectations should vary from player to player. In the end Caufield serves as proof that patience is key. In his case at least, the time could be now. Hence the No. 1 spot.