It’s good to know Jeff Gorton isn’t wasting any time. The new Montreal Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations claimed defenseman Kale Clague off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings to give the Habs an offensive dimension otherwise lacking on the left side.
That’s of course if you exclude Mattias Norlinder, who the Canadiens can now safely send back to Sweden so they can develop the defensive prospect properly. Assuming of course yo-yoing Norlinder in and out of the lineup, at times limiting him to less than 10 minutes per game, isn’t part of some new-age developmental technique.
All in all, it’s a good first step, with ex-general manager Marc Bergevin having emphasized size over skill on defense in a generally speedier league. It’s no doubt one priority Gorton needs to tackle with Bergevin’s eventual successor. What are the others? Excluding hiring the new GM, of course:
3. Address Lack of Center Depth
Something the Canadiens had last season that they don’t in 2021-22? More center depth, which is likely at least partly to blame for their disappointing campaign to date.
Last season, Phillip Danault was obviously still here, centering Brendan Gallagher, which is a problem in its own right. They also had Jesperi Kotkaniemi, with Christian Dvorak doing an underwhelming job replacing him as Danault’s projected replacement on the second line.
There’s then a steep drop-off in terms of offensive capability, with Jake Evans theoretically drawing in as the third-line center. Evans’ breakout season in the role hasn’t exactly come to pass unfortunately. Former-first-round-pick Ryan Poehling’s also in the mix, but, beyond him, there’s not a lot of help in the pipeline beyond prospects who were just drafted (Riley Kidney, Oliver Kapanen, Xavier Simoneau).
Thankfully, Bergevin did acquire Nick Suzuki, giving the Habs their first No. 1 center in decades, but there’s obviously more work that needs to be done to bring the position as a whole up to a competitive level. In terms of importance, the lack of depth should probably rank higher (alongside the defensive issues). However, it can’t realistically be solved in the short to medium term. Nos. 2 and 1 can.
2. Assess Ducharme’s Abilities as Head Coach
Gorton has officially gone on record saying head coach Dominique Ducharme will stay on the rest of the season (at least). Sparing Ducharme for now is the right call for a variety of reasons, but there are certainly red flags in terms of deployment decisions that seem to needlessly be putting the development of prospects at risk. For example: dropping Cole Caufield to a then-season-low 11:06 on Halloween before he got assigned to the American Hockey League. He was eventually recalled only to eventually play 10:46 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s never an easy decision to pull the trigger on a head coach, especially one the Canadiens just re-signed, but Ducharme should recognize a few things:
- At the announcement of the managerial change, owner Geoff Molson didn’t mince words, saying the Habs need to get better at developing prospects.
- The Canadiens are 12 points out of the second wild-card spot and the eighth-place Pens have two games in hand. Right now, you’re coaching more for the long-term health of the franchise than a playoff spot.
- Why does it even have to be an either-or situation? Caufield is in theory a top-six forward, in spite of his lack of production. There aren’t really six other forwards available to Ducharme with his skill set.
Granted, that aforementioned 10:46 of ice time came just before Bergevin was officially dismissed, but it’s not like the situation is getting drastically better. In two of the three games since, Ducharme’s played him 13 minutes or less twice. Giving guys like Evans (19:37) and Joel Armia (14:57) more ice time against the Nashville Predators (13:00) is an odd, yet conscious decision. Armia, for example, plays the same position as Caufield and has struggled to produce to a greater degree.
Despite the reprieve, Ducharme’s job is on the line. Once Gorton and the Canadiens get their guy as the new GM, he’s going to want to hire his guy. So, unless Ducharme proves himself worthy, he could be on his way out, regardless of how the team does down the stretch. Logically though, with the playoffs all but a pipe dream, it makes more sense for him to get on the same page as everyone else, prospects-wise.
1. Trade Ben Chiarot… for Starters
Molson made the right call letting Bergevin go before the trade deadline, as the ex-GM’s future with the team was uncertain past this season. Logically, you’d want to have someone in charge who’s invested in the long-term future of the organization, regardless of whether that future involves a full-on rebuild or not.
Molson has said the official vision of the team is to be defined by Gorton and the new GM, with Gorton having overseen the recent rebuild of the New York Rangers (which is currently going well). Even if Gorton decides to go a different route, it’s still common practice to get as much as you can for pending unrestricted free agents when you’re not projected to make the playoffs.
For Gorton and the Canadiens, that means trading defenseman Ben Chiarot, most significantly. If you’re looking at undergoing a full rebuild, then names like Carey Price can enter the equation. For right now though, simply ensuring you don’t lose anyone for nothing is the main thing. As valuable as Chiarot has been this season, the Canadiens would arguably be better served with futures instead.
It’s up to Gorton to assess how far to tank the rest of the season at that point. It’s worth nothing Bergevin wasn’t simply dismissed because of the impending expiry of his contract, but because the Canadiens have the second-lowest points percentage in the league right now. Shea Weber’s not coming back, Carey Price won’t do that much of a better job than Jake Allen with the roster the way it is and, as alluded to above, while the Habs should welcome Joel Edmundson back with open arms, ultimately moving away from shutdown defensemen should be the end goal. The acquisition of Clague is a sign Gorton believes that to be the case.
So, the Canadiens don’t really have the players to make a go of it this season. The only logical solution is to drop weight. Determing how much and for what in exchange is Gorton’s job.
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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.