It’s time for the Montreal Canadiens to start thinking ahead to the 2020-21 season and beyond. Is it possible the Canadiens can still make the playoffs? Maybe. However, they need to look at the bigger picture and start embracing the rebuild of the organization in full.
Even with the playoff hopes fading, there is reason for optimism for Canadiens fans. The fact is the Canadiens have one of the deepest and richest pipelines of prospects in the NHL. Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury are developing at the NHL level and all have the potential to be impact players for years to come. Cayden Primeau looks to be a special young goalie, Cole Caufield is scoring at an alarming rate in the NCAA and Alexander Romanov just had another dominating World Junior Championship.
While these are all great prospects, the question is whether any will turn into true superstars at the NHL level? It’s no secret the Canadiens lack a superstar in their forward ranks. They are rarely acquired by trades, so the primary way teams obtain these high-caliber players is by drafting high and picking the right player. Alexis Lafreniere is likely going first overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. He has superstar potential. He is also French-Canadian. He would be the young missing piece that could launch Montreal into another tier of teams. Based on their performance over the past 20 games, the Canadiens could be in the mix to win the draft lottery.
The question is whether management recognizes where they stand this season? To date, general manager Marc Bergevin has been trying to keep the Canadiens in contention for the playoffs, while also retooling and rebuilding the organization from within. He’s dipping his toes into two different pools so to speak. This is often not a recipe for success. There has to be a point in time where the Canadiens’ ownership and management recognize where the team is in the standings, and embrace a rebuild and shift the core of the team to the younger players. That time is now.
Evaluating Veteran Players
Now is the time to evaluate veteran players and aim to acquire futures for them. In 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights gave up a first, a second and a third-round draft pick for Tomas Tatar. After struggling in Vegas, the Canadiens acquired Tatar as part of the Max Pacioretty deal, where he’s excelled. It’s not out of the question that Tatar could fetch a first-round pick or a couple of second-round picks from a contender looking to add a veteran proven scorer with one more year left on his contract.
Losing Tatar would hurt, but the Canadiens are loaded with young centers, and shifting Max Domi to the wing to replace Tatar’s production is a definite option should the team move him. Moving Domi to wing would allow the Canadiens to evaluate their strength at left wing and would create more opportunity for Kotkaniemi, Poehling or Suzuki to audition in a top-six center role for the remainder of the season.
Right-handed, puck-moving defensemen are at a premium in the NHL. Jeff Petry is turning 34 and has one year left on his current contract. There is no question if made available the Canadiens could acquire a first-round pick for him. He has been a valuable piece to the Canadiens’ blue line for some time. However, with veteran Shea Weber already anchoring the right side of the blue line, and youngsters Fleury and Josh Brook working their way up the organizational depth chart, it’s a good time to evaluate Petry’s value at the very least.
Veteran journeymen Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Jordan Weal would provide depth value for contenders and should be shopped to open opportunities for younger players. Poehling is one of the youngsters deserving a larger role, and Jake Evans’ play of late with the Laval Rocket (American Hockey League) definitely warrants a recall at some point as well.
The elephant in the room is what to do with Carey Price? There is a good list of unrestricted free agent goalies this offseason and both Primeau and Charlie Lindgren are showing they are ready for more NHL starts (with Primeau likely the heir to Price long-term). Despite Price’s inconsistent play this season, he is still considered one of the top goalies in the game. There would be a significant market for his services if he asked for a trade or management and Price felt a change of scenery would be best for both parties. Price controls his destination (contractually), and to get the best deal I expect the Canadiens would have to wait until the offseason to evaluate his future with the team.
The Future Behind the Bench
Head coach Claude Julien has been a successful NHL coach for a long time, winning the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. However, he’s missed the playoffs in every full season since he’s returned to coach the Canadiens. That kind of futility is not acceptable. Yes, they are in a rebuilding period, but the fact remains that high standards of success have to be maintained with this historically successful and significant organization.
Julien’s player selection has been questionable this season. He has consistently prioritized ice-time for Thompson, Weal and Cousins over opportunities for Kotkaniemi, Poehling and (until recently) Suzuki. This has to stop. Giving ice time and the opportunities for the younger players has to be the priority for the Canadiens at this moment in time. The younger players are going to make mistakes, it is part of the steep learning curve at the NHL level. Benching young players for their mistakes and holding veteran grinders to a different standard isn’t a best practice in modern player development, and it’s something Julien has done far too much this season.
Also alarming is Julien’s use of Poehling. It appears that he is trying to turn Poehling (who is a big, strong, two-way center who can produce offensively), into a third- or fourth-line plugger similar to Cousins. This is exactly the approach that saw Michel Therrien get fired in his second tenure in Montreal. This conservative approach will not yield successful results in player development and will stifle player’s offensive abilities.
As the Canadiens start bringing up their youngsters, they need a progressive, forward-thinking coach. They need a coach who prioritizes player development. They need a coach who utilizes modern practice approaches, such as small-area games and drills, with the ultimate goal being player development. The Canadiens have a couple of interesting options already available to them in Joel Bouchard (Rocket head coach) and Dominique Ducharme (assistant coach of the Canadiens). Both have extensive experience coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and both are learning to apply their trade at the pro ranks.
If you look at the way the Colorado Avalanche developed their head coach, Jared Bednar, in parallel with the young roster of the Avalanche, it yielded great player and team development. Bednar has a unique connection with his players, as they were both learning the ropes at the NHL level together. The results and emergence of the Avalanche as a Stanley Cup contender should serve notice to the path the Canadiens should follow in promoting a promising young coach, like Bouchard or Ducharme.
The Bottom Line
The Canadiens need to embrace a full rebuild. They may end up keeping a few veterans around, but it’s time to move forward to add as much scoring and skill to the organization as they can. Kotkaniemi, Poehling, Suzuki, Fleury, Primeau, and Victor Mete should be given more ice time and opportunities at the NHL level this season. Caufield and Romonov could both be ready to jump straight to the NHL next season. Jesse Ylonen could also come over, and Evans is making a strong case that he deserves some attention too, as he’s lighting up the scoresheet in Laval right now.
All of the above paint a positive picture for the future of the Canadiens. However, it will all be in vain unless managerial, organizational and coaching shortfalls are fixed between now and the start of next season. The last time such questions were seriously asked about a youth movement in Montreal was in the early 1980s under a brash, fresh GM Serge Savard. He followed through on his youth movement and the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in two years (1985-86), and were Stanley Cup contenders just about every year he was GM. That’s the kind of direction and leadership Montreal needs right now. Embrace the youth, embrace the rebuild, embrace a progressive, forward-thinking approach and the winning will follow.