As a last-place team, the Montreal Canadiens have almost every other NHL franchise beat in at least one key statistical category: number of holes in the line-up. Whether it’s via the NHL Entry Draft, trade or free agency, general manager Kent Hughes will have his hands full trying to plug them this 2022 offseason.
Here they are, ranked in increasing order of importance:
5. New Full-Time Head Coach (Martin St. Louis)
Under normal circumstances, the search for a new head coach might take precedence. However, considering the Canadiens already have their man under contract, it’s hard to rank this item in any place other than last, especially with news they’ll sign interim head coach Martin St. Louis to an extension any day now.
Admittedly, concerns may still loom large over St. Louis’ experience level. However, he did earn a fairly respectable 14-19-4 record behind the bench (compared to predecessor Dominique Ducharme’s 8-30-7 this season).
Even though St. Louis struggled down the stretch, there should be little doubt few other coaches could have done better with the lineup he had. Ultimately, with the goals the Canadiens have (or should have) for 2022-23, St. Louis is arguably the man for the job right now, especially with more of a complete team put together for him on the ice.
4. Winger to Play with Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield
At least Habs fans have a dynamic duo in Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield going for them, but, as far as lines go, it takes three to tango. Suzuki has been projected to fill the team’s need for a No. 1 center for a few seasons now. Combined with Caufield’s resurgence under St. Louis (22 goals and 35 points in 37 games), it’s safe to say the Habs have two third of a top line ready to go, leaving a need for another winger.
Josh Anderson has been their most common linemate. In fact, the Caufield, Suzuki, Anderson line was the team’s most common line overall this past season. And, ideally, the Canadiens would find someone with similar size, who also plays a power-forward game, just with more consistency and offensive creativity.
That’s arguably where opinions the Canadiens should use their first-overall pick to draft Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky originate. However, with Anderson and a slew of other wingers under contract and coming up through the prospect pipeline, that big winger simply isn’t the biggest fish the Canadiens have to fry.
3. Goalie to Replace Carey Price
Goalie Carey Price’s future is uncertain. In fact, there are signs Price may retire. It would be a drastic measure, but it’s still a possibility, meaning the Canadiens would theoretically be in the market for a No. 1 goalie.
Maybe Cayden Primeau’s playoff performance in the American Hockey League puts him back in line as the Habs’ goalie of the future. That would be a great relief for the organization. Even if it does though, the Canadiens would still be in need a stop-gap measure at the very least. True, they have Jake Allen. However, he’s more of a 1B, who, all due respect to the 2021 Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy winner, has proven incapable of shouldering the load for a long period of time.
Samuel Montembeault did prove himself capable of at least rising to the challenge of playing the lion’s share of games down the stretch. He still remains a third-string option at best… and one who’s waiver-eligible to boot. All that to say, Hughes has to explore all options in net.
2. Defenseman to Replace Jeff Petry
Overall, the Canadiens’ defense is in good shape for the future, but that’s more so due to the organizational strength on the left side. The right side is relatively bare with Shea Weber having “retired.” If the Canadiens trade Jeff Petry, which is becoming more realistic by the day, the hole to fill gets all the more large. Shoes too.
As a result, the Canadiens should consider re-signing pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Chris Wideman as a stop-gap measure. It also couldn’t hurt to draft a right-handed offensive-minded defenseman. The only issue is, as there aren’t any projected draftees set to go as high as one of the first three picks at the Draft, it would be bad asset management to use that first-overall selection on one.
1. Second-Line Center to Replace Christian Dvorak
Christian Dvorak effectively came as expected, when the Canadiens brought him in at center, after both Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi left last summer. At least, he’s come as everyone should have expected, as a decent defensive forward capable of putting up 0.5 points per game.
Ideally, that makes for a pretty good third-line center, but not necessarily the No. 2 he was theoretically acquired to be. To be fair, Dvorak did pick up the pace under St. Louis, but, with a career-high 38 points (scored in 2019-20), it’s unreasonable to expect a high level of production to continue over an entire season.
On top of that, Dvorak has three more seasons under contract before he becomes a UFA, making him far from a long-term solution. Ultimately, below Suzuki, there’s a huge drop-off at center, with Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling filling out the position on the big-league roster for the Canadiens.
From there, the Canadiens lack high-end prospects projected to make a top-six impact in the pipeline, with possible exception to Riley Kidney. Even so, that’s far from sure thing at this stage, making center the Canadiens’ biggest need… and Shane Wright the Habs’ logical selection at No. 1 overall.
In fact, Wright is arguably the easiest lay-up Hughes is going to get, considering Wright’s projected floor as a top-two center. And that’s with regard to Hughes’ overall tenure as Canadiens GM, meaning he has a chance to solve the Habs’ biggest organizational need right out of gate.
That in and of itself is probably strong motivation to pick Wright, so he can scratch the first item off his to-do list… and then focus on all the others this offseason. It’s unlikely he gets to them all, but with St. Louis already slated to re-sign and the futures of Petry and Price far from cemented in stone, the rebuild’s at least off to a solid start.