The Montreal Canadiens’ rebuild has only just begun, but it seems to be going faster than expected. With a 5-4 record over the first nine games, including two impressive road wins versus the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues, the rebuild does seem to be ahead of schedule. But general manager (GM) Kent Hughes’ work in tearing down the systems and core of his predecessor doesn’t get any easier.
The young core, led by Nick Suzuki, is proving capable of taking the torch from the previous leadership group. Their performances have steadily improved and shown a faster development arc, making it possible for Hughes to comfortably take the next steps in the rebuild sooner than expected.
The Canadiens’ Defense Holds
Surprisingly, defence isn’t an issue for the rebuilding Canadiens. Of course, the goaltending performances by Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault are behind the surprisingly effective defence the Canadiens have played so far this season. Then, sometime near Christmas, Mike Matheson will return from injury and solidify the defense and hopefully provide head coach Martin St. Louis with an option for a power-play quarterback.
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The performance of the rookie defenders — Guhle, Jordan Harris, and Arber Xhekaj — make for some difficult choices for St. Louis. And add to that, Joel Edmundson’s return from his injury brings another defender into the active roster. While he could play on the right side, it would deprive Johnathan Kovacevic of the playing time he’s earned. Kovacevic leads the Canadiens’ defenders with a 57.71% Corsi for percentage (CF%) and a 56.78 expected goals for percentage (xGF%). Edmundson’s proven playoff experience and reasonable $3.5 million cap hit until the end of the 2023-24 season make him a valuable trade chip for Hughes.
Canadiens Thinking Forward
This brings the issues to the veteran-laden forward group. Being even in goals for and goals against at 27 each in the first nine games is better than pre-season expectations, but the issues were supposed to be defensive play, not scoring. So far, one line has been shouldering the offensive load this season. Well, not a full line, just the pairing of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield and whoever St. Louis adds to that tandem. Newcomers Kirby Dach and Sean Monahan have strong puck possession metrics but haven’t seen their production match their high analytics.
There is still a need to make space for the youth. At the moment, the youth that has the biggest need for space on the roster is Juraj Slafkovsky. In the first six NHL games he has played, he is averaging 11:16 in time on ice, which includes a total of 1:03 on the power play, where he scored a goal on the first and only power-play shot he has ever taken.
Montreal Forward Sale
The Canadiens are still in need of burning the old core to the ground, and because of this, the team is going to be a seller at the trade deadline. This season is one in which success will be based on individual growth among the players and not on the standings. With that said, there have been some collective improvements. The main one has been the fact the Canadiens have not folded when facing adversity, but there will still be many growing pains over the next couple of years before this team is a real competitor.
Last season’s trade deadline saw the beginning of the Canadiens being in the role of sellers when several players, including Ben Chiarot and Tyler Toffoli, were shipped out for futures that included some highly coveted first-round picks. The hope is that Hughes will repeat his trade magic and net similar returns at this upcoming trade deadline. But it’s hard to see that being possible as the pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) and other non-core veterans are playing underwhelming hockey.
It makes St. Louis’ lineup decisions over the next few months difficult. Management will want him to play these veterans to get them producing, thus raising their trade value, but their current play is a detriment to the team’s on-ice performances and also takes away ice time and a roster spot from the youth the Habs need to develop. If these veterans, which includes those with terms such as Mike Hoffman and Joel Armia, can’t become relevant on a rebuilding team’s lineup, then GMs of Stanley Cup contenders will be left wondering if they can fill depth roles on their clubs.
At 27 years old, Jonathan Drouin is supposed to be in his prime years. But after suffering several injuries, he has been unable to live up to his status as a former third-overall draft pick. Several times this season, he has been a healthy scratch as he has been inconsistent in his play. Another underwhelming veteran is Evgeny Dadonov. While he was brought in as a cap dump in the Shea Weber contract trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, the hope was he’d replicate his 20-goal season last year. With his play so far, that doesn’t look possible, and that impacts his trade value.
The faster-than-expected development of the young core also means Hughes can entertain trading some of the supporting veterans that are still performing, players like Josh Anderson. His play is still of high quality, and that could fetch a significant return that could do far more for the rebuild than just trading away the pending UFAs.
The Canadiens have surprised with their play early in the season, and it has everything to do with the growth of their young core. However, this team is still several seasons away from their goal to become Cup contenders. The main goal now is not to get the highest pick but to give the youth the best development opportunities. While keeping some veterans to support that core will be necessary, selling off many of the veterans to add more futures to keep the pipeline moving will play a large part in the next step.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.