When the Montreal Canadiens sent forward Cole Caufield to the American Hockey League, they also sent a message. It wasn’t necessarily to Caufield, who, despite not having produced, hasn’t actually played badly, relatively speaking.
It was arguably more so a message in general that the Canadiens still have an eye on the future. It can be interpreted as a positive sign, that they won’t risk the development of a top prospect just for short-term gains in the standings, which may not even make much of difference by season’s end.
With only four points in the standings following their worst 10-game start to a season since 1941, the playoffs are becoming more and more of a pipedream. Granted, the Habs made the playoffs in 1941-42, but only due to the fact the NHL comprised seven teams and only one missed the playoffs.
Circumstances are drastically different these days. Put simply, the same points percentage of 40.6% won’t get it done, bringing to the forefront the argument they should tank the rest of the 2021-22 season to secure a high draft pick. In effect, in such an instance, sending Caufield down would be the first step in the process. Here are the rest:
Send Keep Cole Caufield to in AHL
Of course, Caufield is an NHL-caliber forward. That’s not in dispute, or at least it shouldn’t be. He’s admittedly struggled to produce, but show me a Habs player that hasn’t and I’ll show you a cell phone in this day and age that makes calls and nothing else.
The big difference between Caufield and, say, Brendan Gallagher, aside from their contracts, is one can safely be sent through waivers and the other can’t. That’s it. So, why wouldn’t the Canadiens jump at the chance to give Caufield a shot at regaining his confidence by lessening the level of competition?
One of the only reasons they haven’t already taken this tack with defenseman Alexander Romanov is likely his European assignment clause, which gives him the option of moving back to the Kontinental Hockey League if he’s demoted. In so doing, the Canadiens would lose complete control over his development. So, in the NHL he stays,
The Canadiens don’t have that issue with Caufield and can stay the course in that respect for as long as they believe it to be necessary. While many fans had aspirations of Caufield capturing the Calder Memorial Trophy this year, there’s a better case to be made the Habs should keep in the AHL even past the point he regains his scoring touch, though.
Not only should they spare their prized prospect exposure to the frustration plaguing the team as a whole, but he also makes them better. That should not be denied, nor should it that keeping him in the AHL for now would be for the best, looking at the big picture.
2. Trade Ben Chiarot
In general, the Canadiens should trade away any pending unrestricted free agents. That’s just common practice in seasons during which a team is projected to miss the playoffs. However there really aren’t that many notable names that fit that criterion besides defenseman Ben Chiarot (who is entitled to a 10-team no-trade list, to be clear).
At this point, were it not for Joel Edmundson’s absence, it would make sense to deal Chiarot right away. To be on the safe side, wait for Edmundson to return and then deal Chiarot as soon as possible for whatever you can get for him. It’s not necessarily the return that matters, but rather getting rid of a top-four defenseman, on this team anyway.
While Brett Kulak and Chris Wideman are also pending UFAs, you would need extra bodies to play defense down the stretch. That’s where they fit in, while the same theoretically holds true with regard to Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault (when healthy) up front.
If the Canadiens are feeling especially ambitious, the can at least test the market for the likes of Jonathan Drouin, who only has one year left on his deal after this one and is off to a decent start offensively with seven points in 10 games. Josh Anderson is much less likely to be traded, but his value is relatively high right now and his contract won’t get any better.
As for the Habs’ other top guns, Nick Suzuki’s not going anywhere as he remains a key cog in the team’s future. Ditto for Christian Dvorak, who’s only 25. Maybe Mike Hoffman holds trade value with four goals in seven games to lead the Habs. However, the Canadiens didn’t just sign him only to trade him. So, ultimately Chiarot is the most expendable (hopefully) moving part, not to dismiss his contributions to the Habs the last few seasons. He just is of little use to the Canadiens playing the role he has been, especially if they are intent on bottoming out.
1. Play Samuel Montembeault More
When the Canadiens claimed Samuel Montembeault off waivers, there was some media attention paid to the Habs having wanted to take the goalie in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. For the record, Montembeault went No. 77 overall, while the Habs went straight from No. 26 overall (Noah Juulsen) to No. 87 (Lukas Vejdemo).
In any case, now’s the perfect opportunity for the Canadiens to walk the walk and display their faith in him by playing him, at least in more of a tandem role with Jake Allen instead of as his backup. His NHL experience up to this point suggests the 25-year-old is better-suited to a depth role, with a career .890 save percentage (.869 this season). However, Montembeault was realistically only acquired as a depth option anyway, with Carey Price and Jake Allen set as the team’s top two goalies for the time being.
Of course, Price then went into the player assistance program, thrusting Montembeault into the backup position. Even though Price is poised to leave the program soon, it will be some time before he’s actually in game shape and ready to play again. Until that point comes, why not split the goaltending duties down the middle between Allen and Montembeault?
What’s the worst that can happen, really? They lose slightly more often? With Allen hardly having significantly more success in net at 2-6 on the season heading into action Tuesday night? Best case, Montembeault goes with it, finds his game and develops into a legitimate option in net. If not, fans learn to appreciate Price all the more once he returns to action. There is no legitimate downside here, especially if the Canadiens embrace tanking the season in the best interest of their long-term future (as they probably should).
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.