There’s always a chance the Montreal Canadiens can turn it around in a single season after a last-place 2021-22. However, realistically speaking, to become competitive again right away, they’d have to make several moves this offseason at least, whether via free agency or trade. Why not go the other way and stack the deck in your favor towards securing a high draft pick?
Whether you believe the Canadiens should tank 2022-23 or not, most objective observers would agree with the assessment that the Habs aren’t good enough to make the playoffs based on the current construction of the roster. So, instead of potentially signing a few free agents soon to be on the decline, get rid of a few instead (just for starters).
There’s no denying injuries played a role in the Habs’ last-place finish. So, with even slight improvement on that front, they’ll at least be more competitive. Meaning, whereas the Habs were arguably just three easy steps away from tanking in 2021-22 after a historically bad start to the season, this time around it will likely take a little more effort on the part of management.
Think five moves instead. Here they are:
Trade Jonathan Drouin (even for 50 Cents on the Dollar)
Put simply, Jonathan Drouin hasn’t been the best fit with the Habs. Puzzlingly, He’s disappointed in a Habs uniform based on the initial hype, but arguably hasn’t been a disappointment.
All that to say, Drouin’s still a top-six forward (especially on the Habs) and was actually one of the most consistent players for them this past season, when he was healthy, limited to 34 games. He’s projected to not only come back healthy for training camp after wrist surgery, but also put together one of his best-ever campaigns, considering it’s a contract season for him too.
So, Drouin’s going to be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) and likely on his way out anyway. Trading him makes sense in that one regard, but, because he hasn’t yet put together that one great season with the Habs, is coming off an injury and his trade value is fairly low relatively speaking, the Canadiens wouldn’t get much in return.
So, what? Even if it’s just a mid-round pick, think of trading Drouin as an investment in the future. It obviously wouldn’t be one for one (because there are more hypothetical moves to come on this list), but a Drouin for Connor Bedard trade, which is what the Habs should be aiming for, would be a hands-down victory. Maybe hands-up, as it would be a steal.
Trade Jake Allen (Whether or Not Carey Price Returns)
One way or another, goalie Carey Price won’t be playing as much as he has in the past. That could mean retirement, a stint on long-term injured reserve or even a return to relative health, but, in the case of the latter, Price has said he likely won’t be able to play ~60 games again. So, that means a 1B goalie becomes a necessity, which is why the Canadiens acquired Jake Allen.
Allen has more or less come as advertised in that role, even winning the 2020-21 Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy. However, he’s also proven incapable of handling the workload of a starting goalie in the past, getting injured several times last season in Price’s absence, so he’d arguably only be an option if Price were to return.
Allen would also be way more effective than, say, third-string goalie Samuel Montembeault in that role, and, if the Canadiens do decide to tank, they simply can’t have that, can they? Either way, Allen wouldn’t fit into the Canadiens’ plans, and, as a UFA, that includes their future plans too.
Trade Jeff Petry (and Don’t Sign Kris Letang)
Defenseman Jeff Petry softened his stance on staying with the Canadiens following the end of the season. He didn’t necessarily “want to close the door on the organization,” but, after he reportedly requested a trade, general manager Kent Hughes has openly talked about accommodating him if the right deal materializes (from ‘Jeff Petry open to remain in Montreal, but Canadiens might have other plans,’ Montreal Gazette, April 30, 2022).
Now, Petry can fetch a lot in theory, especially after his renaissance under head coach Martin St. Louis. He’s proven himself to still be the same 1B defenseman he was behind Shea Weber, albeit a year older. However, if the Canadiens do really want to tank, waiting for the right deal becomes less of a necessity.
Ultimately, you have a key player whose heart isn’t 100% in Montreal anymore. If you as an organization wanted to compete and there was a badly kept secret going around that a player like Petry wanted out, you’d likely find a way to make it happen. You’d most definitely do the same if you wanted to get weaker for next season too, though.
This is where things get delicate, though. There are also rumors Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang could sign with the Habs, joining his ex-agent, Hughes, while replacing Petry for all intents and purposes.
For the love of G-d, don’t go that route. In the medium to long term, Letang, who’s even older than Petry, would likely decline sharply, making any contract he signs this coming offseason as a UFA a bad one. Meanwhile, in the short term, i.e., 2022-23, when the Habs would be tanking, he’d only improve the team. Instead you need more of a stop-gap measure.
Re-Sign Chris Wideman (if Price is Right)
Enter Chris Wideman. The pending UFA is just what the doctor ordered as a right-handed, offensive-minded defenseman to play in the top four and replace Petry at a fraction of the cost, with Wideman having earned a paltry $750,000 this past season.
Related: Likeliest Canadiens UFAs to Re-Sign with Habs in 2022 Offseason
Wideman exceeded expectations this season, producing a respectable 27 points in 64 games. So, he’d be looking for a raise, but, as a journeyman 32-year-old, it wouldn’t be a huge commitment to keep him in the fold.
Wideman isn’t the answer on the right side, but the Canadiens need someone, if Petry is in fact out of the picture. Without the latter, you’d just have David Savard and Alexander Romanov, and Romanov is primarily a left-handed defenseman who can play either side. Ultimately, the right side is fairly barren, even with the addition of prospect Justin Barron via trade, but ideally you’d take your time developing the 20-year-old. He’s not the only one.
Don’t Rush Shane Wright (if He’s Not Ready)
There are conflicting reports out there as to which player the Canadiens will select with the first overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft, but let’s get real: There’s no logical reason they wouldn’t go with Shane Wright, the consensus top prospect and center available.
Safely assuming that’s what happens, the Habs would perhaps be expected to have Wright make the jump directly to the NHL, as is often the case with first-overall picks. They shouldn’t, though.
Obviously some conditions apply. The Canadiens would have to take into account what’s best for his overall development. If they determine he’s done all he can in the Ontario Hockey League and the NHL is the only option for him, so be it. They have to do what makes the most sense.
Keep in mind, after Nick Suzuki, there’s a sharp drop-off at center for the Canadiens. Christian Dvorak is arguably more of a third-line center, Jake Evans a fourth. Even if you were to pop an unseasoned Wright into the lineup below Dvorak you’d be making the Canadiens significantly deeper (and better). When it comes to tanking, better is obviously worse.
So, if it’s determined that another year in major junior won’t hurt Wright, let him dominate. Let him build up his confidence. Keep him away from the Canadiens during what has the potential to be a very morally deflating season for all involved, management, players and fans alike. It’s all for the best.