This file is the newest in THN.com’s ongoing analyses of off-season plans for ell NHL teams. Today, we’re breaking down the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal Canadiens 2021-22
Finish In The Atlantic Division: 8th
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $248,334
Restricted Free Agents: Kirby Dach, F
Unrestricted Free Agents: None.
What Montreal Has: Nowhere to go but up in the standings; a star goalie in Carey Price; a dynamic GM/head coach combination in Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis; a plethora of picks over the next three entry drafts, including four first-rounders, five fourth-rounders, and four fifth-rounders; high-value trade chips in wingers Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher;
What Montreal Needs: Time and patience for their younger assets to develop; a trade that satisfies Price and the organization’s long-term needs; cap flexibility in the seasons ahead; depth of talent in all areas; vastly improved special teams; more young, big, skilled players
What’s Realistic For Montreal Next Season: When you’re the owner of the worst record in the league last season, you have to know (a) there will be no quick fixes, and (b) you either suffer through the growing pains of a slow rebuild, or you gamble on a slew of trades and try fast-tracking your new blueprint for success. The Canadiens look like they’re going to go the former route, with first-year GM Hughes adding draft picks as often as possible, and recognizing the rebuild will be a matter of years, not months.
That’s likely the best approach for Habs management. For the moment, though, that means the 2022-23 season is going to be another year of growing pains, another year of trading away veterans -- in this case, wingers Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher -- in exchange for prospects who may not be NHL-ready for at least one or two more seasons.
Sure, things could work out better for Montreal if recent acquisitions Kirby Dach and Michael Matheson play well, but the 28-year-old Matheson could be traded sooner than later, and there’s also the massive issue that is the future of Price. The 34-year-old star goalie carries a $10.5 million cap hit for the next four seasons, so finding a taker for him won’t be as easy as it may first appear.
That said, that’s the challenge for Hughes: get out from under Price’s contract for as small of a penalty -- assumed money and/or high draft picks -- as he can pay. A west-coast team may be the best solution for the Canadiens and Price himself, but that deal may not have its most opportune moment until an injury or two befalls a team in training camp. Hughes must bide his time, as this is a crucial moment in the franchise’s attempt to move forward.
In his first full season as Canadiens head coach, Martin St. Louis will be demanding, but he too mustn’t break the backs of the players Montreal does have in the sake of immediate competition. Patience with players including Dach and center Nick Suzuki will go a long way down the line when the Habs are ready to do battle for a playoff berth.
That time surely isn’t now, and while that’s painful for Canadiens fans to hear, it’s the reality of the group’s predicament. The team that made it to the Cup Final two years ago has to be understood as a mirage, and not as a high-level group it can easily return to being. The truth is it’s as difficult, if not moreso, to stay at the top as it is to make it there in the first place.
Monreal’s success was an outlier, and Hughes has to take a cold, honest approach to the assets he does have, and the level they need to be at if the Habs are going to return to prominence in the Atlantic and Eastern Conference playoff races.