This 2021-2022 season will be one that Montreal Canadiens fans will want to forget. As of February 14, the Canadiens are winless in their last ten games for the first time since 1926. That Canadiens team went 11-24-1 for a point percentage of .500. When we flash forward almost a century to the modern day Canadiens, a team without the likes of Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz and Georges Vézina, the Canadiens share, unfortunately, a lot of similarities with the team from another time. One thing they don’t share, however, is the fire-power that Morenz brought to the table, or the back-stopping ability of Vézina, or the consistent point-production of Joliat. What we have now is a team filled with players who are not superstars but, at the same time, not all fourth liners. What we’re left with is something in between – and maybe that’s the problem.
This current Canadiens team sits in last place with an 8-33-7 record, which is good for a measly .240 point percentage. They’ve battled injuries, COVID (with players having both the virus and being in protocol), losing streaks, goal droughts, management changes of every kind; you name it. The injuries to Carey Price, Shea Weber, Paul Byron and Joel Edmundson, along with the departure of Phillip Danault, left little to the imagination as to how the Canadiens would start the season. A lack of leadership can change a locker room, and, from what we’ve seen, clearly not for the better. In a rebuild/retool stage, which seems to be what the team is in now, although General Manager Kent Hughes hasn’t specified yet, it’s good to keep some veterans on the team to foster the growth of young prospects with potential. Some players, however, with higher cap hits and with longer term might be prone to getting traded for picks and prospects. They’re what analysts call, “expendable.” Thus, the question must be asked: if Montreal plans on going through a rebuild, whether accelerated or not, who, on the current roster stays and who goes?
There can be a lot of value regarding the future of a team when its veterans are traded in return for picks and prospects. These moves free cap space, and build the team for the future. But Kent Hughes probably doesn’t want to ship out all of Montreal’s veterans. Our guess is that he wants to find that common ground between the young and experienced. So, where is that common ground and, more importantly, who’s on it?
Let’s start with the forwards. On October 12, 2021, Nick Suzuki was signed to an eight year, $63 million dollar contract extension that carries an average-annual value (AAV) of 7.875 million dollars until the end of the 2029-2030 season. Suzuki, who was part of the Max Pacioretty deal, will be around for the long haul. At only 22, he brings a lot of skill and poise to a young center corps.
Artturi Lehkonen is a pending RFA. His name has been thrown around in rumours, but as time will only tell, Habs fans will know by the March 21 trade deadline at the latest as to whether “Lehky” will stay for the remainder of the season or not. Lehkonen started off his career strong with 18 goals in his rookie season, but has since slowed down in his annual scoring pace. Lehkonen is a smart forward who thinks defensively and is a perfect example of someone who can play up and down a lineup.
Josh Anderson was part of a trade that sent Max Domi and a third-round-pick to Columbus in October 2020. Anderson quickly became a fan favourite in Montreal with his feisty play style and superb speed (look out, Paul Byron!) The “Powerhorse,” as he was nicknamed not long after the season began, has a longer term than most forwards, being paid 5.5 million dollars until 2026-2027, when he will then be a UFA. Anderson is a forward who Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton should aim to keep throughout a rebuild. Scorers can be found on a lot of rosters, but power forwards, maybe not so much. Especially power forwards with great speed, hands, and size. Anderson finished second on the Canadiens with 17 goals in the pandemic-shortened season that was 2020-2021. Not too shabby. All in all, Anderson’s play style is a poor man’s version of Eric Lindros’. These forwards are hard to come by in the modern day NHL, and we believe GM Hughes knows this.
Again, as of February 14, only Tyler Toffoli has been dealt thus far, and to the Calgary Flames. GM Hughes fetched quite the return for Toffoli, who has three years left at an AAV of 4.25 million dollars. Toffoli was a mainstay in Montreal’s top-6 since his arrival, and was the only forward to outscore Josh Anderson in 2020-2021. The Canadiens received a 2022 1st round pick (which is top 10 protected, meaning that if the pick were to be in the top ten in 2022, Calgary would then forfeit their 2023 1st instead, along with an additional 4th rounder). Along with the 1st, the Canadiens received a 2023 5th, Tyler Pitlick (who is cousins with not only current Hab Rem Pitlick, but with prospect Rhett Pitclick as well), and prospect Emil Heineman, who is a sleeper. Heineman, at 6’1″/185 lbs, was a 2020 2nd-round-pick of the Florida Panthers who went to Calgary via the Sam Bennett trade. Heineman is a strong skater with a blistering shot, who enjoys cycling in the offensive-zone when his teammates have the puck; trying to get himself in the best position possible. Heineman, who only turned 20 in November, has NHL potential.
Joel Armia’s play style replicates that of Artturi Lehkonen’s to a great extent. During the playoffs last summer, he was a puck hound and one of the most effective forwards on the team. He has been incredibly inconsistent throughout his career, and this year has been a new low for him. At his best, Armia is a good play-driver with some nifty hands who is also strong on puck retrieval. Armia’s AAV is tied for fourth-highest among Canadiens forwards with Paul Byron at 3.4 million. Armia is signed through 2025-2026; Byron through 2023-2024. We may see one of these players moved during the off-season, as they’re both bottom wingers on a team with a lot of depth on either wing. Armia and Byron’s AAVs are slightly higher than what GM Hughes would like, so he may be prone to dealing one of these aforementioned players, if not both within the first few seasons of his tenure.
Christian Dvorak and Jonathan Drouin are relatively safe bets to remain with the team until at least the off-season of 2023, which is when Drouin will be a UFA. Dvorak, who was acquired when former GM Marc Bergevin decided not to match Carolina’s offer-sheet to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, was brought in to fill the void at center left by Kotkaniemi. Montreal’s younger centers of Suzuki, Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling have showed great maturity this season; which proves to be one of the few bright spots in this abysmal year. The center corps is young and mobile on Montreal right now, which is just what Kent Hughes wants. Dvorak is generating interest around the league but his case may only be settled in the off-season. Drouin’s value is hard to determine at this point. Between inconsistent play and injuries, now is probably not the best time to maximize his value.
Brendan Gallagher is the heart-and-soul of the team, and, if it wasn’t for his AAV of 6.5 million until 2026-2027, would be a good bet to remain throughout a possible rebuild. Salary aside, Gallagher’s play style brings energy to a Montreal team when needed. Gallagher, a high volume shooter, has shown that he can score in bulk throughout the course of a season. We’ve seen a lot of Gallagher in Michael Pezzetta, who made the team out of training camp and has shown he won’t back down from anyone. Pezzetta has notched 4 goals and 6 points in 30 games thus far. His next contract won’t break the bank at all, so maybe the agitating will come from Pezzetta in the coming seasons, and not Brendan Gallagher. While the team would certainly be left with a pitbull-sized hole without Gallagher, it may be for the best in this rebuild.
FORWARDS: Who stays?
Nick Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin, Josh Anderson, Mike Hoffman, Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling, Cole Caufield, Michael Pezzetta and Paul Byron.
Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher.
Now, for the defense. With the long-term absence of captain Shea Weber, more than likely for good, Montreal signed free agent David Savard in the 2021 off-season to a four-year, $14 million dollar contract. Savard has shown his creativity in the offensive zone at times, dangling around opponents, creating space and scoring opportunities out of nothing. Savard and Jeff Petry are both right-handed defensemen, so it’s doubtful GM Hughes looks to ship them both out. It’s always a possibility, however. In the hockey world, anyone can get traded. Just ask Wayne Gretzky and, need I remind our fan base, PK Subban.
The left side is where there is some wiggle room. The roster has quite a few young and mobile left-shot defensemen. Sami Niku, Kale Clague, Brett Kulak, Alexander Romanov and Corey Schueneman are all examples. These are the types of players GM Hughes will look to keep throughout a rebuild. Joel Edmundson is yet to play this season, and fans are certain Ben Chiarot will be dealt by the trade deadline. Mobility and puck movement are valued in a defenseman, as are shot-blocking and penalty-killing ability; so it may be best to keep Joel Edmundson for the future.
DEFENSEMEN: Who stays?
Kale Clague, David Savard, Alexander Romanov and Joel Edmundson
Jeff Petry, Chris Wideman, Brett Kulak, and Ben Chiarot.
Goaltender Carey Price is a wildcard, and, given the uncertainty surrounding his future, I’ll respect his privacy and chose not to throw my opinion at the wall and see if it sticks.
What Montreal does have is Jake Allen, a tremendous goaltender who helped the team reach the Stanley Cup playoffs during the 2020-2021 season, along with Cayden Primeau, who is regarded as the goaltender of the future, Samuel Montembault, who has played lights-out at times, and newly acquired Andrew Hammond, who is yet to play this season. Any of these goaltenders would make a fine backup to whomever the starting goaltender is, with the exception of Primeau, who needs to find his confidence and swagger down in Laval, at least for another season.
All in all, the next few weeks will be nerve-wracking to say the least for Montreal Canadiens fans. Fans can have sentimentality towards some players; but, at the end of the day, hockey is a business, and General Manager Kent Hughes will do what he thinks is best for the future of the team.