Canadiens mailbag part 2: What’s the long-term plan? How to compete in the Atlantic?

Following up on part one of the mailbag earlier this week, here we tackle come existential questions about the Canadiens’ future, how they hope to be competitive, the beastly nature of their division and other big-picture concerns over how the rebuild is going.

Some questions were slightly edited for clarity.

What’s the long-term plan?

Is this an actual rebuild, where you stock up with prospects, or are we into the business just of developing who’s in the system? Either way, when does the club’s leadership expect to be competitive within the division, within the conference, within the league?

I was on board with the rebuild when it started, but the trade for Newhook seemed out of left field. I like the kid, and he might be a good asset, but I thought the plan was to fill the pantry with prospects and that seemed like a step back.

So, what’s the long-term plan? – Tim R.

If possible to add to this great question, we’ve heard time and time again that this management shied away from high-end talent like Michkov because of not wanting to add another 5-foot-10 player to the top-6. So, why is it ok to add another (less talented) 5-foot-10 player in Newhook? How does he fit, if this management wants a size balance in the top-6? – Daniel M.

While I don’t think these two questions are necessarily linked, I will answer them together because that is how they came in, but I will tackle them one at a time.

To Tim’s question, I’m feeling a certain flashback to the Marc Bergevin years. He refused to use the word “rebuild” because he had a very rigid vision of what a rebuild was. It meant – to him – liquidating all players above a certain age and starting essentially from scratch. In his mind, with Shea Weber and Carey Price on the team, he couldn’t do that, so he decided to call what he was trying to do a reset as opposed to a rebuild.

It’s all semantics to me, personally.

The term that should be used by every franchise is team building, which means taking the assets they have in hand and using them to build a winning team as opposed to simply a collection of players. Not every franchise is in the same situation, and therefore this notion that there is a perfect formula that every team should follow feels silly to me.

The long-term plan, as I see it, is to identify opportunities to add pieces that fit a puzzle and then act aggressively to add them, always keeping the overall puzzle in mind. I personally didn’t see Alexander Romanov as a trade piece at the time he was traded, but management traded from a position of strength to add a young player in Kirby Dach that could shore up a position of weakness. That is team building, that is keeping the puzzle in mind.

As for the notion that the Alex Newhook acquisition went counter to the notion of filling the pantry with prospects, I would suggest that the Canadiens’ pantry is already quite full of prospects they could have picked at Nos. 31 and 37, even though Colorado’s pick at 31, Russian defenceman Mikhail Gulyayev, probably would have gone earlier were it not for the fact he is Russian. Still, those picks were lottery tickets. Newhook is a known NHL talent with a considerable amount of untapped potential. I have no problem with that bet because the Canadiens are already widely recognized as having the deepest prospect pool in the league.

That is a perfect segue to the second part of the question on Matvei Michkov, and what some people, like Daniel, have equated to being a contradiction in light of the acquisition of Newhook. Yes, they are both (listed at) 5-foot-10, but what I have been able to discern on the Michkov decision is it wasn’t limited to size. Yes, it was a factor, but not the only one. There was other intelligence the team believed it had on this player the Canadiens felt was a red flag. I’m not sure what that intelligence was exactly, but it’s impossible not to get the sense they felt they knew something that others didn’t. And they were willing to bet on that knowledge, and bet hard.

This management group took a massive risk passing on Michkov because they know very well that if he shows up in Philadelphia three years from now and immediately starts ripping up the NHL, they will get blasted from all sides. The San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes made that same bet, but we can all agree the bet is much riskier in a market like Montreal.

I can’t tell you if that was a smart bet or not because I’m not privy to that intelligence. But the Canadiens clearly felt Michkov did not fit their vision of team building as well as David Reinbacher did, and my sense is the internal debate between the two was not all that close. And when I dug into Michkov’s video from last season, I found some holes that left me with questions as well.

We’ll find out in 2026, or perhaps even later, if the Canadiens were right or wrong in betting on that intelligence.

Do you see the Habs capitalizing on their available cap space again this summer to take on a bad contract with draft picks or young player as compensation? – Andrew G.

I think the Canadiens are open to doing something like this, but that window has basically passed. I’m not saying there is no chance of doing it, but I would be surprised if it happened at this point.

The Canadiens are currently about $4.3 million over the salary cap, and in an ideal world, they would get as close to being $10.5 million over the cap as possible before putting Carey Price on offseason long-term injured reserve, because entering the season with Price on the payroll so he could go on in-season LTIR seems unlikely at this point. The closer the Canadiens get to that $94 million payroll number, the more of Price’s $10.5 million cap hit they would free up to use as they see fit.

Therefore, adding a contract that could help them get to that number and also bring in another asset for the future would be something that would actually help the Canadiens’ finances this season.

I just don’t know if at this point in the offseason, there are that many teams who still need to shed salary to such an extent that it would be worth the Canadiens’ while. They would love to add a contract and get paid to do it, but the market has to be there for them to do it. We’ll see in the coming weeks.

Are we a bottom 5 team again this year? – Richard A.

This question got lots of reaction in the discussion thread, and several of you seemed to believe this is a foregone conclusion.

I couldn’t disagree more.

It is easy to see how a healthy version of this team – not impeccable health, just average health, or not having literally a dozen regulars watching from the press box – would not have been a bottom-5 team last season. Let’s only take Cole Caufield, just as an example.

After Caufield was lost for the season in January, the Canadiens lost six games by one goal and three more in overtime or a shootout. That’s three out of a possible 18 points in those nine games. Is it so difficult to imagine that Caufield could have impacted four of those nine losses and turned them into wins with a timely goal or two? Under that scenario, the Canadiens find themselves neck and neck with the Flyers in the overall standings.

Now do the same exercise with Mike Matheson, who from Feb. 11 to the end of the season was sixth in NHL scoring among defencemen with 26 points in 31 games playing on a decimated team. Or do it with Sean Monahan – the Canadiens were 12-11-2 when he was lost for the season. Or Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Juraj Slafkovský, the list goes on.

Now take into consideration that Caufield should be better next season, along with Nick Suzuki and Guhle and Xhekaj and Slafkovský and others on the upswing of their developmental arc.

And finally, Martin St. Louis should be better as a coach as well. He had some bumps during his rookie season, but he didn’t have anything close to a healthy lineup after December and was extremely limited in what he could try with the personnel he had available to him. I’d be curious to see him with an actual NHL lineup.

Furthermore, the Canadiens will be making changes to how they deal with injuries, with Jim Ramsay joining the club as head athletic therapist after 28 years with the New York Rangers, where he had a great reputation.

So, if the Canadiens are considerably healthier than they were last season, I don’t see a scenario where they are finishing in the bottom-5 of the league. In fact, I don’t think they will even finish in the bottom 10. They are far from being a legitimate playoff contender, but they are almost as far from being an NHL bottom-feeder.

This is why the Reinbacher over Michkov decision in the draft is resonating so hard with so many, because it is seen as an opportunity the Canadiens might not have again for a long time.

Which current Habs player would you choose to go out for dinner with (or some sort of hangout), if you weren’t allowed to talk about hockey? – Mike T.

This is a tough call, but it comes down to a decision between two players who were defence partners for much of the season. Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic are great people to talk to.

I once had a long discussion with Harris about the history of slavery and how the residue of that dark period in history still resonates today. Can’t say there’s been another NHL player in 23 years of doing this that I’ve had a similar discussion with.

Kovacevic was also a first for me this season. He was the first player I’ve covered who asked about my origins, what language I spoke at home growing up (Bengali), and was sincerely curious about it. Funny thing about that, the day he asked me, I had requested an interview with a player (I don’t remember who) so as I began to answer, someone from the Canadiens’ communications team tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that player was ready. So I had to leave in a hurry, which was kind of rude. But I made sure to follow up with him the next chance I got, and he was happy I did.

Also, I would want to hear all about his month-long road trip through the United States in an old van. Most NHL players travel pretty glamorously, to glamorous locales. Cabo, Cannes, take your pick. Kovacevic did that instead. He’s a pretty interesting cat.

In the last two years, Kent Hughes has used draft capital to speed up the rebuild process by acquiring young players.

In the Atlantic Division, all the teams look like they are ahead of the Habs in the rebuild process. Would it not be more prudent to continue with the full-scale rebuild rather than speed it up? Do we want to end up in the same competitive environment like the Leafs/Bruins/Lightning were? – Aju L.

With Tampa Bay and Boston being on the slow decline, Toronto and Florida still top contenders and Detroit, Buffalo and Ottawa all ahead of Montreal in their respective rebuilds, in which season do you see Montreal NOT finishing dead last in the Atlantic?

Which team will finish last instead of them? – Charles D.

This is similar to the first question, but looking more specifically at the dynamics of the Atlantic Division, which is a serious issue for the Canadiens, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. Jeff Gorton was asked about the unique dynamic in the division at the end of the season, and his answer was basically that they will focus on what they’re doing and worry less about what others are doing. What else is he supposed to say?

If he were given some truth serum, he would probably admit that the division doesn’t appear to be getting any easier any time soon. The Sabres are emerging in a big way, the Senators have prime talent in place at key positions, and, honestly, if the Lightning can be described as being in a slow decline, as Charles did in his question, I would see that decline as being at a tortoise pace.

It is very difficult to see a path to the Canadiens finishing top-three in this division any time soon and, to Charles’ point, finishing anywhere other than last in the division is difficult to map out as well.

But this is where Aju’s question comes in.

I think a lot of Canadiens fans have been concerned by Hughes’ expressed desire to speed up the rebuild whenever he can. Macklin Celebrini and Cole Eiserman and even Ivan Demidov are looking at this early stage as prime assets to be acquired in the 2024 draft, and as already stated, it doesn’t look like the Canadiens are well-positioned to acquire them. So how do they catch up in a stacked Atlantic where Buffalo (Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power), Ottawa (Tim Stützle, Jake Sanderson and Brady Tkachuk) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Detroit (Moritz Seider and Lukas Raymond) have already drafted that top-end talent and are now building around them?

I think one way is by looking at the Sabres. Their top scorer last season was Tage Thompson, a player who was undervalued by the St. Louis Blues and traded away in a package that landed them Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy, so I don’t think the Blues are overly upset. But if they knew Thompson had this in him, there is no way they would have included him in that deal. The Sabres also added Alex Tuch in the Jack Eichel trade along with a boatload of futures.

They have drafted well, past their duo of No. 1 overall studs on defence, and they have traded well. The Canadiens can make up ground in this division by doing the same. The Kirby Dach trade a year ago is a perfect example of something that needs to be repeated, and perhaps the Newhook deal will turn out to be part two of that process.

But the Canadiens’ road to the upper echelons of the Atlantic Division is littered with obstacles, and they don’t have much margin for error. There is no way around that reality, one we explored last season.

In that piece, Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde, speaking in February, described the challenge quite perfectly.

“This division, and this conference, will demoralize you,” Lalonde said. “When we talk about the reality of making the playoffs, it’s not so much where we’re at, it’s probably more of a credit to where our division and conference is at … It’s not a bad thing having three of the best teams in the league in your division, because that’s truly where it’s at. Would it be great to make the playoffs this year? Yes. Do we need to chase it with free agent signings, deadline deals, not selling? You’d be lying to yourself.

“So I think all those teams are trying to get there for the long haul. It just takes a while.”

This brings us back to Charles’ question. When will the Canadiens not finish last in the Atlantic? I honestly have no idea. Though I feel the Canadiens will not finish in the bottom 10 of the league next season, I’m not nearly as confident saying they won’t finish last in the division. But if there’s one team I think they could pass in the next two years, I think it might be Detroit.

The Canadiens have no room for error in this division, so reaching the top three, as opposed to aspiring simply not to finish last, will take a series of sharp moves that allow them to not only catch up to the main peloton but surpass them and get into the lead pack. So far, so good, but more is needed.

You’re Kent Hughes, how do you navigate the next year including the 2024 offseason and what would an ideal (but realistic) lineup look like in October 2024? – Kevin L.

Why not finish this off with a super easy one?

There are a lot of variables that make answering this question difficult, but I will attempt to tackle them here. I think two front-burner issues this season will be the futures of Christian Dvorak and Josh Anderson and what they could potentially fetch if they were to be made available on the trade market. I don’t think the Canadiens will necessarily shop these players, but I do feel they will be open to listening because each of them possesses traits that would be attractive to a playoff contender at this season’s trade deadline. And with the cap set to rise next season, their relatively reasonable salaries will become more manageable to digest for contending teams as well.

Anderson’s combination of size and speed and relentlessness on the forecheck is why scouts still salivate watching him play, even if the regular season numbers have not necessarily been outstanding (though 40 goals in 138 games over the past two seasons is not nothing, either). But in his case, what always jumps to top of mind for me is the first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021. Anderson had one point in the seven games – the first goal of the series – but he had a significant impact with that relentless forechecking. If you don’t remember, go back and watch the last three games of that series. Whenever Anderson was on the ice and the Maple Leafs defencemen had to go back and retrieve pucks, watch how they got rid of it as fast as they could knowing Anderson was coming. That was an investment he made over the first four games, and it paid off by the end of the series. Jake Muzzin in particular wanted nothing to do with him anymore. In a playoff series, that quality has serious value.

I know the New Jersey Devils showed interest in him last season, and I don’t know if that’s changed with the acquisition of Timo Meier, but they can serve as an example of how an Anderson trade to a contender could work. The Devils have been slowly giving more and more to Alexander Holtz – the No. 7 pick in the 2020 draft – but unless he takes a big leap this season, the Devils might come to the conclusion he doesn’t quite fit their window, which is right now. If the Canadiens could leverage Anderson as a win-now proposition into a young player with growth potential, they will surely do it. It might not be Holtz, but it would likely take someone like him to convince the Canadiens to move Anderson because I don’t think he is viewed as someone they absolutely have to trade.

Dvorak is in a similar situation where his numbers don’t necessarily reflect his true value to a contender. A third-line centre who wins faceoffs, can play on both special teams, and presents a shutdown option in a playoff series is an attractive piece for a contender, and I believe the Canadiens will view him as such and would need a commensurate return in order to trade him.

Again, just as an example, let’s say the Buffalo Sabres are in playoff contention at the deadline and they feel they need a veteran centre capable of stabilizing things and providing a shutdown option, would they be willing to part with someone like Isak Rosén, a very good prospect but hardly the jewel in the Sabres’ pipeline?

In part one of the mailbag, I already made the case the Canadiens should do everything in their power to sign William Nylander if he makes it to free agency in 2024. I’m still not sure he will, because the Maple Leafs should value him too much to allow that to happen, but because his situation coincides with the potential free agency of Auston Matthews, I consider Nylander a real possibility to be available a year from now. So for fun, I am sticking him in the 2024 lineup.

There are other shoes that might drop by next fall. David Savard and Joel Armia will be entering the final seasons of their contracts in 2024-25, which makes it at least possible that one or both are traded at the deadline in March, though I would be somewhat surprised if that happened.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s say the Canadiens sign Nylander in free agency and acquire Holtz and Rosén by training camp of 2024, even though in the case of Holtz and Rosén, they are more examples of the kind of trade the Canadiens would hope to pull off more so than an actual prediction.

Anyhow, here is that 2024 lineup under these circumstances.

Cole Caufield

Nick Suzuki

William Nylander

Juraj Slafkovský

Kirby Dach

Alexander Holtz

Emil Heineman

Alex Newhook

Brendan Gallagher

Jesse Ylönen

Jake Evans

Joel Armia

Mike Matheson

Justin Barron

Kaiden Guhle

David Savard

Arber Xhekaj

David Reinbacher

I don’t know how realistic the Nylander acquisition is, but I do feel next summer is when the Canadiens might be ready to make a free agent splash, so that’s the one I went with. How do you feel about that lineup a year from now, with a ton of prospects also pushing from below?

So that’s it for me this summer. At least for a while, unless the Canadiens do something earth-shattering, in which case I will chime in. But thank you to all of you for reading all season. Without you, nothing I do is worthwhile, so as I unplug for a bit, I wanted to make sure I let you know how much I appreciate all of you reading and listening and following along. You’re what makes this job so much fun.

(Photo of Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top