It wasn’t that long ago that left wing was Montreal’s position of strength among the three forward spots. That has really changed on the current roster although they also have strengthened their prospect core on the left side in recent years.
Signed: Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin
RFA’s: Artturi Lehkonen
UFA’s: Michael Frolik, Tomas Tatar
Let’s just say there’s a reason that one of the right wingers played on their off-wing pretty much all season long (mostly Tyler Toffoli with Josh Anderson a bit here and there as well).
Byron is definitely a quality role player for the Habs but there’s a reason he cleared waivers three times this season. A $3.4 million cap hit for someone who is an above-average fourth liner in a perfect world isn’t ideal in any cap environment. In this environment with the cap flat for the foreseeable future, his contract is basically negative value. But assuming he’s back next year, he can still be an effective checker at a minimum.
Drouin is one of the biggest question marks of the summer. There is plenty of speculation about what happened late in the season but I’m not going to add to that. I will suggest, however, that I don’t think it’s known at this time if he will be able to return for training camp or even if he’d want to and that’s what makes it complicated. Whatever is going on qualifies as an injury (hence the LTIR placement) which makes a buyout tricky. If you’re a team interested in trading for him, you want to know if he’ll be able to play and will want to flip a high-priced contract back. Swapping overpriced deals is probably the only viable trade option right now and even that’s iffy. Drouin can’t really be pencilled in anywhere – in any role on any team.
Lehkonen seems to be on the fringes of a roster spot under Dominique Ducharme. Let’s not forget he was a scratch at times down the stretch and in the playoffs. Like Byron, he’s an effective checker but he’ll cost at least $2.2 million (his qualifying offer) and will probably cost more than that. With one overpriced checker in Byron, can they afford another one if they want to add an impact piece this summer? If he’s around, he’s another fit for the bottom six.
Tatar was a fixture on the top line for most of his tenure with the Habs but struggled this year and was an afterthought in the playoffs. Montreal got more from him than they could have even dreamed of when he was basically brought in as a cap dump as part of the trade that yielded Nick Suzuki but it certainly feels like his time with the Canadiens has come to an end. The same can be said about Frolik who played all of four NHL games this season.
Needs Assessment: High – Are the alarm bells ringing yet? The Habs have precisely zero top-six left wingers heading into next season since Drouin can’t be relied on at this point. As things stand, both Toffoli and Anderson are on their off wings to start next season which would put a dent in how things would line up on the right side. A lot of work needs to be done here.
Signed: Brandon Baddock, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Arsen Khisamutdinov, Joel Teasdale
RFA’s: Michael Pezzetta
AHL Contracts: Gabriel Bourque, Cedric Desruisseaux, Justin Ducharme, Alexandre Fortin, Jake Lucchini, Danick Martel
AHL Free Agents: Yannick Veilleux
Harvey-Pinard had a lot to play for last year as he needed a strong season to earn his entry-level deal and he certainly had one. I’m skeptical that he can be a top offensive threat at that level and his ceiling is as an energy piece in the bottom six but he’s someone that could conceivably be slotted in as a lower-cost depth player in Montreal by the time his deal is up. Teasdale is another one who profiles as a checker at the next level and has a realistic chance of getting there. In terms of Laval for next season, they could be the middle-six left wingers.
Khisamutdinov’s season did not go well. He looked overmatched on a fairly regular basis and while I don’t think his skating was terrible, he was a couple of steps behind the play routinely. It seems like he just tries to play too slow and that he doesn’t react quickly enough. That’s not a good combination for the AHL and accordingly, some time in Trois-Rivieres would make sense. Baddock was more than just a tough guy that would run around and hit people and could contribute on a regular shift. He’s someone that should be on the fourth line but could move up at times as well.
Pezzetta, is a competent fourth liner but the NHL upside isn’t there and with them committing an NHL deal to a similar player in Baddock already, do they really need to use two contract slots on that role? I sure hope not but if he’s open to an AHL deal, he’d be worth bringing back.
Lucchini has had some impressive moments with Laval but a lot of quiet ones as well and he’s now 26. That resulted in him only getting an AHL deal this time around. Martel had a quiet year with Binghamton but when he’s on, he’s a legitimate top liner at this level and he may be the replacement for Jordan Weal in the top six. Bourque is a signing that I have to admit, I don’t get. After missing all of this season, he probably isn’t going to be in the top six and if he’s going to be in the bottom six, why are they using a veteran slot on that role? At this point, if they add another notable AHL piece, he could be the odd one out when the team is fully healthy.
Of the other three signings, Fortin stands out because he has a bit of NHL experience but hasn’t done much since then. Desruisseaux had a strong season in the QMJHL while Ducharme’s track record isn’t as strong. Those two should be in Trois-Rivieres while Fortin could be as well.
Veilleux – who has already signed in Germany – will be a notable departure. While he didn’t produce much during his first stint in Montreal’s system, that all changed when he signed partway through the 2019-20 season as he became quite productive while maintaining his physical edge. That’s one role that they need to fill (and Martel and Bourque aren’t it) between now and next season.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Teasdale or Harvey-Pinard could very well one day do enough offensively to fit on the top line in the AHL. They’re not there yet and neither are the veteran locals that were brought in. Given the lack of NHL depth at this position, a veteran that can play on the top line in Laval and hold his own on an NHL recall would be a useful addition.
Last year, the Habs added three left wingers in the draft, turning what was a bit of a weak area into a very intriguing one in the process.
Luke Tuch’s selection didn’t go over very well at the time but I think it will turn out to be a wise one. He probably isn’t going to be a top-six forward but he’s someone that if he pans out can score 10-15 goals a season while playing with a lot of physicality. In a prospect pool that doesn’t have a ton of size, that’s a useful piece.
On the other end of the spectrum is Sean Farrell. He has a lot of skill but is listed at all of 5’9. If he pans out, he has the offensive ability to help Montreal’s top six but he has a long way to go to get that far, especially with his college debut being pushed back this season to 2021-22.
Alexander Gordin was a late-round wild card last fall and, like Khisamutdinov, appears to have been drafted primarily because of his shot with the hope that enough other elements can develop. (I don’t mind this strategy in the late rounds.) I’m a little concerned that he couldn’t establish himself beyond the junior level despite having opportunities to this year so he’s another long-term project.
So too is Rhett Pitlick. It’s rare that NHL-drafted prospects spend parts of three seasons in the USHL (with three different teams, no less) but he has done that. It’s a little concerning that he wasn’t able to become a true top threat (look at Farrell and how he performed repeating the level) but there’s still some upside though his stock has fallen. The latter bit can be used for Jack Gorniak as well. He’s fast but hasn’t put enough of the rest of his game together to warrant an NHL contract.
Needs Assessment: Medium – There are players with NHL upside here but at the same time, there isn’t a safe top-six piece either (Farrell could get there in time). There isn’t a top-six piece at this position in Laval either so adding one early in the draft would certainly fill a hole.