It’s been an unpredictably horrendous year for the Habs. After playing inspired hockey last year, being one of the best teams in the league, and making it to the Stanley Cup Final, they are now one of the worst teams in the league. Simply unbelievable.
As a result, ownership has taken the significant step to remake the management team starting with establishing a new executive leadership position and bringing in an experienced individual in Jeff Gorton to lead the team forward. So the question many fans are dying to learn is what type of changes will we see with Gorton coming in?
Obviously, with the Habs out of the playoffs, it is a foregone conclusion that unrestricted free agents will be traded to obtain valuable picks or prospects. I expect players like Ben Chariot, Mathieu Perreault, Cedric Paquette, Chris Wideman, and Brett Kulak will be traded before the end of the season.
Otherwise, it is an interesting dynamic going from the second-best team in the league by virtue of making it to the Cup Final to the worst team in just a few months. It would be an obvious choice to do a complete rebuild if they had a 7-23-4 record with a fully healthy team, had all sorts of off-ice team chemistry problems, or a team full of aging veterans. But that’s not the case.
- The team has been obliterated with injuries this year to the extent that they were forced to call up an ECHL player in their last game. I can’t recall a time that has ever happened before to an NHL team.
- The team has a good blend of veterans, players in their prime, young NHLers, upcoming prospects
- Veterans (+30 years old): Petry, Price, Bryon, Allen, Hoffman, Savard,
- Players in their prime (25-30): Gallagher, Toffoli, Anderson, Drouin, Armia, Edmundson, Lehkonen, Kulak,
- Young NHLers (20-25): Suzuki, Romanov, Evans, Dvorak,
- Prospects: Caufield, Poehling, Primeau along with a number of other draft picks in junior leagues.
It would also be an easy decision if the team has had no success in the recent past. But again, largely this same team had very successful playoff performances in the last two years. That type of success is hard to ignore and call for a complete rebuild. Given all the above, I believe Gorton will choose to make more targeted moves focusing on specific positions or players rather than a wholesale dismantling across the team.
Here is my take on the likely changes coming for the Habs in 2022-2023 season.
On paper, this has to be one of the team strengths with proven performers at the NHL level and a bonafide prospect playing well in the AHL.
Starting with Carey Price, he’s still regarded by some as the league’s best and dominates when the games matter. But over the last few years during the regular season, he has been middle of the pack at best. Price’s durability to play is challenging to predict as well, which won’t get better as he gets older.
Marc Bergevin figured that out and acquired a great backup who can play a lot of games and even carry the team into the playoffs before letting Price work his magic.
As things stand today (Price isn’t playing, future uncertain, huge contract), I just don’t think Price is tradeable. If the Kraken wouldn’t pick him up for nothing, I can’t envision any other team being interested or making any sort of reasonable trade offer. So he’s staying put, and will hopefully provide the leadership and calming influence on the team once he’s playing again.
Cayden Primeau is playing good hockey and continues to develop but hasn’t proven he is ready to handle the workload in the NHL. Hopefully, he gets more time in at the NHL level this year and sets himself up for the backup role in 2023-2024.
Jake Allen has played solid in the backup role and has another year on his very reasonable contract after this year. Given the durability issues of Price and Primeau not being ready yet, Allen is staying put as well. There’s a good chance another team (Oilers?) will inquire about Allen’s availability, but it’ll have to be a generous offer to let him go.
Prediction: Goaltending is set for next season and the Habs won’t be looking to make any changes unless a can’t turn-down trade offer comes along.
Jeff Petry still has to be considered as the top defenceman. While he’s not playing up to his usual standards, at this point I’m not ready to write him off. He’s having a terrible year – unlike any he’s ever played before with the Habs – but is it the right time to trade him? Consider the following: 1) he is just starting a new four-year contract; 2) trading him now is likely to get low value; 3) no one else in the organization can play anywhere close to his level. You have to believe that he’ll return to his normal standard of play. Either way, Petry is going nowhere.
After Chiarot is traded, Joel Edmundson would be the top left defender, and considering how he and Petry played last year, I don’t see any problem heading into next year with this as your top pairing assuming Edmundson’s injury situation is resolved.
The next strongest defensemen on the roster are David Savard (right) and Alexander Romanov (left). Romanov has taken some big strides, and at just 21 years old, is going nowhere. I don’t think he’s strong enough (yet) to anchor the second pairing, but neither is Savard. And certainly pairing them together on the second pairing would be unacceptable. So I think Gorton will be looking to upgrade their top four as a result. Given the much better prospect depth on the left side (Kaiden Guhle, Mattias Norlinder, and Jordan Harris) vs the right side (Logan Mailloux, Josh Brook), I think they should target a top four right defenceman allowing them to pencil in Romanov in the second pairing on the left side.
This would bump Savard down to the third pairing, which may be a better fit for him. He has certainly struggled this year in a top four role and on the penalty kill. Unless Gorton can work his magic to make a trade, I don’t think he has much trade value right now and again, the prospect depth is poor on the right side. So Savard likely stays and anchors the third pairing and penalty kill.
At this point, it’s tough to predict with certainty that any of the defence prospects would be ready for a third pairing role, so I think Gorton will look to acquire a proven NHL player for the left side and allow time for prospects to develop further. Kulak has proven himself well over the last few years and would be a great candidate, but I can’t see him wanting to re-sign after how he’s been treated, and I think there’s going to be plenty of interest in his services as a cheap, reliable third pairing defender.
Sami Niku and Kale Clague are new to the team this year and will likely have the rest of the year to demonstrate they deserve a roster spot next year.
Prediction: Habs will look to upgrade their top four defencemen (preferably right side) and target a reliable third pairing defender along with other depth options. Gorton will look to move Savard and re-deploy cap space to a more effective defenceman.
Centre continues to be the weakest position on the roster.
Nick Suzuki and Jake Evans are staying put. These are young centres that have demonstrated they can play hockey at the NHL level. While Evans’ deployment at wing (at times) is downright confusing, he has still been playing solid hockey. Suzuki is playing big minutes and has struggled all year playing against top opposition. He has the worst plus/minus on the team and is down in scoring from last year. Obviously, it will take time to develop into a #1 centre on a contending team. Suzuki’s new $8M contract kicks in next year and is going to hurt but Evans’ contract continues to look good. For both Evans and Suzuki there is every reason to believe they will continue to improve.
Ryan Poehling and Christian Dvorak are the only others in the system that can play in the NHL next year. Poehling is just establishing himself in the NHL and playing reasonable hockey with a very appealing contract. If he continues to play well this season, I expect Poehling will have earned his spot as a third or fourth line centre for next season.
Dvorak was brought in to centre the second line and has clearly struggled. He may be more suited to a third line role but his $4.45M contract is a little steep for that position.
The team is in obvious need of a major upgrade down the middle. Due to a cap constraint coming into play, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dvorak is offered as part of a trade package.
Prediction: Habs will look to obtain a top two centre.
Right wing is arguably the strongest position they have with four established NHLers (Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Armia) and Cole Caufield in the development process. Jesse Ylonen has developed well in the AHL and is on the verge of securing an NHL roster spot.
I can’t see Gallagher, Toffoli, or Anderson leaving. All are signed through 2023-2024 and have generally played great hockey for the Habs. Gallagher provides a ton of leadership, drive, and relentless approach to the game that the Habs desperately need. His value to the Habs is just so much larger than any trade could deliver.
Toffoli has done nothing but play fantastic hockey since his arrival and has shown he can play on the left side as well which is great flexibility to have. His contract is also very attractive for a top line winger, so unless a can’t-turn-down trade offer comes along, he is staying put.
Anderson brings a dimension to the game with speed, size, and scoring that is hard to replace. At 27 years of age, he is still in his prime, and with five more years (after this season) left on his contract he can be a core piece of the team for years to come.
Caufield played inspired hockey last season and while he’s struggled this year, he is still very young and developing. It’s too early to give up on his potential so he’s staying put.
This brings us to Armia. To be transparent, I’m a big fan. He’s got a great shot and when he has the puck you simply can’t get it off him. He’s a big strong winger which is important to balance out some of the smaller forwards. But he’s struggled this year with diminished ice time and is playing nowhere near his four-year contract with a $3.4M cap hit. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was traded but I’m just not sure there’s much of a trade market for Armia unless Gorton can work a miracle. But being a fan of Armia, I think his deployment and linemates this year have impacted his performance much more so than anyone else on the team. Given better quality linemates and more playing time, Armia has shown that he can put up 10-15 goals and 20-30 points per year while playing on the third line and special teams. I’d be inclined to play him on the left side, slotting him into a third line role, where he’d be paired with better linemates and more playing time, and hopefully enjoy a little more success.
Depending on how the rest of this season goes, Ylonen could be a viable option for a fourth line developing winger for next season.
Prediction: No significant changes. Gallagher, Anderson, and Caufield on the right side with Ylonen or other depth NHLer on the fourth line. Gorton will look to move Armia and re-deploy cap space elsewhere.
On paper, left wing looks like a strength but in fact, has been a weakness of the team. Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen, and Paul Byron are all signed or restricted free agents for next season. The prospect pool is pretty bare with no one in sight of becoming an impact NHL player. Is it too late to say I miss Tomas Tatar?
As we saw last year, Toffoli actually became the top line left winger despite being a right-handed shooter. So let’s pencil Toffoli in on the top line.
With Bergevin gone, there is no more reason to keep Drouin. Bergevin continually hoped Drouin would develop into a top line player to justify trading away a top four defenceman. All hope is now gone. And the $5.5M contract with minimal production, constant defensive blunders, and inconsistent effort is hurting the team. Not to mention the heartburn I get when I watch him play. Drouin needs to go and they need the cap space.
I’ve enjoyed watching Hoffman play this year when healthy. He’s got great hands, can be a dynamic offensive forward, and has a wicked shot with strong power play credentials. He’s signed to a reasonable contract for two more years after this. In addition, there’s no one else in the organization with his skill set. With improved deployment on the top two lines, I think Hoffman is worth keeping. With Drouin exiting, Hoffman is a natural replacement (and upgrade).
Lehkonen is one of the hardest-working players on the ice with his speed and relentless forechecking. His stats showcase his defensive skillset as he regularly kills plays. The problem is that he kills plays for both teams! No matter what line Lehkonen plays on, or what linemates he has, every single linemate struggles offensively with him on the ice. Nobody has produced well with him (Gallagher, Armia, Kotkaniemi, Byron, etc.). He regularly misses the net on grade-A scoring chances, trips over the blueline on breakaways, mishandles easy passes, and can’t even seem to make an easy pass to open teammates. I’ve never seen an NHLer skate with their head down as much as Lehkonen. As a 26-year-old $2.3M restricted free agent, he has reached his potential and that is a third or fourth line defensive winger. He will be appealing to other teams. Time for him to move on as they need the cap space.
This brings us to Byron. The first thing to recognize is that even when everyone was healthy, Byron was an alternate captain on the team. This type of leadership cannot be easily dismissed – especially when other leaders (Weber, Perry) are gone and the team is struggling. Combined that with the blazing speed, penalty killing expertise, and flexibility to play up and down the lineup, there is a lot to like about Paul Byron. While he may never score 20 goals again, you can pencil him down for 10 goals, all while playing third or fourth line minutes and a very strong penalty kill. While the last year of his contract is high ($3.4M), I see him being much more valuable to the Habs than anything that could be received in a trade. Bryon stays put.
Prediction: Drouin and Lehkonen are moved. Toffoli (first line), Hoffman (second line) with Byron and Armia (if not moved) filling out the remaining spots.
If Gorton doesn’t go for a full rebuild, the Habs will be looking to upgrade the roster. That would involve acquiring a top six centre and a top four right-handed defenceman as priorities. Other needs include a bottom four left-shot defender along with other depth players (fourth line winger, seventh defenceman, etc.).
In the upcoming draft, the Habs look like they will earn a high pick after a disastrous season. This draft features centres and right-handed defencemen as the likely top five picks. I’m going to assume Gorton can fill one of the high priorities with that pick.
To fill the other hole and gain cap space he has assets such as Chiarot ($3.5M) and Kulak ($1.8M) as rentals that can move while Drouin ($5.5M), Dvorak ($4.5M), and Lehkonen ($2.3M) as players under contract that should be of interest to some teams as well as a host of other depth NHLers, prospects and picks that could be in play.
It doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task to plug these obvious holes and get back to being a competitive team for the 2022-2023 season.