If Kent Hughes’ game plan wasn’t clear enough at last season’s trade deadline, what he did at the recent entry draft and during the qualifying period for restricted free agents are pretty good indications of what kind of a rebuild he plans on overseeing.
A major part of his rebuild will rely on a group of good young players with some runway left in their development that are being assiduously acquired, stockpiled and developed into NHL hockey players in an ever-deepening Montreal Canadiens’ prospect pool.
At the trade deadline last season, first-round picks from Calgary and Florida were the main returns in the Tyler Toffoli and Ben Chiarot trades, but getting a pair of 20-year-old forwards with upside in Emil Heineman (Calgary) and Tyler Smilanic (Florida) were major components of both deals. The Artturi Lehkonen trade to Colorado may not have fetched a first, but Justin Barron, the 20-year-old right-handed defence prospect that came back to Montreal in the deal, was the Avalanche’s first-rounder from 2020.
At the recent entry draft, Hughes wasted no time in engineering a three-way trade with the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders that saw 21-year-old centreman Kirby Dach, taken third overall by the Hawks in 2019, come to Montreal. The plan is clearly for the Canadiens to work closely with this underachieving but potentially elite talent to see if Dach can effectively fill the second-line centre hole behind Nick Suzuki.
How Hughes dealt with Montreal’s crop of restricted free agents can also be seen as a sign that the new-look Canadiens will lean on rising young talent to bring the franchise back to relevancy. The Canadiens sent qualifying offers to five players on Monday, but a message was sent with the three RFAs who didn’t get offers: Left-handed defenceman Kale Clague, 24, has topped out a depth defender, right-handed defenceman Josh Brook, 23, has seen his development stagnate due to a series of untimely injuries and forward Rem Pitlick, 25, appears to have priced himself out of the Canadiens’ top nine despite playing well for the Habs after being picked up on waivers from the Minnesota Wild last season.
Montreal apparently made an offer higher than the required qualifying offer to Pitlick that was rejected and clearly, the team wasn’t willing to go higher. Perhaps Hughes didn’t want to give a 25-year-old player a contract that might block the path to the NHL for younger forwards he hopes to have ready for top-nine duty when the Canadiens are actually a good hockey team again.
If this is in fact the case, there shouldn’t be many hockey players on the present roster older than 25 who will still be around when the Canadiens are a consistent playoff team again. Over the next few weeks, Hughes can expect to take calls from his peers on the likes of Jeff Petry, Josh Anderson, Christian Dvorak, and Josh Allen.
And while draft picks will always be valuable currency in these deals, anyone talking to Hughes about one of his veterans had better be prepared to pony up a blue-chip prospect to get something done.
Building patiently through the annual entry draft is the usual model for future success that most last-place teams follow. By aggressively acquiring quality prospects from other teams, the pathway back to the playoffs can be shortened even further.