The centre spot has been a weak spot for the Habs for quite a long time. However, over the past few years, there has been considerable turnover at that position with some promising additions although more work still needs to be done.
Signed: Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak, Jake Evans, Sean Monahan, Nick Suzuki
Suzuki didn’t need too much time to prove he was NHL-ready when he was first breaking into the league. He quickly moved up the depth chart and has clearly established himself as Montreal’s top middleman. Former GM Marc Bergevin wasted little time signing him to a max-term extension, making him Montreal’s highest-paid skater in the process. It’s a deal that might be on the pricey side for a couple of years but Suzuki is a key player at a key position that shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Bergevin also brought in Dvorak last summer, quickly pivoting after declining to match Carolina’s offer sheet to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The hope was that with a team more positioned towards winning now, Dvorak could find another level. We all know how the winning part turned out as Montreal managed to finish behind Arizona in the end while Dvorak struggled with his new team although he did perform better under Martin St. Louis. He’s a strong third option at least and with three years left on his deal, he could be around for a little while as well.
How Dach performs could ultimately determine Dvorak’s future. New GM Kent Hughes paid a high price to get him from Chicago at the draft, parting with Alexander Romanov and a pair of draft picks to get him, then signed him to an above-market contract in the hopes that he’ll out-perform it over time. He’ll get a chance to take a step back and ease into things a little better with the Habs than he did with Chicago but with his extreme struggles at the faceoff dot, there’s also the possibility that their long-term preference with him might be to put him on the wing or to ensure there’s a second centre on his line to help at the dot.
Monahan was a legitimate top-line centre only a few years ago. But there’s a reason the Habs were handed a first-round pick (with the most detailed conditions in history…and I don’t even think they got all of them covered properly in their press release) to take him from Calgary. He has battled hip trouble the last couple of seasons and that’s not an injury that players typically come back from and rediscover their old form. With a $6.375 million cap hit, he’s unlikely to perform anywhere near that level when healthy but since he’s on an expiring contract, Monahan will be a strong trade candidate with salary retention at the deadline.
Evans has shown slow and steady improvement since turning pro and he was one of the few bright spots for the Canadiens last season as he showed he can be more than a fourth-liner. Bergevin handed him a three-year extension last fall, one that looks like a pretty good one at the moment. For now, Evans likely slots onto the fourth line but with the Habs having surplus winger depth, they’ll be in a spot where their fourth line could see a lot of minutes so there will still be chances for him to produce.
Needs Assessment: Medium – There are some question marks with this group for this season – can Monahan play the full year without injuries and can Dach stay down the middle? They don’t necessarily have to address that with a playoff race not expected to be on the horizon, however. That said, there are question marks long-term as well – is there a true top-six option behind Suzuki? Bergevin hoped Dvorak could be one and Hughes hopes Dach can be but if neither pan out, this is a big need over the next couple of years.
Signed: Cam Hillis, Jan Mysak, Anthony Richard, Nate Schnarr, Mitchell Stephens
UFAs: Lukas Vejdemo
AHL Contracts: Peter Abbandonato, Xavier Simoneau, Brett Stapley
AHL Free Agents: None
If you’re looking for an under-the-radar player that could make a run at a roster spot in the preseason, I’d put Stephens in that mix. He actually was a regular with Detroit last season when healthy and can kill penalties while being adequate at the faceoff dot. If he makes it to Laval, however, he’s someone that should slot in on their top line, giving him a chance to work on his offensive game which certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing from a development perspective. His signing largely went under the radar but he should be a good pickup.
Richard is being marked as a centre here but he has spent a lot of time on the wing recently. Regardless of where he plays, he immediately becomes one of Laval’s top offensive players and should be a fixture in the top six. I’m not sure he’s going to play his way into any NHL action but he’ll be a very important player for Laval.
Mysak will be one of the more intriguing prospects to watch for this season. He wasn’t exactly dominant with Hamilton last season and is one of those players who best fit into a lineup in a complementary role. Those players can make impacts relatively quickly in the pros and he’ll have the benefit of spending the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign with the Rocket. He might have a limited role to start with but he could become an important part of the lineup as the season goes on.
Schnarr was acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for Andrew Hammond and became a valuable bottom-six checker down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’ll play that role again this season. Hillis has seen his stock tumble sharply the last couple of years and he’s likely to be in the same situation as last year, not good enough to crack Laval’s lineup on a regular basis. If there’s a change-of-scenery trade to be made in the coming weeks, there’s a good chance it’ll be him.
Vejdemo was a valuable two-way centre for Laval for the last few years but underwent hamstring surgery in late April which basically ended his tenure with the team. He won’t be ready until probably December and if the Rocket are down some players due to injuries and recalls, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them reach out to see if he wants an AHL deal to try to help land himself a spot back home for 2023-24.
Abbandonato started in Trois-Rivieres last season but earned an early recall and was up to stay from there. He provided some value as he could play a few different roles in the lineup and is the type of quality depth that will come in handy throughout the season. Simoneau wrapped up a promising junior career last season and will now spend the year hoping to earn his entry-level deal from the Habs. Early playing time in Laval might be hard to find, however, which could put him in Trois-Rivieres. Stapley’s NHL rights are no longer held by Montreal but he’s someone that should be able to secure a regular role in the lineup fairly quickly. He’s actually two days older than Schnarr who has three pro seasons under his belt so he’ll be counted on more than a typical rookie.
Needs Assessment: Low – If Richard plays on the wing, there’s a hole at the 2C spot that Stapley and Mysak might not be ready for right away but they’d likely play the long game and hope that one of those two can play themselves into that role.
Even with a couple of prospects making the jump to the pros this season, the Canadiens have some decent depth down the middle including a pair of intriguing middlemen with some upside.
Owen Beck was Montreal’s first pick of the second round back in July. His offensive numbers didn’t jump off the chart in his first OHL season but he showed improvement as the year went on and played a key role in their top six. He’s also strong defensively and elite at the faceoff dot, traits that give him a high floor. If you were charting out a future organizational roster for a few years from now, he’s the type of player you’d confidently slot in on the third line. If his offensive game can take a couple of steps forward, he might be able to become a future second-liner.
Riley Kidney was the first of back-to-back late second-rounders in 2021 and the early indication is that he outperformed his draft stock. He was one of the top scorers in the QMJHL last season and actually tied for the team lead in assists. With Hendrix Lapierre now turning pro, Kidney should be the go-to offensive weapon for Acadie-Bathurst and could have another big year offensively. He’ll need to bulk up as well but there’s at least a semblance of second-line upside if everything went well with his development.
Oliver Kapanen, who went one spot after Kidney, hasn’t fared as well so far. He split last season between the top level in Finland and the junior level and while he did well in the latter, he had a limited role in the former. That’s not entirely unexpected for an 18-year-old but I have some questions about his offensive upside. There’s an NHL profile if all goes well but he’s the type of player that currently projects into more of a depth role.
Ty Smilanic was acquired as part of the Ben Chiarot trade and was a third-round pick back in 2020 that we had in the middle of the second round. He’s coming off a down year at Quinnipiac that led to a transfer to Wisconsin but there’s third-line upside if everything goes well. If he has a big season with his new school, he could be a candidate to sign late in the year.
Jared Davidson had a breakout year last season, notching 89 points with Seattle of the WHL. For context, he had 39 combined over his first three years with the team. Montreal has shown a willingness to take some late-bloomers in recent years and he’s another example of those. He could turn pro and join Laval this season or go back to the Thunderbirds for his overage campaign. For now, he’s a depth prospect. Jack Smith had a tough year with Sioux Falls of the USHL. He didn’t produce much early on and then missed most of the season due to injury. He’s starting his college career this coming season but expectations have to be really low at this point after two very underwhelming post-draft campaigns.
Needs Assessment: Medium – From a pure depth perspective, this isn’t bad. There are some quality prospects with legitimate NHL upside. However, more quality depth is needed. It’d be nice to have someone that legitimately profiles as a top-six piece over some that could get there if everything went perfectly. There’s still some work to be done down the middle.