More than in any other season I can remember, this year’s version has more questions and more uncertainty than ever before.
Let’s start with the centre position. The perceived #1 centre is Nick Suzuki. Last season was his third in the NHL. He led the team in points by a wide margin and he continued to improve and progress. Unfortunately, he was thrust into the top role prematurely and was regularly victimized and manhandled in his own end by opposing teams’ top forwards. He held a team-worst (and tied for seventh-worst overall in the NHL) with a -29. With his new bonanza contract kicking in, will Suzuki continue to improve and develop into a legitimate #1 centre?
The acquisition of Sean Monahan brings in a former top centre who has struggled with serious injuries over the last few years. Reportedly healthy, will Monahan resurrect his career with a solid performance, or have injuries taken their toll on this 28-year-old?
Then there’s Kirby Dach – a 2019 third-overall pick who has struggled thus far in his short NHL career. He was acquired from Chicago making a big splash during the NHL draft. Clearly, management likes what they see in Dach giving up valuable assets to acquire him despite his career performance so far. The jury is out on Dach and this season will be a key test for the young centre.
Jake Evans and Christian Dvorak are also in the mix at down the middle and both played respectably well in their roles in 2021-2022 (although more was hoped for from Dvorak as a second-liner). But with all the NHL-calibre names on this list, it creates a logjam at centre, meaning someone will be out. Depending on chemistry with linemates and injuries we will likely see a lot of line permutations.
Moving on to the wings, it doesn’t get any clearer.
Cole Caufield, who is known for his dynamic scoring ability, had two seasons last year. In the first season, he scored one goal in 30 games, forgot how to stick handle and shoot, and was demoted to the AHL. In the second season, he scored 22 goals in 36 games and was the dynamic player fans wanted to see. Which Cole will show up for this upcoming season?
The oft-injured Jonathan Drouin is entering his final year on this contract and is destined to be traded to a contender. When healthy, he’s provided somewhat reasonable production. Will he put it all together this year setting himself up for a payday on his next contract?
Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov are two aging snipers that could provide potent offence from the wings and are guaranteed trade bait. Can they re-establish themselves as legitimate offensive threats enough during the year to entice a trade?
Joel Armia and Brendan Gallagher both had miserable years last season after developing fairly consistent results over their tenure with the Habs. Will they show last year was an anomaly and get back to their higher standard of play, or have the years taken a toll on these 29- and 30- year old veterans?
Paul Byron is in the last year of his contract and has played injured over the last few years. He is still battling those injuries. How many games will he be able to play and at what level will he be able to contribute?
The winger who played the most consistent hockey last season was Josh Anderson. He provided the power, speed, and goal-scoring that we’ve come to expect.
After the established NHLers, there are guys like Rem Pitlick who played impressive hockey last year after being picked up on waivers. And then there are the rookies like first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, Jesse Ylonen, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, and others. When will these players get their shot to play meaningful games for the Habs in the rebuild?
The inconsistency across the board combined with the number of wingers on the last year of their contract and likely deadline trade deals, it makes any sort of prediction on performance nearly impossible.
If you think there were question marks on forward, the defence is going to make your head spin. The top three defencemen from the 2021-2022 team are long gone (Petry, Chiarot, Romanov). Currently on defence, there are only three established NHL players – Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, and David Savard. Arguably, Edmundson is the only top-four defenceman on the roster and is already hurt. On a contending team, Savard would anchor a strong third pairing, while Matheson has struggled at times in his six-year NHL career but hopes are he can reliably step up into the top four. And then there is journeyman Chris Wideman who played in and out of the NHL in his career.
So, we will see plenty of rookies making their debut this season. While this will be a great development opportunity for them, expect to see plenty of mistakes and many, many open-net goals.
Goaltending is perhaps the only area where there are no questions, and that’s only because we finally know that Carey Price won’t be playing this year. This leaves Jake Allen as the primary goalie with Sam Montembeault and likely Cayden Primeau playing the remaining games. While Allen is a solid goalie, he has shown he plays best when limited in terms of starts. So expect to see the two youngsters playing a considerable (50%?) of the games. Again, it’s a great development opportunity for them, but expect to see more goals scored – especially considering the defencemen playing in front of them.
If these questions weren’t enough, consider what’s happening behind the bench.
While all fans were happy when Ducharme was finally removed, Martin St. Louis doesn’t have the depth of experience one might want. Yes, the team improved under his leadership (0.432 winning percentage), but that’s not saying much when the team had only won eight games out of 45 and finished with the worst record they’ve ever had (at least in the last few decades). There was no pressure on St. Louis coming in midway through a lost season, but things are different now – he’ll be responsible for the performance all season long. Sure he’s got experience in high-pressure situations while playing the game, but coaching is different – he can’t actually go on the ice to change things anymore. How will he handle what is likely to be a long and challenge-filled season?
Beside him on the bench are Alex Burrows and Stephane Robidas, neither of whom have much in the way of coaching experience. How will they handle a long, drawn-out season filled with rookie mistakes?
In the GM position is Kent Hughes, a former player agent turned NHL GM with no previous experience leading and managing a large organization. Again – last year was easy coming in mid-way through a lost season and there was no pressure to turn things around. He made some easy-to-win trades at the trade deadline but has made other more controversial decisions since then (i.e. Petry, Romanov, draft selections). Like St. Louis, he will now be responsible for performance all season long. How will he react to a difficult season where some of his trades/draft picks don’t bear fruit or when team performance is unacceptable? What type of leadership will emerge when the pressure is on?
It’s hard to imagine entering a season with this many question marks and uncertainty surrounding a team. After the 2021-2022 season in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, I think we’ll see a good bounce-back season from many of the forwards, especially those in contract years. Unfortunately, with the depleted defence group and without Carey Price, I don’t expect the Habs will be competing for the win in many games. Still, it should be an interesting season to watch as the veterans get moved out and the youth and draft picks continue developing.