The Montreal Canadiens have been predicted to fall into lottery contention since the end of last summer. Why? Because they were the worst team in 2021-2022, capturing the 1st overall pick since the 1980 draft where they famously took Doug Wickenheiser.
Another factor in predicting a tough 2022-2023 season for the Canadiens was the fact that the defence core was starting off with not just one or two rookies, but FOUR! Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, and Johnathan Kovacevic all made the roster, in part because of the injuries the defence was already dealing with in Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson.
Instead, Guhle has been thrust into and thrived under, the bright lights of being a top-pairing blue liner while Harris and Kovacevic have dominated all underlying metrics since the start of the season. And let’s not forget, Xhekaj. The behemoth defender has served the NHL notice that his teammates are not to be messed with.
Up front, many pundits suggested this was a strength for the Canadiens, being able to ice up to 16 NHL forwards, including last year’s top pick – Juraj Slafkovsky. Another rookie.
As we pass the first quarter of the season, it has been the kids that have led the way. Not just the rookies, but by the top line including 23-year-old captain Nick Suzuki, and 21-year-olds Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach, a trio that put up 62 points in their first 21 games.
When looking at the lineup that is being led by these eight players, the direction for the Canadiens has been clear from day one, focus on development. But an unexpected thing happened. They started to win. With a record that stood at 11-9-1 at the one-quarter mark, the team was only two points outside a Wild Card position, surrounded by teams that have been predicted to be major playoff contenders – teams such as Florida, Washington, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh.
Kent Hughes earlier this week discussed his commitment to the process of developing the kids by trying to develop a winning culture. Sure, the team could “tank” and try to land a top lottery prize in Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, or Matvei Michkov, but one only must ask how that plan went for the Edmonton Oilers or the Buffalo Sabres over the last ten years. While the Oilers are finally starting to see some success in the last few years, they’re just one point ahead of the Habs this year in the same number of games played despite having superstars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (plus Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). That’s two first-overall picks and one third-overall pick (all taken within a four-year span).
Montreal’s focus on talent evaluation at the draft started with the drafting of Slafkovsky this year. Everyone expected Shane Wright to go first, but surprisingly, he dropped to fourth overall. While Slafkovsky hasn’t set the NHL on fire with points yet, it is almost palpable how much he has improved since stepping onto the Bell Centre ice for his first game. His passing is incredible, his on-ice awareness is growing, and he is slowly but surely starting to realize just how big and strong he is on the ice next to his peers.
As for Wright, well, he has played sparingly for seven games with the Kraken and been a healthy scratch more often than not. This, the kid that was once granted exceptional status to play in the OHL at 15 years old. The point is, with good drafting and top-end development, the Canadiens are doing something more important than trying to “fail hard for Bedard,” they are developing a culture.
Eight players this year are already learning each and every day what it will take to develop that culture. They will pass these lessons on to next year’s group of rookies hoping to break into the league and led by players who are young enough to be able to connect peer to peer.
As the Habs look to trade assets this year to find more jewels in forgotten prospects or look to acquire additional 1st round picks, let’s remember that Owen Beck is looking like a steal at 33 and Lane Hutson was seemingly highway robbery at 62nd overall. The cupboards are already full and the 2023 draft is likely to be one of the best in years. With some luck, maybe the Canadiens will hit the NHL Lottery jackpot with a Florida Panthers stunning fall.
For now, it is all steam ahead in the rebuild, retool, and development year that the Canadiens are on. Winning is infectious, losing is toxic. Winning the right way will serve this team for years to come and it’s something that the youngsters have been learning early on this season.