Habs Montreal Canadiens 2022–23

Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season

“Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes and Martin St. Louis need to maintain momentum with their hockey decisions and build on the goodwill they’ve created with the fanbase after a tumultuous decade under Marc Bergevin.”

You know summer in Montreal is winding down when the Canadiens are back in business — even when they haven’t yet dropped the puck on the new season.

For many Habs fans, Monday morning came with a cocktail of both excitement (Nick Suzuki being newly minted as the 31st — and youngest — captain in team history) and outrage (the announcement that same day of their jerseys having an RBC sponsorship patch for this season, which elicited some testy Twitter takes from fans and media alike).

Given that it’s also the first full season in Montreal for Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St. Louis, the honeymoon period all three have experienced in the early days of their tenures with the Canadiens is bound to come to an end at some point. For the shiny new toy effect to not wear off soon, they’ll need to continue their momentum with their hockey decisions thus far, and build on the goodwill they’ve created with the fanbase after a tumultuous decade under Marc Bergevin. Even if Montreal is a market accustomed to winning, a rebuild is something fans have increasingly accepted as an inevitability.

With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of five things the Habs will need from this season to show that the team will be back on the upswing under the new regime.

Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season

1. Enter the Bedard sweepstakes

Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season
Connor Bedard (Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season)

Let’s be real here: the likelihood of the Habs making the playoffs is slim-to-nil on paper, and getting younger and more skilled players appears to be high on the organization’s list of priorities. More specifically, the team will likely be competing for the top pick in this year’s draft — one they hope they’ll be able to get for the second year in a row. The golden goose is Connor Bedard, who by all accounts looks to be a generational player. (Then again, I thought Shane Wright was a foregone conclusion to be picked by the Habs at first overall this year, so… maybe don’t count your chickens?)

Seriously though, Bedard is a ridiculously talented kid, and projects to have a higher upside than Wright or our actual first overall pick this year, Juraj Slafkovsky, despite being significantly shorter than both (5’9”, 181 lbs). The Vancouver native with a Québécois surname showcased his immense skill and eye for the net at the rescheduled World Junior tournament in Edmonton this summer. Should the Habs come up horseshoes and get to draft Bedard, he and Suzuki would combine to make one of the NHL’s best one-two punches down the middle. In other words, if you’re going to languish in the league’s basement all season, this is the year to do it.

2. Make progress with youth development

Juraj Slafkovsky Kent Hughes Jeff Gorton
Juraj Slafkovsky, Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton (Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season)

Any Habs fan knows all too well that this has been a sore spot within the organization for years now. The fact that all but one of our first-round picks during the 2010s have since departed the organization is a damning indictment of the Bergevin regime’s approach with youth development — not only with drafting under Trevor Timmins, but with moulding them into proper NHLers and maximizing their potential once they actually get to the show. Luckily, it seems as if “patience” is the key word from the new regime with prospects.

One hire does worry me to an extent: Nick Bobrov, Timmins’ successor as the team’s co-director of amateur scouting. Though he knows Gorton quite well, Bobrov’s track record with drafting European prospects for the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers isn’t exactly glittering. Nonetheless, this new management group seem to have both a vision — something fans often criticized Bergevin for not really having — as well as courage in their convictions.

Snubbing Wright in favour of Slafkovsky, for example, is a vote of confidence in St. Louis’s ability to unlock the potential of young players. Slafkovsky provides a rare package of skills most teams would drool for, but he’ll need to improve his skating and overall decision-making before he can truly reach his elite power-forward ceiling. Ditto for Kirby Dach, the 21-year-old centre whose NHL career has thus far sputtered with the Chicago Blackhawks, but who still boasts excellent long-term upside. Trading fan favourite Alexander Romanov (once considered the team’s top-pairing defenseman in waiting) to collect assets to acquire Dach with shows they believe in him and his potential. Just watch how glowingly Hughes talks about him while chatting with Dach on the phone at the draft shortly after the trade.

3. Have Marty prove he’s the man for the job

Martin St. Louis Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season
Martin St. Louis (Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season)

Just like with romantic relationships, the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever — and at some point this season, it will probably come to an end between the fans and Marty St. Louis when the team starts hitting bad runs of form. For Gorton and Hughes’ vision to truly come to fruition, St. Louis — the Hall-of-Famer who’d suddenly gone from coaching his son at the U13 level to having arguably the toughest coaching job in hockey — will need to show that he’s able to make necessary in-game adjustments, give his players the freedom to do what they do best, and know how to be resilient and get his team to bounce back from bad stretches. Fortunately, he’ll be able to grow and learn during a season where being competitive isn’t a focus.

Marty’s been revered as an excellent hockey mind by his peers, has been praised for his approach to player development, and also knows how to give quite the motivational locker room speech. So far, his impact on the team has been positive. St. Louis has especially been effective as a mentor for Cole Caufield, who grew up idolizing him in his playing days. All signs point to him being given the time he needs to grow into the team’s head coaching role, even if his inexperience could very well start showing this season. Owner Geoff Molson will certainly hope he’s cut out for it, as he has St. Louis on the books for the next three years — and is still paying previous head coaches Claude Julien and Dominique Ducharme as we speak.

4. Move out big contracts — some way, somehow

Mike Hoffman
Mike Hoffman (Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season)

This will be the hardest to figure out, but it’s a necessary one nonetheless, even with Carey Price’s gigantic contract placed on LTIR. Because of this, the Habs are already more than $10-million over the cap, so salary will need to be shed ASAP for any other transactions to possibly be made. Two names immediately spring to mind with this topic: Mike Hoffman and Joel Armia. 

Hoffman, who missed out on the team’s golf tournament through illness, can be a frustrating player to watch at times, but he has an undeniable eye for goal. A team with boatloads of cap space could have interest in him as an offensive weapon. But at a cap hit of $4.5 million, even that may still require a sweetener (e.g. a prospect and/or a fairly high draft pick) to be added onto any hypothetical deal.

Meanwhile, Armia has not lived up to the $3.4 million AAV contract Bergevin gave him after the 2021 Cup Final, and his status as a bottom-six winger may limit his value further. That said, both he and Hoffman will have to go, as there are currently too many cooks in the kitchen on the wings. Newly-acquired Evgeni Dadonov and Sean Monahan are also signed to big-money contracts, though they could be enticing as deadline-day trade bait if both players perform well in Montreal.

5. Figure out our long-term goalie situation

Cayden Primeau Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season
Cayden Primeau (Five things the Habs need during the 2022–23 season)

Despite being present at the team’s recent annual golf tournament, as well as completing a mandatory medical this week, Carey Price is highly unlikely to play at all this season, if ever again. The hole his potential impending retirement creates in the Habs’ crease cannot be understated, and neither Jake Allen nor Samuel Montembeault appear to be the answer. So what are we left with?

The obvious hope is that Cayden Primeau will step up and become the team’s long-term netminder. But the young American (and son of former Flyers star Keith Primeau) has visibly struggled during recent stints with the big club, though he gave stellar performances throughout the Rocket’s playoff run this season. Time will tell if he’s up to the task, but failing this, the Canadiens realistically have three options:

  1. Jakub Dobes, the young Czech goalie who put up great numbers last season at Ohio State University.
  2. Frederik Dichow, the 21-year-old Dane who’ll be suiting up for Frölunda in Sweden’s top hockey league this season.
  3. Trade for a top-tier goalie prospect whose rights are owned by another NHL club, though the asking price could be steep for that reason. The team could also claim one off waivers like they did with Montembeault, but this solution is a long shot.

There’s no slam-dunk goalie waiting in the wings to replace Price as of now, so both management and the aforementioned goalie prospects will need to change that narrative for the better at their earliest opportunity. ■

The Montreal Canadiens season begins on Oct. 12, with exhibition games starting on Sept. 26.

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