The Montreal Canadiens might be gearing up for another long season in 2022-2023, as they watched their Atlantic Division rivals improve on virtually all counts.
The Canadiens are strapped right up to the salary cap with some big contracts to move; meaning they couldn’t hope to be as active as they would have liked. Contracts like that of Carey Price ($10.5M), Brendan Gallagher ($6.5M) and Jeff Petry ($6.25M) significantly hampered general manager Kent Hughes’ ability to go out and improve the team by any means. Hughes did make the most out of a bad situation by using an organizational strength on defence to acquire centre Kirby Dach, but, unless he can find a way to unload some salary quickly, it seems like the team will be mostly the same next season.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Canadiens will be the worst team in the NHL like last season. However, with teams like the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres ready to take the next step and the Metropolitan Division looking equally as stacked, the Canadiens will be hard-pressed to find their way out of the bottom ten this upcoming season.
The Senators are perhaps the most improved team in the NHL at this junction, having added Alex Debrincat, Claude Giroux and Cam Talbot to a growing, young core. Detroit also added a plethora of veterans like Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot and Dominik Kubalik and look primed to take the next step in their rebuild too. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, who might have lost a few players, will be, at the worst, a playoff bubble team. With the exception of the Boston Bruins, who have yet to figure out what is going on with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the Montreal Canadiens will be in arguably the most competitive division in hockey next season.
Montreal Canadiens Should Stay The Course
With no major changes to the lineup and the goaltending position still very much in the air, Hughes’ inability to move likely comes at the best possible moment, with the 2023 NHL Draft upcoming. This upcoming class boasts a top-10 that could arguably rival that of any draft in the last 15 years at this rate, with Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov, Adam Fantilli, Dalibor Dvorsky, Zachary Benson, Leo Carlsson, Brayden Yager and more to chose from. The Canadiens might not finish last again next season, as the Chicago Blackhawks seem to be doing everything in their power to achieve this with their current offseason, but they may have a real shot at one of the prospects above, and that would be a game changer.
This next season is also one where the Canadiens have stated multiple times that they’d like to approach with a focus on player development. If the Canadiens maintain course and are unable to improve the team, expectations will not be extremely high for the club, and that may be a perfect time to help youngsters like Kaiden Guhle or Juraj Slafkovsky get their feet wet in the NHL. It also offers youngsters that have already played in the NHL like Cole Caufield, Jordan Harris and Justin Barron to gain experience and develop further in a much less stressful environment; a luxury prospects haven’t had in Montreal in quite some time.
Prepare To Unload Contracts Throughout Season
If they aren’t moved during the offseason, the Canadiens will have the ability to trade some pretty interesting contracts at next year’s trade deadline. Players like Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Drouin, Jake Allen and Paul Byron will all be free agents in the summer of 2023 and could fetch interesting returns if the Canadiens want to acquire more youth and prospects to help them be more aggressive next summer. Other contracts like those of Mike Hoffman or Jeff Petry may also be easier to move at that point if they are able to perform up to their standards, with less risk and term on their deal than at present.
That added flexibility as the team navigates the 2022-2023 season, especially the tail end of it, will offer the Canadiens much more flexibility moving forward, as they will need to sign some of their key youngsters like Caufield and Harris to new contracts. With the team straddled up in contracts this summer, it may just be the blessing in disguise needed for this club to suffer for one more season, at the best possible time, to come back strong for the 2023 season.