This season was supposed to be one development for the Montreal Canadiens, and, for the most part, it has been, but not for everyone.
The Canadiens have done a great job in bringing along their trio of rookie defencemen in Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris; whom were a big part of the Canadiens’ strong start this season.
The issue, however, is that there are simply too many players to develop for the Canadiens at the moment; especially as they try to prop their veterans in a positive light by affording them advantageous deployment to improve their numbers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.
Calling up players like Anthony Richard or, as of today, seemingly also Jesse Ylönen, just to have them sit as the 13th forward doesn’t advance development, it stagnates it.
It was supposed to be a season focused on development, but, the issue seems to be, that perhaps the net was cast a little too wide to be as effective as the Canadiens initially wanted it to be.
Making The Right Call
The Montreal Canadiens are currently focused on maximizing the return on some expiring assets, and would then turn around to focus on player development, like they did last season. The issue is, in the meantime, it’s players like Juraj Slafkovsky, Justin Barron Ylönen that suffer in the process.
The quality of play and mood around the team is very heavy at the moment and, given the strong set of opponents over the next few weeks, it doesn’t look any brighter for the Canadiens.
Other than his last game against the Seattle Kraken, the Canadiens aren’t providing an environment where Slafkovsky could play his game or expand on it in a conducive way to become an impact player in the NHL.
The youngster needs more puck touches, more time to refine his game and, above all, more time to get used to his space and make quicker decisions. The NHL is an unforgiving league and, perhaps on a stronger team, his weaknesses could be masked, but on a team like this year’s version of the Montreal Canadiens, they’re simply being exposed.
It’s a far cry from the strategy that was employed last spring, where not only were Caufield and Suzuki allowed to roam free and develop their offensive game, but prospects like Jesse Ylönen or Jordan Harris were played in prominent roles.
Granted, the Canadiens are now deciding to use Slafkovsky in a top 9 role, but the month of December, especially on the road, led to some peculiar deployment strategies that have visibly impacted the youngsters’ confidence.
Juraj Slafkovsky has shown great flashes so far this season, and with the Laval Rocket seemingly turning their season around with some gutsy performances over the last month, there is value in sending him down and playing top minutes in a no-pressure environment, something the Montreal Canadiens were supposed to foster this season, but yet haven’t.
That being said, if the Canadiens continue to guarantee a significant amount of minutes and manage to turn their game around to not necessarily win every game, but compete hard on a nightly basis, then retaining Slafkovsky in the NHL makes sense.
Growing Pains On Defence
A similar decision needs to be taken on Justin Barron, who was called up from the AHL after a string of strong offensive performances which saw him net seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in just 25 games as a 21-year-old.
But instead of playing him to his strengths, like giving him some time on the power play, Martin St-Louis played him sparingly for three games during the Canadiens’ road trip and has benched him the last three games.
For a player who was emerging as the unquestioned No. 1 defenceman in Laval, to call him up only to sit him on the bench makes absolutely no sense from a developmental standpoint.
It’s a direct contrast from when Barron joined the team less than a year ago; as he was used in 3-on-3 overtime, on the power play and given every opportunity to make mistakes and succeed. Something has changed over the last two months, and it’s come at the expense of the younger players on this team.
If the Canadiens needed a stopgap, they had Corey Schueneman ready and waiting; worth noting he’s exempt from waivers for ten games and north of 28 days on the active roster.
You can convince fans and the coaching staff that Schueneman is a stopgap filler for the club to roll with seven defencemen until Mike Matheson returns from injury in two weeks, but, by having Barron watching games from the press gallery, you’re robbing him of precious developmental time and the stability that promotes growth.
It’s a tough situation because, Barron more than deserved the call-up, but it feels like the day-to-day evaluation of prospects, rather than the long-term view of what’s best for them, is at odds when it comes to the Canadiens’ developmental strategy.
What Comes Next
The Canadiens will have Sean Monahan and Mike Matheson seemingly returning from injury right before the All-Star break, which will prompt the Canadiens to have to send down two players.
Sending down Juraj Slafkovsky and Justin Barron might be the right call for their own development at this time, especially Barron, and could also help the Canadiens focus on propping up their veterans leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline.
By not having to worry about promoting veterans without hurting rookies, the Canadiens would have free reign over the next two months to prepare for the NHL Trade Deadline, without jeopardizing the development of their top prospects.
Once the Canadiens conclude what general manager Kent Hughes hopes is a fire sale of veteran players, the Canadiens could revisit the statuses of Slafkovsky and Barron.
In the meantime, it’s high time they put the focus back on development, and, if there’s not enough room for that to happen in Montreal, it has to be done in Laval; for the better of the club’s current rebuild.