The Montreal Canadiens are showing some great competitiveness, but, if they do ever slow down, they have interesting pieces to be major players at this year’s NHL Trade Deadline.
The start of the NHL season would best be described as somewhat indifferent for the Montréal Canadiens. Putting fellow rebuilders Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Kackets in their place offered a bright spot, as did taking the Toronto Maple Leafs to a shootout loss, but crumbling to the Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils on special teams was tough to watch.
Still, there aren’t any illusions as to the task at hand for the Habs. It’s all about building towards a better future, giving big minutes to top young players, and establishing a core worthy of challenging for the Stanley Cup.
Bright spots for a rebuilding team
A lot of teams that enter into a full rebuild toil for years to try to get the foundations in place. Just look at the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes over the last decade, and the San Jose Sharks now. The Montreal Canadiens came rather close to converting on a hastened retool a few years ago, but, now that they’ve decided to take the long route to success, there’s a lot of room to grow before they’re even considered playoff contenders.
This is perfectly demonstrated by Sports Interaction Canada and its novelty and futures markets. To take the Atlantic Division, the platform with a five-star review score puts the Habs rock bottom at 126.00. The only line where the Habs features in the conversation is for an Original Six winner of the Cup, which is at 4.75, or a Canadian Presidents’ Trophy winner at 4.25.
The ceiling is rather low for the Habs, but the team will remain competitive, and the fans will love seeing the haul of picks already collected by general manager Kent Hughes. With the upcoming 2024 and 2025 NHL Drafts, the Habs boast three first-rounders (including both of Montréal’s), three second-rounders, four in the third round, and three in the fourth round. Better still, the gambles on Sean Monahan and Tanner Pearson might just yield even more prospects and picks.
Preparing trade bait
The only impending UFAs of note on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster are goaltender Samuel Montembeault and forwards Sean Monahan and Tanner Pearson. Monahan looks to be the most tantalizing for teams battling in the postseason. His new “prove it” deal with the Montréal Canadiens, as reported by Sportsnet, should reset his value this year after some injury-plagued seasons – if he stays fit.
Of course, it’s very early days, but the 29-year-old has been one of the bright spots on what equates to the team’s veteran line. The points have been nice, but what’ll truly sell Monahan as March approaches is his ability in the faceoff circle and stay healthy. He’s regained his dominance in the faceoff circle, putting up a 57.9% faceoff win percentage through the first seven games of the season. Monahan’s experience, reliability, and cerebral play in the offensive zone could prove incredibly useful in the playoffs.
It may seem a bit unsavory, and might earn a smirk or a laugh, but the best trade partner for Monahan might just be the Boston Bruins. With Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retired, the team could really do with a boost from a savvy two-way center who can dominate in the faceoff circle. Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle are decent in the duel, but a fully healthy Monahan playing as he did in 2019 would certainly offer an upgrade.
But, if trading within the division is as taboo for Kent Hughes as it is for the fans, they can look to other clubs with needs at center like the Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and more to make a deal. If Monahan can remain healthy and continue to play the way he has this season, there won’t be a shortage of suitors come March.
Naturally, a top-six center like Monahan will always fetch more interest, especially as he’s on a mere $2M deal.
Pearson, a top-nine left winger on $3.25 million, will still be coveted by teams looking to the grind of the postseason. If his point totals and and relentless forecheck are anything to go by, the 31-year-old is ready to battle in the dirty areas once again. Playing the majority of games through to March will be vital, but he should be able to fetch a couple more picks in the first half of the 2024 or 2025 draft. He looks like another solid gamble for the Canadiens and could be a leading candidate for Kent Hughes to use his final retention slot on.
Also factoring in the Montreal Canadiens’ abundant cap space thanks to the LTIR afforded by Carey Price ($10.5M) and Kirby Dach ($3.36M), the club could quickly position itself as a cap broker without having to use a retention slot in the process; as they could absorb another $10M on the books.
Keeping Their Eyes on the Prize
The most important thing for the Habs this season isn’t challenging for a win percentage above .500, but rather keeping everyone healthy. They need the young core on the ice as much as possible, and the two clear trade bait forwards to do the same so that maximum value can be drawn from them when the trade deadline comes around.
But, don’t rule out the Canadiens dangling other assets outside of those two if the offer is too good to pass up. Despite a solid start to the season, the Montreal Canadiens are under no illusion as to what the goal is this season; and any move that pushes that desire forward will be heavily considered.