Connect with us

Canadiens Analysis

Canadiens Roster Outlook: How Close Are They To Contending?



Montreal Canadiens Nick Suzuki Cole Caufield Juraj Slafkovsky

A lot has been made of the way the Montreal Canadiens have been playing since the NHL’s All-Star break.

Even after losing Joshua Roy and the second line predictably cratering against the Vancouver Canucks last week, the Montreal Canadiens are 13th in the NHL in expected goals for percentage at 5-vs-5 according to Natural Stat Trick‘s expected goals model since February 10th.

That’s the best stretch of play we’ve seen from the Habs since the 2021 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final.

As I wrote about in late February, the Montreal Canadiens haven’t had a stretch of play this strong at 5-vs-5 in three seasons.

Since those six straight games of outplaying their opponents at 5-vs-5, they’ve faced a bit of a murderer’s row of the best teams in the NHL and significantly outplayed their opponents in six of the 12 following games.

Considering where they are as an organization, and the quality of opposition facing the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, red-hot Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks; it’s incredibly impressive, to say the least.

Taking The Next Step

That high level of play, along with the growth of many young players, has started to instigate talk of competing for a playoff spot next season.

You can tell Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki is itching for it, general manager Kent Hughes has expressed that he’s becoming tired of trading players away, and wants to start building instead of tearing down.

But how close are the Canadiens, really?

Let’s take a walk through their roster to see which pieces of the puzzle are already fit together, and what holes Hughes and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton will need to fill for the Montreal Canadiens to be a playoff team.

We’re going to have a couple of rules for building out the Habs’ roster for next season:

  1. We have to be completely honest about the ceilings of players. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe young players can improve, but we can’t assume massive growth without any semblance of evidence to suggest it’s possible.
  2. No assuming that prospects will make the team and become impact players in the NHL. If they do, that moves the needle for the organization, but no assumptions are allowed, we’re only dealing with what we have good evidence for at this moment.
  3. We’re looking only at long-term pieces, so these are core players going forward, which means some players who will still be under contract won’t be listed, we’ll talk about them last.

Montreal Canadiens Offensive Outlook

First Line: Cole Caufield – Nick Suzuki – Juraj Slafkovsky

At this stage, I’m pretty comfortable calling this a first line for a bubble playoff team in the NHL.

Juraj Slafkovsky’s emergence as a two-way force has been transformative, while Nick Suzuki has played like a first-line centre all season long. As it stands, the level of production this line provides is not high-end, but as I wrote about with Cole Caufield; some positive regression will change that in a big way.

This season Caufield is scoring on just over five percent of his shots at 5-vs-5, while the average conversion rate for forwards is 11.85 percent. Just scoring like an average forward would boost Caufield from nine goals at 5-vs-5 this season, to 20. Scoring at his career average would bring him to 23 goals. That would put him in a tie for eighth in the league this season.

This line currently puts up 2.93 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-vs-5, and they should be a line that can relatively consistently outscore their expected goals based on Caufield and Suzuki’s history alone.

Are they an elite first line? No, but they are playing extremely tough minutes and still thriving.

Second Line: Joshua Roy – Kirby Dach – [BLANK]

This is where things get a bit tougher to predict. In 23 games this season, Joshua Roy has been outstanding. Leading the Canadiens in essentially all the important metrics, while accumulating a team-leading 1.2 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-vs-5. Roy’s ascendance as an NHL player coincides perfectly with the Canadiens’ stellar play at even strength since the All-Star break for a reason, he’s the straw that stirs the drink on the second line.

MUST READ: Montreal Canadiens Forward Joshua Roy Already Among Team’s Best Forwards

I’ve liked what Alex Newhook and Joel Armia have brought to the table as well, but on a team that’s competing for the playoffs, I don’t think either are long-term second-line players. We know that Kirby Dach can fill that role with the only risk being whether he can stay healthy. If Dach misses significant time due to another injury, then the second-line centre slot can’t be considered filled anymore.

With that said, if the Canadiens can add a prospect like Ivan Demidov to this line, or Cayden Lindstrom, it would jump from a second line that could control possession against most opponents, to a line that outscores them significantly too.

Right now though, that spot is up for grabs.

Third Line: Alex Newhook – [BLANK] – [BLANK]

Organizationally, this might look a little dire at first, but we will have much more clarity on the future of the third line in short order. Alex Newhook has continually impressed this season, especially when he’s playing on the wing and is able to cheat to create more offensive opportunities. This is the area where the Canadiens’ incredible prospect depth is going to help a lot.

Owen Beck could be ready to assume the third-line centre role as soon as next season, and I don’t believe it’s a big ask to see one of Sean Farrell, Filip Mesar, or even Riley Kidney or Jared Davidson grow into this role eventually, but counting on it for next season isn’t a good bet. Not every prospect makes the jump to the NHL as seamlessly as Roy did.

MUST READ: Prospect Report – Owen Beck Improving His NHL Outlook

With the Montreal Canadiens’ current organizational depth, this line looks a little small overall, so there might be change on the horizon. For next season, one of Brendan Gallagher or Joel Armia is likely good enough to make this line function decently well, but it would be more of a bubble team third line than a playoff team third line.

Fourth Line: Rafael Harvey-Pinard – [BLANK] – [BLANK]

The fourth line is typically the easiest one to build from an organizational standpoint, and despite Harvey-Pinard’s lack of production this season, I do think he has a future in this organization. His tenacity with and without the puck, defensive awareness, and penalty-killing ability make him a versatile forward to anchor a contending fourth line around.

Jake Evans is perfectly suited to be a good fourth-line centre in the NHL, I’m just not sure he’s part of the future unless his next contract is another bargain. Players like Florian Xhekaj and Jared Davidson developing well over the next couple of years could make this a nightmare fourth line for teams to deal with, but we’re not counting eggs until they hatch.

Montreal Canadiens Defensive Situation

First Defence Pairing: Kaiden Guhle – [BLANK]

In an ideal world, David Reinbacher and Lane Hutson both hit their ceilings and become the Canadiens’ top pairing, but for now, the only player who has proven he can play on the top pair at this exact moment is Kaiden Guhle.

If things work out to the point where Guhle is on the second pairing, I think Canadiens fans will be extremely happy with their defensive group. For now, though, the top pairing is not playoff-level with only Guhle ready, and the non-core players currently aren’t good enough to bring it up to that level.

Second Defence Pairing: [BLANK] – [BLANK]

For now, Mike Matheson should be the guy running this pairing. I don’t think he’s a bad player to have in that spot either, but due to his age compared to the rest of the team, I see him as more of a transitionary player than a future piece of the core.

With that said, Matheson is good enough to make this a strong pairing right away. Organizationally, there are players already drafted and developing who can solidify things here, but counting on it next season isn’t wise.

Third Defence Pairing: Arber Xhekaj – [BLANK]

I know a lot of people will see this and think I’ve slotted Arber Xhekaj too low, but truly I’m just being very conservative with his projection. He has taken enormous steps in his second year of professional hockey.

Splitting the season with the Montreal Canadiens and Laval Rocket while missing some time with injury, Xhekaj has rounded out his game at both ends of the ice and maintained his intimidating style of play in the process.

It’s not often a team would call a third-pairing defenceman a core piece, but I think Xhekaj is a rare enough player, and good enough, that even if he never ascends to second-pairing status, he’s going to have a long career in Montreal in an important role.

No one in the organization has established themselves as a long-term fit on the right side, but the quantity and quality of young defencemen in the system should make it so that isn’t a worry. A player like Justin Barron improving a little bit on the defensive side would make this a hell of a pairing to deal with for opponents, or a player like Jordan Harris moving to play his off side could work as well.

Starting Goaltender: Samuel Montembeault

Long term, I think Jacob Fowler is the guy here, but we need to put more respect on Samuel Montembeault’s name.

He’s been excellent two years in a row now, and at 27 years old he could easily be an above-average starting goaltender for the next four or five years.

My brain tells me he’s in the same boat as Matheson in that he’s a transition player, however it wouldn’t shock me if Montembeault disproved that assumption.

Young Players Who Can Be Long-Term Pieces

A lot of players who are either in the NHL or knocking at the door aren’t included here. Jordan Harris is probably the biggest omission, but the issue for him in my eyes is that I’m not sure he’s a long-term fit on the second pairing, and Xhekaj is overall a more impactful player. If Harris was right-handed, I think he’d already be considered a crucial player, but he’s left-handed like most of the Habs’ young defencemen.

Jayden Struble had a great start to the season but has faded significantly lately. I believe he’s an NHLer, but I don’t know where he fits yet.

Jonathan Kovacevic isn’t old at 26. He could be a long-term fit on the third pairing with Xhekaj, but he has struggled when forced into tougher minutes this season. I do think he could be on this team for a long while yet, though.

Logan Mailloux has had an incredible development season in the AHL with the Laval Rocket after losing a ton of his junior career due to a combination of COVID-19, his own actions, and injury.

It’s been exactly the positive boost he needed as a prospect, but I’m not convinced he’s ready for full-time NHL action just yet, especially from a defensive standpoint.

Non-Core Veterans

In the immediate future, I can see productive and impactful seasons still out of David Savard, Matheson, Gallagher, and Armia. They can all be positive contributors to a push for the playoffs next season, but based on their ages and contracts, I don’t think any of them are core players, which probably isn’t controversial.

Taking The Next Step

How Close Are the Habs to Contending?

I think there are two answers here, and one of them is more fun than the other.

If by ‘how close’, you are wondering if the Canadiens are close to exiting losing seasons where missing the playoffs is a foregone conclusion, then I think they’re very close.

Provided they get even NHL-average luck on the injury front next season (I know, feels like they never will), this team could very well compete for a playoff spot.

However, they wouldn’t be a contender.

But if you are questioning when the Canadiens, as an organization, will be ready to contend for a Stanley Cup, there’s a different answer.

I would suggest they’re not close.

The reality is, until Dach can prove he can maintain good health throughout an entire season and until a player like Beck can prove they’re significantly better than an average third-line centre, the first simply is not good enough to compete with the best teams in the NHL and consistently win that match-up.

I think they can stalemate a lot of top lines, but if that’s how the team is built, they need their middle-six forwards to be much more productive than the average, and not just an average NHL team, but rather, amongst the best teams in the league.

As it stands, we haven’t seen that ability. The pieces exist to create an excellent top pairing, but only one of those pieces has actually proven itself in the NHL.

I’m not saying the rebuild is a failure by any means.

In fact, I would argue that Hughes, Gorton, and St. Louis have pretty consistently surprised me with their ability to find players and get the best out of them, but there are still sizeable holes to fill in order to start talking about the possibility of winning hockey’s Holy Grail.

Unfortunately for many who would prefer another tank season, I don’t think that’s in the cards, either.

With that in mind, the next two offseasons are going to be extremely important for this hockey club.

Do you agree or disagree with the Montreal Canadiens analysis provided above? Let us know what you think in the comments below the article!