By: Adam Floujeh
The 2023-24 NHL season is just around the corner and the rebuilding Canadiens have their fair share of storylines to follow. Here is a look at what fans can expect this season.
Key Acquisitions: F Alex Newhook, D Gustav Lidström, F Tanner Pearson
Key Departures: F Mike Hoffman, F Rem Pitllick, F Jonathan Drouin, D Joel Edmundson
How do the forward lines shape out?
It may seem silly to project the Canadiens forward lines before training camp even opens and we see which rookies push for spots. However, the problem is that there aren’t all that many to begin with (We’ll get to that in a moment though).
Here’s a way-too-early opening night line projection:
Alex Newhook - Nick Suzuki - Brendan Gallagher
Sean Monahan - Kirby Dach - Cole Caufield
Juraj Slafkovsky - Christian Dvorak - Josh Anderson
Tanner Pearson - Jake Evans - Raphael Harvey-Pinard
Extras: Michael Pezzetta, Joel Armia
First things first, the best thing long-term for the Canadiens is to have Kirby Dach become a full-time centre. Nothing against Nick Suzuki, but seeing what Dach and Caufield are capable of away from the captain is something that should be explored. Putting offseason acquisition Alex Newhook on the top line would mean he gets his chance to show what he’s capable of in a top-six role. Who better to put him with than Suzuki, perhaps the Hab with the highest hockey IQ, and Brendan Gallagher, who in the past has been the team’s safety blanket for any line he plays on?
Despite becoming a punching bag for fans, Christian Dvorak took on a lot of defensive responsibility last season and while he’s never been the most exciting player, pairing him with Slafkovsky and Anderson should be a good starting point. At the same time, Slafkovsky needs to have a productive season that shows a clear step forward in his development. Looking “comfortable” isn’t good enough like it was in his rookie season, so putting him in the best position to succeed should be the Canadiens’ number one priority. Expectations for the first-overall pick from 2022 are only going to rise, especially following a subpar rookie season where his usage was very much in question.
The lack of spots for young players
Now to address the point of there being too many bodies. You’ll notice these lines do not include any of Owen Beck, Sean Farrell, Jesse Ylönen or Joshua Roy, all young players expected to push for spots.
It’s not that those young players don’t deserve spots, it’s just difficult to see how they fit as the roster stands. Could one argue that Owen Beck could replace Jake Evans as fourth-line centre? Sure, but is the best thing for Beck to be playing fourth-line minutes with some penalty kill time sprinkled in? How does one give Joshua Roy a look in the top six and the powerplay before Slafkovsky or Newhook? The addition of Tanner Pearson adds another wrinkle, he’s a very capable middle-six winger whose play (if healthy) guarantees him a spot.
All that to say It’s unlikely to see any of those prospects make the team, even Ylönen and Farrell who played NHL games last season.
With too many questions for Martin St. Louis to answer, perhaps the solution is to start out with all the established NHLers, and let the young guns earn their way up as injury and scratch replacements. If they catch fire doing so, they may just stick to the NHL roster.
How will the young defence fare?
The 2022-23 season saw four different rookie defencemen play at least 40 games. With Joel Edmundson being traded over the offseason, even more responsibility will fall to this young group of players. Someone worth highlighting is Justin Barron – after an underwhelming camp last year, he spent the start of the year in the AHL before earning a call-up later in the season and showing flashes of a true top-four defenceman. A pair of Mike Matheson and Barron could be spicy.
Beyond Barron, Jayden Struble, William Trudeau and newly acquired Gustav Lidström could be names to watch coming out of camp. Like at forward, there could be opportunities for young defencemen to earn NHL roles throughout the season.
Will Montembeault put on another Montem-show
The Canadiens' annual golf tournament last week saw Carey Price admit that “barring a miracle,” his career is over. This is not a surprise to anyone but it’s still a sombre reminder that the Habs are in a new era, one where the position of goaltender is a massive question mark.
With Casey DeSmith being traded to Vancouver, it would seem the Canadiens are set with Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault between the pipes. Perhaps the biggest question in net though, is whether or not what we saw from Montembeault last season was a flash-in-the-pan or the emergence of a true starting goaltender. Time will just have to tell unless more trades stir things up of course.
What does a full season of Cole Caufield look like?
Last season, we saw Caufield score 26 goals in just 46 games, a 46-goal pace over a full 82-game season. Those 26 goals gave Caufield a tie for most on the Habs with Suzuki, who played all 82 games. The highest single-season goal count for the Habs in the past decade has been Max Pacioretty’s 2013-14 total of 39.
With how effective Caufield has been under Martin St Louis, combined with what we saw in his sophomore season, 40 goals seems like an expectation rather than a hope. The most important part for Caufield and for fans, however, is that he needs to stay healthy in 2023-24.
There are a lot of questions facing the Canadiens this season. Even though spots on the big club seem scarce, it should create some competition that will make the pre-season a little more exciting for Habs faithful. After that, the goal for whatever roster they put together will be to turn some heads in a very strong Atlantic division.
Stay tuned for more NHL season previews from Intermission Sports as the season nears.