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The Canadian will soon be capitalizing on two major competitive advantages

A good general manager of a professional sports club always has a fairly clear plan for his team’s short-, medium- and long-term future.

His plan will almost always be based on the raw material he inherited when he took over the reins of the organization.

For example, Kyle Dubas, the new GM of the Penguins, was faced with a choice: dismantle his core of aging superstars and start rebuilding right away, or give the Crosby-Malkin-Letang trio one last chance to win the Stanley Cup, an option that probably appealed more to the team’s new owners.

In the very short term, perhaps even a little forced, he unsurprisingly chose the latter option. And after the acquisitions of Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves, he is even rumoured to be planning to add another superstar in his thirties in Erik Karlsson.

We wish him the best of luck. In his situation, it’s a risk worth taking for a year or two, while Crosby finishes out his current contract.

To be continued…

HuGo’s plan

The situation is, of course, quite different with the Montreal Canadiens: there is no superstar to speak of on the current team, and no one can guarantee that there will be one in the foreseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean things are uninteresting. Far from it.

With the addition of Alex Newhook for two high draft picks (31st and 37th), the CH wanted to quickly add – for a fair price – another talented youngster to its long-term core. The result is a fifth forward with a potential between 50 and 80 points at maturity.

You have to “pay” to get your hands on a young player who can be part of a long-term core like Alex Newhook.
(Credit: Capture d’√©cran/Twitter)
So here they are, with a hard core of Suzuki, Caufield, Dach, Slafkovsky and Newhook on offense, and Matheson and Guhle on defense.

Without having the aura of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, McDavid, Ovechkin, McKinnon and Makar, we still have seven players who certainly deserve to be in the top 15 of their respective drafts.

But even if they haven’t yet played a game in the NHL, we have to add Lane Hutson and David Reinbacher to the list, because it’s absolutely certain that upper management will consider them as part of its mid- to long-term core.

And in their case, “medium-term” means the 2024-2025 season, or perhaps even the end of 2023-2024. Which is all to say that their lockers will be kept warm in the dressing room over the coming months.

When Hutson and Reinbacher get a bit of mileage out of their bodies, they’ll be four top-level defensemen in the line-up. And of the lot, if his NCAA and international exploits are anything to go by, Hutson just might have what it takes to become a superstar. Maybe he does.

He won’t be a perfect player, but let’s not underestimate Lane Hutson…
(Credit: Tony Patoine)

Very few teams have this kind of defense in the Atlantic Division, or in the NHL in general…

And we haven’t even mentioned Mailloux, Barron and Engstrom, all of whom have NHL top-4 potential. At least one of them should get there one day…

Up front, Beck, Roy and Mesar may not be “stars”, but when you think of them, the expressions “luxury plumbers”, “versatile players” or “solid support players” flash in big letters.

So we have a very solid base of at least nine players clearly above average or, if you prefer, worthy of the top-15 in their draft, plus a few more who still have a chance of approaching that status and making a positive difference for the club.

However, an analysis of the winners of the last 15 years tells us that it generally takes between 10 and 12 of these mature playersto become a contender.

So, in theory, we’re not that far off the mark in terms of quantity and quality…

Now, to kick things up a notch and get closer to that coveted dozen of clearly above-average players, we know that Hughes and Gorton will potentially have $25 million to spend starting in the summer of 2024-2025…

When the time comes, the CH will at least have the chance to make some noise on the free-agent market, when big names like Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Elias Lindholm and others could be available, or even a certain Sidney Crosby in 2025-2026, who knows……

Superior defence and exemplary salary scale management

For comparison’s sake, the Vegas Knights won the Stanley Cup with a mature attack that featured quite the same number of offensive threats, 5-6. But Vegas also boasted two or three superstars at the top of their game in Eichel, Pietrangelo and Theodore, not to mention a fiery Marchessault.

But all in all, it’s a model similar to that of the Blues in 2019 and the Bruins in 2011, a great defense with just the right amount of offense. Still, Eichel is no Crosby or Malkin…

Over the past fifteen years or so, one championship in four or five has been won by a team with a profile similar to the one the Habs aspire to: a club that is well balanced between defence and attack, but which, at heart, will rely above all on a clearly above-average brigade on the blue line, and which in its case will be both imposing, robust, mobile and talented.

That’s the first competitive advantage we’ve talked about recently.

The second advantage that the Tricolore seems to want to give itself is a more mathematical and economic one. It’s an advantage that seems particularly necessary for any club hoping one day to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada: to rely on a young, relatively inexpensive core while respecting impeccable management of the salary scale.

The successive acquisitions of Dach and Newhook are clear examples of the implementation of this part of the plan.

And who knows what might happen with the gamble taken with 24-year-old Lias Andersson, a former7th overall pick in 2017, author of 31 goals and 59 points last year in the AHL, a kind of late bloomer

But what also became very clear with Cole Caufield’s contract negotiations and the echoes surrounding Pierre-Luc Dubois’ non-appearance in Montreal, is that Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton will be very careful with their salary scales.

This is exactly where Kyle Dubas’ plan went wrong in Toronto. We’ll see if Brad Treliving can change the formula…

So, Nick Suzuki is the team’s top earner, and you’ll clearly have to be better and more important than him to the team’s success if you hope to make more than his $7.875 million a year for another seven years.

Good cut, good price, Nick Suzuki…
(Credit: Screenshot/Twitter)

So Hughes and Gorton can’t really lose by being cautious with their salary scale.

On the one hand, in this phase of the plan, paying their “best player” less than $8M per year allows the team to give good contracts to several other good players as we’re already seeing (Caufield, Dach, Newhook).

But on the other hand, in the long run, this strategy will also give the team the leeway it needs to acquire a higher-paid player who will be worthwhile, maybe even two… In fact, some very big names could be available in 2024 and 2025.

Sure, it’s summer, it’s vacation, we’re chatting, we’re having fun, we’re dreaming, but theoretically and mathematically, HuGo’s way of operating would at least make it possible.

But that’s not the case everywhere…

In any case, their plan has the merit of being clear (allo Vancouver and Calgary!), of holding the road and, to a large extent, of having proved itself elsewhere in Boston, Saint-Louis and Vegas in particular.

In a future article, we’ll try to get a better idea of when the CH’s plan will show its true face, and whether it will lead to a real window of opportunity that will be longer than the last one with Price and Weber at the end of the road.

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