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Patience: the CH’s latest plan will show its true face in 2025-2026

Of course, a major acquisition can’t be ruled out between now and then, but if we stay on Earth, in a conservative perspective, and don’t count on any major acquisitions, we can see the 2025-2026 season as the first in which the Tricolore will return to the NHL’s very good clubs from its current core.

For the “Thomases” of this world, the sarcastic or the eternally negative, we’d point out that the CH has done rather well in its most recent five-year plans, with semi-finals in 2010 and 2014 and a final in 2021.

That’s well above the NHL average.

But if I had to choose between the Gainey/Gauthier plan that quickly bore fruit in 2010, those concocted by Bergevin that culminated in 2014 and 2021, and the one currently being implemented by Hughes and Gorton, I’d have a slight preference for the latter’s way of doing things.

No improvisation so far, a healthy, positive culture and a clear plan based on solid principles and foundations.

But, even if they still have a bit of cleaning up to do, they can still thank Bergevin for leaving them some good pieces, let’s not forget.

A productive and inexpensive attack

After two miserable years and at the dawn of a 2023-2024 season that promises to be one of transition, it’s easy to underestimate the Tricolore’s young attack, simply because we’ve seen almost nothing of it yet.

Suzuki and Caufield have yet to enjoy the 80-point, 45-50-goal seasons they are believed to be capable of.

Injuries have prevented Dach from showing the full extent of his talent, despite clear signs of blossoming.

Then, despite their undeniable special qualities, Slafkovsky and Newhook simply haven’t yet blossomed in the NHL.

Let’s give them two more full seasons to perfect their art.

It’s only in 2025-2026 that all the members of today’s young attacking core will have reached a good level of maturity in important roles.

And all at a bargain price, hence the competitive advantage we mentioned in our last article.

Whether he’s first or second center, Nick Suzuki will be 26, entering the second half of his contract and should be at his peak.

Caufield, Dach and Newhook will all be 24 and still in the early years of their prime.

For one, Dach will be completing the final year of his current contract and may already have signed his next deal. We’ll see if he has a chance to get the better of Suzuki before then. In my opinion, his potential is greater…

In the third year of his four-year pact with the team, the rocket-ship Newhook will be keen to make a case for renegotiating his next contract the following summer.

For his part, Caufield should be at the top of his game, once again flirting with the 50-goal mark, as he undoubtedly would have done last year were it not for his shoulder injury.

And if all goes according to plan, Slafkovsky, 21, will begin his second contract and fourth season in Montreal. As we know, it’s often on their fourth lap of the track that hopefuls in his style gain momentum.

And, as we’ve shown, we can easily add one or even two impact forwards to this quintet by way of trade or on the free agent market.

And we haven’t even mentioned the development and important contribution that will logically be made by excellent support staff like Beck, Mesar, Roy, Ylonen and Harvey-Pinard, to name but a few.

Defensive choices: who will be the chosen ones and who will be sacrificed?

While the situation is pretty clear on offense, on defense, many more changes are to be expected, as we already have to deal with a certain amount of congestion.

It’s therefore highly likely that transactions involving defensemen will be used to reinforce the attack.

If Hughes and Gorton choose wisely, they’ll be able to capitalize on the other competitive advantage they’ve decided to give themselves on defense.

If we take for granted that Savard and Wideman will no longer be part of the team in 2025-2026, who should we keep and who should we give up?

Defenders 2025-2026
Left-handed Right-handed
Matheson Barron
Guhle Kovacevic
Xhekaj Mailloux
Hutson Reinbacher

Hutson and Reinbacher: the “untouchables

At 21, possibly in the final year of his entry-level contract, Lane Hutson will probably already be one of the NHL’s most electrifying young defensemen, and should be the cornerstone of the Tricolore’s power play. Big season ahead…

David Reinbacher, only 20 years old, should already have given a few skates in the NHL last season. He won’t necessarily be given a starring role just yet, but he’ll be a low-cost, quality option on the blue line.

In my opinion, Hutson and Reinbacher are the only “untouchables” on defense. They may not yet form the club’s top pairing in 25-26, but that’s not too far off.

These two are at the heart of the Hughes and Gorton plan and embody the style and mentality of play we want to implement: being quick to react both offensively and defensively.

A tough choice between Matheson… or Guhle?

If he isn’t traded by the time he’s at the peak of his value – which remains a real possibility – at 32, Mike Matheson will be in the last year of his contract with the club of his childhood.

The presence of the likeable, talented and productive veteran could be an important ingredient for this young team, especially if we believe they could make some noise in the playoffs.

At worst, Matheson could be seen as one of those famous “rental players already with the team”. But a contract extension is not out of the question if he wants to finish his career in his hometown…

Whether we keep him or trade him, Matheson represents a great asset for the CH.

He could either be an excellent top-4 defenseman or provide a missing ingredient in the attack.

If we now turn our attention to his youth and the way he plays, we have to seriously question whether Kaiden Guhle can stay healthy for 82 games. Since being drafted in 2020, Guhle has suffered significant injuries in the WHL and NHL every season.

If he doesn’t change his approach to the game, or if it’s believed that he’ll always be a significant injury risk due to his kamikaze style and medical history, the Habs may have to make a delicate decision in his case.

The Albertan will become a restricted independent player at the end of the 2024-2025 season, at which point it will be up to the Habs to decide whether or not they want to come to an agreement with him on the terms of a second contract.

Guhle will only be 23 in 2025-2026 and should be at the peak of his value if healthy, but he could also have lost a little or a lot if he’s not. Without comparing the two players, let’s think about what happened with Noah Juulsen…

But even if some doubts remain in the four corners of the NHL as to his health and durability, this is perhaps the kind of player who, a la Chychrun, could bring in a pretty penny, especially for power forward.

A hidden card

Could 21-year-old left-hander Adam Engstrom, already accustomed to professional field hockey, be as versatile a defensive option as Guhle, while also being able to stay in the line-up more often?

This could be a possibility for the CH.

At least, it’s one that popped into my head while watching Engstrom play at the development camp in early July. Let’s let it germinate and keep an open mind… Engstrom may be the ace of spades hidden up HuGo’s sleeve.

The others…

For his part, Arber Xhekaj is exactly the kind of versatile defender and protector we’d like to have in the line-up at all times, especially in the playoffs. With the arrival of his younger brother in the organization, I think the CH will want to get along with the right Arber for the long term and at a good price.

A crowd favorite, Xhekaj is perhaps the most “untouchable” of the group after Hutson and Reinbacher. His use value for the CH is and probably always will be greater than his trade value. It will take an insane offer for Hughes to part with him.

In theory, right-handers Barron and Mailloux don’t have much competition in-house. With Reinbacher, they could patrol the right-hand side for a long time if everyone gets enough playing time. But they’re also both great bargaining chips if you’re looking for a bit of reinforcement up front when the time comes.

That’s exactly why the Avalanche traded Barron to the Habs in exchange for Lehkonen.

Harris, Struble and Trudeau – add Kovacevic if you like – seem to be good insurance policies for the last defensive pair, but they could all end up elsewhere by 2024-2025.

A proven model

As many fans and commentators are still doing since the non-selection of Matvei Michkov, we can still decry the fact that the Habs are not yet betting on any offensive superstars.

Of course, over the past 15 years, we’ve all seen Crosby and Malkin lift the Cup three times, and the same goes for Patrick Kane.

Let’s not forget the two titles won by Kopitar and Kucherov, and the long-awaited ones by Alex Ovechkin and Nathan MacKinnon.

Finally, even if he hasn’t produced staggering offensive statistics, it would be dishonest not to consider Jack Eichel an offensive superstar.

But of all these examples, only the 2017 Penguins – who couldn’t count on the presence of Kris Letang – didn’t really rely on a club balanced between defense and offense. But they were led by the best all-round player of his generation at the top of his game…

Add in the Bruins’ and Blues’ titles, and we come to the conclusion that to win the Cup, you need defensive awareness and, as a general rule, a balance of forces between defence and attack.

That’s why, in its current form, the Leafs’ and Oilers’ model doesn’t work.

That’s why the Jets’ model collapsed with the departures of Trouba, Byfuglien and Chiarot.

Of course, there will never be any guarantee of success, but the Habs’ plan, provided we can believe in the actualization of the potential of its key players, is based on a significant sample of recent successes.

Some, like Mathias Brunet, may repeat that there is no single recipe for winning, but the fact remains that a balance between defence and attack seems to be an inescapable basic ingredient for at least giving oneself a chance.

Like flour and sugar in a good cake.

Only the dosage changes a little.

With an elite defence and great depth up front, to which we can always add a good cup of maple syrup when the time comes, the Habs will have plenty of flour and sugar to make a good mix in 2025-2026.

All that’s left for Martin St-Louis to do is get the dough rising.

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