As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for a provisional assessment of the Habs’ season, which has been a very strangeone…
Both individually and collectively, it’s been a mixed bag. Despite a few exclamation points here and there, the real first-class players, like the dunces, are as rare as the victories against the big clubs…
As we’ll see, the Habs are stuck with a bunch of players who have just “decent” seasons.
Let’s move on to the individual report cards of Martin St-Louis’s class, which, if we want to draw a parallel with the school system, would be like a group in which your strongest doesn’t even have 90%…
Samuel Montembeault (A-)
Despite a contract negotiation that dragged on and on, and despite the ménage à trois in front of the net, Montembeault remained unflappable. And that’s a credit to him. The Canadiens seem to have identified their #1 goaltender for the next three years, and perhaps even a little longer if the two parties wish to continue their union. He hasn’t always faced the toughest opposition this season, but the Quebecer is increasingly making saves and performing like the best in his profession.
Mike Matheson (B+)
Despite ranking in the top-20 among NHL defensemen in terms of offensive production, Matheson may not be getting all the credit he deserves in Montreal. Over 82 games, he would have amassed 58 points last year and is still producing at a rate of 57 points this season. Regular, you say? He probably plays a few too many minutes, which exposes him defensively, but still, these are offensive stats worthy of the Subban of the golden years… Surprisingly, his 12 power-play points rank 6th among NHL defensemen. Not bad for a guy who’s almost never called a “true quarterback”… Imagine him with a few more productive forwards…
Cayden Primeau (B+)
A solid performer right from training camp, Primeau silenced many a commentator with several impressive performances. He hasn’t faced the easiest clubs and hasn’t always had the required defensive and offensive support, but more often than not, he’s been among his club’s best players when called upon.
Jayden Struble (B+)
We tend to forget that Struble is a fairly high draft pick (46th, 2019) who, all in all, followed a fairly classic path for an American with his four years in the university ranks. The injuries he suffered in the two campaigns following his draft undoubtedly hampered his development a little, but the “Greek god” has reinvented himself as a reliable defender, while retaining some obvious offensive qualities. The sample is still small, but at 22, the fruit seems ripe and he’s already forcing his bosses to review the hierarchy on the blue line. A great story in this dreary season…
David Savard (B+)
With seven games under his belt, make what you will of this assessment, but every time he’s been in the lineup, Savard has been good and lived up to expectations. We’ll see if he can stay healthy and effective for the rest of the season, and if so, if any buyers show interest in his services.
Kaiden Guhle (B)
The Albertan is capable of a few sparkling performances here and there – he’s also capable of the opposite, as we saw again against the Penguins this week – but more often than not, we have to admit that he presents a complete and solid game, often against good opposing players. That said, I still don’t understand the many analysts who rave about him as a future number-one defenseman. In my eyes, he’s certainly mature enough for his age, but simply doesn’t have that kind of talent. He’ll make an excellent number three in a future brigade worthy of the elite. A kind of Ekholm/McDonagh, but give us a break with the “left-handed Pietrangelo”, please, Messrs Lemay, Delorme and company. At the same age, 21-22, Pietrangelo was on the verge of a 51-point (+18) season, and it’s not as if the Blues had a “packaged” club!
They’re “okay”, but…
Nick Suzuki (B-)
Nick Suzuki has been his usual self since the start of the season. And that’s part of the problem. He’s producing at the same rate as in recent campaigns and is once again heading for sixty points, while maintaining a decidedly negative differential (already at -8 in 29 games…). With Dach done for the year, a more effete Monahan likely to leave soon, and Dvorak just not good enough to stand out offensively, it’s still Suzuki who has to carry the club at arm’s length. It’s as if, year after year, the Bruins had been entrusted to Krejci without a Bergeron in front of him…
Justin Barron (B-)
The Nova Scotian is playing with more maturity and consistency after being left out of the line-up at the start of the season. Like most of his colleagues, he still makes a few defensive blunders, but Barron often finds a way to compensate with a very honest offensive contribution that leaves no doubt as to his mobility, offensive flair and shot quality.
Sean Monahan (B-)
Despite a dip in form in recent weeks, Monahan remains effective on the power play thanks to his good sense of play/timing. He remains a solid veteran to add to a team’s middle-6 for the playoffs. He needs to be traded while he’s healthy, and I’d say the sooner the better if the Habs want to tank solidly…
Cole Caufield (C+)
Cole Caufield’s tomato is on many people’s lips these days, even his coach wants more from him. And much of it is justified. At the time of writing, Caufield was heading for a season of 20 goals and 57 points. That doesn’t meet the expectations that come with his past prowess and the lucrative contract he signed in June… Too few 5-on-5 goals, too few on the power play. On a more positive note, Caufield (+/- 0 differential) is racking up more assists than usual, and is playing pretty well defensively, intercepting several pucks in the central zone or at the opponent’s blue line. Is he really 100% physically and psychologically recovered from shoulder surgery? It’s hard to say, but he’s got to find a way to get more shots from the slot. As scorers are often sequence players, he could very well get his act together soon.
Jake Evans (C+)
Despite a long gap between his first and second goals, Evans is having a pretty good season by his standards and looks relatively good under Monahan and Anderson in what should normally be a good3rd line. His +5 differential stands out quite a bit from the rest of the group among the forwards… The Ontarian, an intelligent right-handed center in the prime of his career with another year left on his contract ($1.7M), could generate a surprising comeback on the market. An “old friend” of Connor McDavid’s…
Alex Newhook (C+)
We’d all seen his rather ordinary game sense when he played center, but he was having his best moments on the wing when he got injured. Newhook has yet to reach his ceiling in this position, where he could well become a twenty-goal scorer thanks to his speed, the quality of his shot and his flair for the net. It’s a shame about that injury.
After a promising first game alongside Dach, it was quite a long desert for Slaf, especially the very painful stint with Newhook, ineffective at center, and an Anderson without any confidence on the other wing. Things settled down a bit with Dvorak and Caufield, then we saw another improvement to the right of Caufield and Suzuki. In a season of transition that lost much of its focus with the loss of Dach, a season in which the emphasis had to shift back to individual progression, Slafkovsky’s development became the main focus of the current campaign. Due to a lack of opportunism on his part and on the part of his teammates, he has been unusually “unlucky” in terms of his offensive production, but the #20’s progress is very real, as several indicators clearly demonstrate.
– Xander Baldwyn (@BaldwynXander) December 14, 2023
Jesse Ylonen (C)
We’d love to tell you that the Finn is having a good season, but the truth is we don’t know, or rather, he’s not playing enough for us to know. If Ylonen had been given all Josh Anderson’s top-9 and power-play minutes, is it hard to imagine that he’d be putting up stats to match? No other player is as much a victim of Gallagher’s and Anderson’s onerous contracts and “special statuses”. Having said that, if Ylonen was kicking down doors every game, I’d like to think we’d have seen his place in the pecking order by now. Still a little too self-conscious, Ylonen?
Tanner Pearson (C)
After a rather surprising start alongside Monahan and Gallagher, things really settled down for Pearson, who rarely managed to stand out in Martin St-Louis’ other combinations. With only a few months left on his contract ($3.25M), the Ontarian could well find a buyer at the trade deadline, given his return to form. He still has a good feel for the game and remains a valued veteran with a Stanley Cup to his name.
Joel Armia (C)
It’s not much of a sample, but Armia did pretty well in the roles he was given during his 13 games in Montreal. We sensed a little more urgency in his game, we saw his shooting, his puck protection and his defensive efficiency. The short stops in Laval surely had something to do with it… But to say that a team would want to acquire him for another season at a cap hit of $3.4 million is a step I’m not ready to take.
Gustav Lindstrom (C)
The Swede has been quite decent in general when his services have been called upon, quite mobile, not too risky defensively, and even possesses a certain offensive flair. For the time being, he’s an ideal 7th defenseman who doesn’t have to take minutes away from the organization’s more promising youngsters. That said, if a club is looking for depth in the playoff race…
Michael Pezzeta (C)
The likeable winger plays very few minutes and settles for a fairly simple, intense game that rarely gets his club into trouble. But here’s another winger who’s just as good as his old self, and does little more than reproduce what we’ve already seen of him.
They’re ripping it up…
Brendan Gallagher (C-)
Gallagher goes to war every time he jumps on the ice, but often with a half-empty tank. The result is what the result is. He can still be relatively effective around the opposition’s net, capable of 15 or so goals, but his defensive retreats and work in his own zone leave a lot to be desired due to a glaring lack of mobility. For what it’s worth, his -12 differential, by far the worst on the team, is no accident.
Christian Dvorak (C-)
Like many of his teammates, Dvorak doesn ‘t play badly, but his offensive production falls well short of expectations. He doesn’t capitalize enough on his scoring chances. Although we’ll probably have to wait until next season, here’s another veteran center who we’d do well to send elsewhere if we want to give full meaning to the word “rebuilding”.
Arber Xhekaj (C-)
His +1 positive differential is a little misleading. Xhekaj was often scrambling with the puck, and the too many unnecessary penalties he took didn’t show much concentration on the ice. We were hoping for more efficiency from him. His stay in Laval is no coincidence and can only benefit him.
Josh Anderson (D)
What’s happening with the Ontarian is almost paranormal. The rest of his game is very similar to what he’s always played, but he’s lost all confidence with the puck in scoring position. It’s very strange. If he ever regains some of his superbness and, by the same token, some pretty good value around the league, Hughes and Gorton should no longer hesitate to part with their big winger, who will have three more full seasons left at $5.5M.
Jordan Harris (D)
With the emergence of Struble, the anticipated and desired arrival of Hutson towards the end of the season, not to mention Engstrom’s arrival in America next autumn, it seems that Harris’ carrots are cooked in Montreal, after a disastrous start to the season before being injured. Harris simply doesn’t bring anything special to the Tricolore brigade, whereas the other three left-handers all have something that sets them apart. He’ll undoubtedly be given a chance to rebuild his value over the coming weeks, but when it’s said time and again that the organization’s young defensemen will have to start cleaning up sooner or later, it’s hard to find an easier target to identify…
I’m a little concerned about the large number of players who are content to be just okay. Are some of them a little too comfortable, or even a little sleepy, in this rebuilding context where the pressure isn’t, let’s say, at its peak?
Could a few transactions change the dynamic and “wake up” some of them, both young and old?
That said, a number of veterans, who are already looking pretty good in this rebuilding context, aren’t performing up to their contracts, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to leave.
But, at the same time, so far it can’t be said that it’s Gallagher, Pearson, Anderson, Dvorak who are pulling the club along and keeping it in the evil ” no man’s land “.
They’re sadly not even good enough for that!
In reality, if we stick to the veterans, it’s guys like Matheson, Monahan, and to a lesser extent Evans, Savard and Kovacevic who allow the Tricolore to pick up little points in the standings here and there.
If the Tricolore really want to maximize this rather lacklustre season since the loss of Dach by finishing as low down the standings as possible, they absolutely must capitalize on at least two, if not three, of these five “good” veterans while they all still have great value.
But don’t bet against Savard’s chances of attracting much interest, and if Hughes and Gorton are serious about rebuilding and really want to finish as low as possible in the standings whilesocial acceptance of the thing is still excellent, they shouldn’t hesitate too much…
As for the rest, there’s nothing wrong with young people pulling the cart when it comes to rebuilding. And, in fact, that’s pretty much what happens most evenings. All you have to do is look at the amount of playing time each player gets.
It’s just that, at the moment, it’s not always firing on all cylinders with players like Suzuki, Caufield, Guhle and Barron at the front of the cohort.
When Slafkovsky, Hutson and Reinbacher also have three or four seasons under their belts, we’ll talk.
Until then, and pending Dach’s return in October 2024 (!), we have no choice but to wish the loyal Flanelle fans another big forward in the next draft as a Christmas present…