Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Montreal Canadiens.
2023-24 Montreal Canadiens
There’s almost nowhere to go but up for the 2023-24 Montreal Canadiens, as the past season was a disaster. Just two years after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, Montreal followed up their last-place finish in 2022 by finishing 28th a year later. They ranked 26th in goals per game, 29th in goals against per game, and 29th on the power play.
Their one top-five stat? Penalty minutes. They also, according to the website mangameslost.com, led in games lost to injury by a large margin. Montreal lost an astonishing 751 man-games to injury; the next team, Toronto, lost 596. Which brings us to our next point…
Possibly the biggest shakeup of the off-season was the training staff. After multiple years of terrible injury luck, GM Kent Hughes cleaned house and brought in highly-respected Head Athletic Trainer Jim Ramsay from the New York Rangers.
As for players, winger Michael Pezzetta signed a two-year extension in late May. The biggest player acquisition was centre Alex Newhook of the Avalanche, who came over in exchange for a first-rounder, a second-rounder, and Gianni Fairbrother. He signed a four-year extension in early July. An August trade saw Rem Pitlick and Mike Hoffman heading to Pittsburgh in exchange for, among others, Jeff Petry. Petry was flipped to Detroit for defenceman Gustav Lindholm and a conditional fourth-round pick shortly thereafter. Defenceman Joel Edmundson was sent to the Capitals in exchange for third- and seventh-round picks in 2024.
Aside from the addition of Newhook and the subtraction of Edmundson, this year’s opening night roster shouldn’t look drastically different from last year’s. Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher, and Joel Armia will likely be right wingers, with Juraj Slafkovsky and Michael Pezzetta lining up on the left.
Christian Dvorak starts the season on IR. Pezzetta may have to start in Laval.
The top line seems like a given, seeing how often they played together last year. Harvey-Pinard moves up to the second line, based on the amount of offence he was chipping in late last season. Newhook has played centre in the past, but slots in at left wing given the team’s surplus of centres and lack of left-shooting wingers.
This is a total crapshoot, as bottom six predictions so often are. Slafkovsky and/or Gallagher could move up at some point. It’s tough to know where to put Pearson, being brand-new to the team. Evans and Armia have played well in checking roles the last two seasons as well.
Possible injury call-ups from Laval would include Logan Mailloux, Mattias Norlinder, and/or Jayden Struble.
Matheson-Savard and Guhle-Barron will probably be the top four at least to start. Jordan Harris had a strong end to the season and could be ready for a bigger role at some point, possibly switching spots with Barron.
The bottom two will probably be Xhekaj and Harris, with Kovacevic dressing when they go with seven D. This would be a no-brainer if either Xhekaj or Harris were a right-handed shot; alas, they’re both lefties.
The starting goaltender job is Sam Montembeault‘s to lose. He needs to show the Habs (or some other team) that he’s worthy of a starting-goalie-type contract this summer. Cayden Primeau has a chance to stake a claim to the backup job. Should Montembeault struggle down the stretch, expect Primeau to see more action with Montreal as the team assesses whether he’s the future in net.
Players To Watch
The 26-year-old finished last season with a save percentage of .901 and a GAA of 3.42, both a slight improvement from the year before. He’ll be a UFA on July 1. Can he prove that he’s a bona fide starting goaltender at this level? The .901 save percentage is respectable, but the 3.42 GAA is… not good. A decent save percentage and high goals-against usually indicates that a goalie is seeing far too many pucks aimed in his direction. The defence in front of Monty needs to, and should be, better this year, so expect that number to come down at least somewhat.
Even if Montreal decides to go with Primeau for the future, will somebody else offer Montembeault a starter-type contract this summer?
Can he have a bounce-back year, stay reasonably healthy, and start having a smidgen of self-preservation? He’s played 81 or 82 games four times in his career, but the last time was the 2018-19 season, when he was 26 years old. In the each of last four seasons, he’s played fewer than 60. Now in his 30s, and given his style of play, nobody expects Gallagher to be in the lineup for all 82 games, but it would be great to see him play 70 or so.
The 2023-24 Montreal Canadiens are probably a year away from making the playoffs, and at least two away from making any kind of run. Playing .500 hockey and finishing ahead of one or two teams in the division would be a step back toward respectability. It’s certainly possible they could do better than that, but fans shouldn’t get their hopes up. In all honesty, the team is probably better off with another top-10 or -12 draft pick than making what would almost certainly be a very brief playoff appearance anyway.
Want to check out our prognostication abilities? Here’s last season’s Puck Drop Preview for the Habs.
Main Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports