With the start of training camp upon us, Kent Hughes had some interesting comments on his team at the annual media day. Hughes came out and said that he expects his players to compete for a playoff spot this upcoming season. Obviously, as a GM, you can’t come out and say that the expectation is for the team to tank. However, for a team that many have pegged as Macklin Celebrini candidates, these are high expectations nonetheless. Is it actually possible that the Montreal Canadiens can push for the playoffs this upcoming season? Or is this a general manager appeasing the playoff-hungry fans in the insatiable hockey market that is Montreal?
Can the Canadiens make the Playoffs?
The Canadiens forward core, despite what many think, does feature a lot of depth. Having guys like Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher, Sean Monahan, Christian Dvorak, and now Tanner Pearson in your middle/bottom six is solid depth. What the team does lack however is top-end talent, as their top six is full of question marks. Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki have what it takes to be stars for this team but for the Canadiens to reach the playoffs they have to take that next step this year. Then you have guys like Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, and Juraj Slafkovsky. Four guys who have the potential to be key top-six contributors but still have yet to have breakout seasons in the NHL.
Another big concern is the health of this forward group. Outside of Nick Suzuki, no forward on the Canadiens was healthy all year last season. Cole Caufield, who was just inked to an 8-year deal is coming off a major shoulder surgery. Same with 1st overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, who underwent a major surgery that forced him to miss half the year. While guys like Anderson, Gallagher, and Monahan, seem to never be able to stay healthy on a consistent basis. The depth is there on this forward core as is the talent, but health and lack of proven NHL production from the top guys leaves cause for concern.
This rendition of the Canadiens defence core is a young one; and one that features a lot of talent. Mike Matheson leads the way after a year where he solidified his role as a top-pairing point-producing defenceman. Kaiden Guhle provides the team with a solid second-pair guy who after a solid rookie campaign, will only get better with age. Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj are solid third-pair guys who showed they had a place in the league last season. Rounding out the defence are Justin Barron and David Savard. Barron is one of the top breakout candidates for this team and could show that he’s a guy who can play on the second pairing and contribute offensively.
There are lots of good pieces to this defensive unit that the team can build around. However, Mike Matheson isn’t an elite number-one guy, and having David Savard as your top right-handed option also isn’t ideal for a playoff team. The rest of the defence core is still growing into their own and has yet to show that they’re ready for the playoffs. With that being said youngsters like Lane Hutson, David Reinbacher, and Logan Mailloux as well as gained experience will only help bolster this unit over the next couple of years.
The team’s goaltending is either its biggest strength or its biggest weakness. Casey DeSmith‘s recent trade for Tanner Pearson solidifies the tandem of Montembeault and Allen. Samuel Montembeault showed flashes of starter potential last season while Jake Allen although he struggled last season, has always been a consistent backup option. If the Canadiens have even a sliver of hope in making the playoffs, it will rest on Montembeault’s shoulders to take them there. Montembeault showed that he has the capabilities of being a starter at the NHL level. In a contract season for him, he will need to earn his keep if he wants to be the Canadiens starter long-term.
Despite the vote of confidence from their general manager, this team isn’t quite playoff-poised this year. The Canadiens have the potential to be a playoff team as they have a lot of good pieces in place, however, there are just too many question marks on the roster. Despite this, the Canadiens won’t be the bottom-dweller team that many people expect. They were the most injury-riddled team in league history last season and odds are that they won’t have that kind of injury trouble again. Regardless, with an improved roster as well as youngsters continuing to develop and improve, the Canadiens will be a lot better than most people expect.
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