The 2021-22 season felt like an eternity for Habs fans. Luckily, the future looks bright, with some key additions in the off-season and a new mindset in the locker room. Here are five players to watch closely during the upcoming campaign.
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW
Drouin had a rough stretch since coming to Montreal in 2017 as part of the trade that sent Mikhail Sergachev, the Habs' 2016 9th overall pick, to Tampa Bay. He has only put up fifty points once in five seasons, with a total of 157 points in 263 games played. Injuries have slowed down the former third overall pick as he has played in just 58 games in the last three seasons, but if he can stay healthy, he still has the potential to become the reliable 60-point playmaker he was meant to be. With his contract expiring next season, he knows it is up to him to prove his worth to management, and with his number changing from 92 to 27, he feels it is a fresh start for him. For him, "[Injuries] shouldn't be a problem this season".
2. Cole Caufield, RW/LW
If there is one player who is bound to break out, it's Caufield. Many fans are furious towards former headcoach Ducharme, with the rookie being misused last year in many scenarios and being played on the fourth line some nights. The coach seemed to lose the locker room and his system was incompatible with the team. Cole scored just one goal and eight points under Ducharme and improved to 22 goals and 35 points under Marty St. Louis.
Caufield found his game under the new coach, as St. Louis didn't box him in a specific system and he let him play more freely. By allowing him to play his style, the sniper was able to use his strengths and perform how he used to in Wisconsin, where he won the Hobey-Baker award in 2021 as 'Player of the Year' in the NCAA. If he continues to play as he did in the second half of 2021-22, there are high hopes for the 21-year-old winger this season and he could easily score over 30 goals with Suzuki by his side.
3. Kirby Dach, C
Drafted 3rd overall in 2019, Dach struggled to produce at a consistent pace in the last three seasons. Acquired from the Blackhawks in the trade which sent the 13th (acquired in the Romanov trade) and 66th pick in 2022, the 21-year-old center is looking for a fresh start with his new team. His four-year, $13,450,000 deal could seem risky at first glance, but there is no doubt that he can live up to it, possibly making that contract look like a steal. He sounds excited to be a part of a young, improving core and intends to eventually help bring a Stanley Cup to Montreal.
The new mentality in the locker room will benefit his development, and he looks forward to "enjoying the game of hockey again". Injuries took a toll on him during his time in Chicago, and he didn't have much time to recover, but he is ready now. Kent Hughes, the Habs' GM, said that this is a better environment for Kirby Dach to develop in and as the team has little to no pressure to perform this year, it gives him more freedom to play his game with no real expectations.
4. Nick Suzuki, C
This probably isn't a shocker for most people, and you have to expect Suzuki to take another step forward in his development, entering his prime at the age of 23. He hasn't missed a single game due to injury in three NHL seasons and was the only one on the team last year to play the full 82 games. His points-per-game % has improved every year (0.58 in 2019-20; 0.73 in 2020-21; 0.74 in 2021-22), and with the team's offense improving over the off-season, he will too. Entering a new long-term contract, he will want to prove the fanbase right.
Suzuki has shown night in and night out that he can handle the pressure in tough situations. He held a key role in the Canadiens' Stanley Cup run in 2021 and was the team's number one center this season, in a year full of frustration, he kept his composure. He, along with Caufield, represents exactly what the new management stands for: youth, leadership, skill, and speed. The team and fans also know this, as he was named captain this off-season.
5. Sean Monahan, C
Right off the bat, this is a hot take. Monahan has not played at the highest of his abilities for the past few seasons because of his injuries, but a trade to Montreal is a fresh start for him, much like Kirby Dach. The 27-year-old center was acquired this summer from Calgary as a cap dump, but that doesn't necessarily mean his career is over - far from it.
He is entering the final year of his contract that he signed in 2016, and that is extra motivation for him. Although he has only scored 51 points in the last two seasons, he was a point-per-game player not too long ago. He says that this is the best he has felt physically - and mentally, of course - in a long time and that could be an indication of future success. Habs fans could be impressed by his play if he stays healthy. High hopes, but no pressure for the Ontarian.
Take Warning, Eastern Conference
The Canadiens look like a much better team compared to last season, and with teams like the Coyotes and Blackhawks fully embracing a rebuild, do not expect them to finish in last place again. Joel Edmundson plans on "taking the next step", adding "we have no excuses not to make the playoffs". And after making the Stanley Cup Finals just two seasons removed, they proved anything can happen in the NHL.
They played with dark magic once, don't be surprised if they play it again.