The Montreal Canadiens are one of the most historic and successful franchises in professional sports and have an intense reputation for success; despite this, it has been over 29 years since the Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup, a victory over the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. In the 21st century, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice, losing to the Flyers and Rangers, respectively. In 2021, the Habs shocked the hockey world, defeating the Maple Leafs, Jets, and Golden Knights as the 18th overall placed team, to advance to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in 5 games to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
This devastating end to a truly remarkable run was followed by the worst season in the Montreal Canadiens' 113-year history, as they finished at the bottom of the 2021/22 regular season standings with a 22-49-11 record and 55 points. After this catastrophic season, the Canadiens have somehow entered the 2022/23 season with more positives than negatives. However, this is unrecognized by the NHL community, with the majority of fans predicting the Habs to finish near the bottom of the standings yet again.
Changes in Management
The 2021/22 season resulted in the majority of the Canadiens' front office, such as Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme, being fired and replaced by new, fresh faces, including Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes, and Martin St. Louis.
In fact, from St. Louis' first NHL win vs the Blues on February 17, to their 5-1 win vs the Senators on March 19, the last-placed Habs had one of the best records in the league with 8-3-2, including a streak of 7 wins in 8 games.
However, as the overall record was still poor, General Manager Kent Hughes sold at the trade deadline and managed to get a huge haul of high-valued draft picks and prospects. Hughes also selected Slovakian phenom Juraj Slafkovský 1st overall in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and has made several more trades throughout this off-season.
These moves have undoubtedly earned Hughes the respect of Montreal Canadiens fans, even though he’s only had the job for just over 8 months. Therefore, it is expected that Hughes and his already reputable decisions will greatly benefit the Habs in the future.
Projected 2022/23 Line-up
Hughes' decisions have also significantly strengthened the overall line-up for next season, as it is projected that the 2022/23 Montreal Canadiens line-up will be:
Slafkovsky – Suzuki – Caufield
Hoffman – Dvorak – Gallagher
Drouin – Dach – Anderson
Dadonov – Evans – Armia
(Monahan, R. Pitlick, Byron, Pezzetta)
Edmundson – Savard
Matheson – Barron
Harris – Wideman
There is clearly plenty of offensive potential in this team, with the playmaking abilities of Suzuki, Dvorak, and Dach helping to set up goal scorers such as Caufield, Slafkovsky, Hoffman, Gallagher, and Dadonov Playmakers like Suzuki, Dvorak, and Dach have the potential to set up goal scorers like Caufield, Slafkovsky, Hoffman, Gallagher, and Dadonov, adding another dimension to this offense.
Hughes has assembled an incredible amount of forward depth that is arguably as good as any playoff team going into next season; to an extent that there may be no room in the line-up for Rem Pitlick and 3-time 30-goal scorer, Sean Monahan, on opening night. Therefore, to provide space for these NHL-calibre players, there is speculation that more trades will be made before the season begins.
This line-up, while overlooked by most of the NHL fan community, is poised to at least commence the beginning of the end of Montreal's goal-scoring woes that have plagued them for the last two decades.
There is also an abundance of Canadiens forwards aiming for huge bounce-back seasons, including Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and Josh Anderson, as each of them didn’t reach the 20-goal or 40-point mark in 2021/22. 2-time 30-goal scorer, Brendan Gallagher, will also be eyeing a return to form, after a dismal 7 goals and 24 points in his injury-riddled 56-game season.
High Expectations for Caufield and Suzuki
This will also be an important season for Cole Caufield, after having a disappointing and frustrating 2021/22 campaign, as the team hopes he can improve both his goal scoring and two-way play.
Caufield had just 1 goal and 7 assists in 30 games under Dominique Ducharme and 22 goals and 13 assists in 37 games under Martin St. Louis. This extraordinary turnaround has influenced fans to expect around 35-40 goals from the 21-year-old next season, as he was on track for approximately 48 goals in a full 82-game season during that span with St. Louis as head coach.
Caufield's counterpart, Nick Suzuki is also expected to have a career year. Battling last season with a back injury, Suzuki still managed to play all 82 games and posted a team-leading 60 points. Whether it’s Slafkovsky, Hoffman, or Anderson on their line, they will certainly light it up next season. Watch for them to bounce back with monster seasons.
The Price Remains Right Without Carey
The goaltending for the Canadiens is also quite competitive with Jake Allen as the projected starter and Samuel Montembeault as the backup. Carey Price's absence will make a considerable impact on the team's overall strength and morale, as he has been the face of the franchise for the best part of a decade, with his skill, experience, and leadership playing a crucial role in Montreal's successes over his tenure. However, Allen has flown under the radar for most of his career, especially in the 2021 regular season, where he led the injury-plagued Habs to the playoffs, posting a 2.68 GAA and .907 SV% in 29 games.
On the other hand, Montembeault posted a shaky 3.77 GAA and .891 SV% in 2021/22 after getting claimed off waivers from Florida but had some outstanding games that earned him a 2-year contract renewal with the Habs this off-season. He is notably just 25 years old, so there is plenty of potential in the young goalie to develop his game and become a very useful asset for the Canadiens in the future.
These are positive signs that Montreal's goaltending should be at least competitive this season, but it may be impacted by the only real weakness in the overall line-up: defense. Yes, there is no doubt that the biggest concern for Montreal will be their defensive core and it is unfortunately the predominant influence on fans' exceedingly low expectations of the team. Joel Edmundson, David Savard, Mike Matheson, and Chris Wideman will shape the overall look of the top 6, with Jordan Harris, Justin Barron, Corey Schueneman, and Kaiden Guhle expected to fill in the gaps. It is not ideal, but the loss of Jeff Petry will force the Habs to play Savard on the right-side top pair, whereas he has typically been known as a depth defenseman for most of his career.
Positively, the lack of defensive depth will provide great opportunities for the younger guys to play in the NHL, thus speeding up prospect development and the rebuilding process.
A Season of Injuries and Covid
There are more significant reasons why the Canadiens are heavily underrated going into next season. At the beginning of the 2021/22 season, the Habs were debilitated by injuries to big-name players, including Weber, Price, Gallagher, Edmundson, Byron, and Allen. The team was also heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic around Christmas and early January, with the Canadiens being forced to play an abundance of AHLers for most of the season, which predictably took a toll on the team's success. So, after a much longer summer to recover and prepare, the 2022/23 Habs are expected to be much healthier throughout the season, and therefore, have the ability to play their best team more often.
Overall, the Montreal Canadiens are no doubt one of the most underrated teams heading into the 2022-23 season. There is huge optimism and expectation for the team’s young stars in Suzuki and Caufield to lead what is an exceptionally deep forward group. Newly acquired players such as Dach, Slafkovsky, Dadonov, and Monahan are poised to contribute, and bounce-back seasons are also imminent for Hoffman, Dvorak, Anderson, and Gallagher. Although the defense is young and lacking overall skill, the goaltending certainly has the potential to win games for the Habs this year.
It is truly an exciting time to be a Montreal Canadiens fan. In what will be the first full season with Gorton, Hughes, and St. Louis, I genuinely believe the team can contend with Boston, Detroit, and Ottawa for 4th in the Atlantic Division.
Don't forget they've surprised us all before, and with the potential Montreal has right now, they can easily shock the hockey world again.