After a surprising start to the 2022-23 NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens have crashed back down to Earth.
Off to a 11-10-1 record in the first month and a half of the campaign, the Canadiens are a paltry 4-11-2 since Dec. 1, and 1-8-1 in their last 10. In that span, they've allowed 46 goals and only managed to score more than two goals on one occasion.
Many — if not everyone — expected this team to be amongst the worst in the league this season, and it seems the Habs are finally living down to expectations.
The top line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach has been one of the few bright spots so far, combining for 86 points between them. Offseason acquisition Sean Monahan has also been solid with 17 points in 25 games (although he is currently injured), and rookie defenseman Kaiden Guhle has looked comfortable logging heavy minutes on a battered blue line.
But the rest of the squad has had poor or unremarkable seasons to this point. I predicted Montreal would be too talented to finish dead last in the NHL and get the best odds at winning the draft lottery, and early on, I seemed to be right. But with a flawed roster and a slew of injuries to blame, the Habs have firmly joined the tanking efforts underway to win the right to draft elite prospect Connor Bedard.
The path forward seems pretty clear, shopping valuable trade deadline assets and stocking up on picks and prospects along the way. While general manager Kent Hughes and the front office gauge the trade value of players like Joel Edmundson, Josh Anderson and even Monahan, they do have another move to consider: should they send 2022 first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky to the AHL?
As teenagers often do when thrust into the league so young, Slafkovsky has had a quiet start to his NHL career, registering four goals and 10 points, while earning 31 penalty minutes and sporting a minus-6 rating in 33 games. Slafkovsky's failure to make much of an impact, however, has more to do with his usage than his own efforts.
Slafkovsky has bounced up and down the Canadiens lineup the season, seeing 13 different line combinations, and settling more often than not on the wing alongside Jake Evans and Michael Pezzetta on the fourth line. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound forward is averaging about 12 minutes of ice time per game — not enough to give him the reps he needs to develop at the highest level of the sport.
Perhaps head coach Martin St-Louis doesn't trust him enough to play him more, or feels like more experienced players give him a better chance to win. Fair enough. But in a lost year — as this one is shaping out to be — the main focus should be the development of your future core.
It's safe to assume Slafkovsky will be a Canadien for the foreseeable future, but he may be best suited for a stint with the AHL's Laval Rocket at the moment, where he would undoubtedly get a huge boost in minutes and opportunity.
Look no further than Shane Wright for reference, a fellow 2022 lottery pick who was assigned to the minors after a slow start to his first NHL season. Wright scored four goals in five games with the Coachella Valley Firebirds before being recalled to the Seattle Kraken and subsequently captaining Canada's gold medal efforts at the 2023 world juniors. While I'd expect Slafkovsky to spend more than four games in the AHL, he could certainly benefit from a nice uptick in production and confidence in a more prominent role.
The Canadiens will have to make this decision very soon, as the team is just two contests shy of the 40-game mark of the season, meaning Slafkovsky would accrue a year towards unrestricted free agency.
(Per Puck Pedia, a Group 3 UFA "becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) if their current contract ends after either 7 Accrued Seasons or they are 27 or older as of June 30. An Accrued Season is defined as a year in which a skater is on an NHL roster for at least 40 games (30 games for Goalies). If a player is on the NHL team’s roster but injured, the team’s games count towards the 40-game minimum.")
Why keep the team's prized prospect — and lose a year of control in the process — riding the bench when he could be thriving at a level just below the NHL as this group tumbles towards another lottery pick? The solution seems clear.
The same can be said of some other young and promising Habs players. Defensemen Jordan Harris and Justin Barron could use some seasoning in the minors, where they could develop the defensive side of their games as budding puck-moving blueliners. Early-season standout Arber Xhekaj would surely benefit from some time with the Rocket as well, although his adaptation to the big league has felt more seamless than his peers'.
The Habs defensive corps has been battered and bruised so far this season, forcing some of these inexperienced players into bigger roles earlier than anticipated. Veterans David Savard, Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson have each missed time through injury this year, and promising rookie Kaiden Guhle was sidelined on Friday with a lower-body injury that will keep him out of action for at least eight weeks. Harris, Barron and Xhekaj will surely be called on to help fill the void that Matheson and Guhle are leaving, likely postponing a possible assignment to the AHL.
Connor Bedard just carried Canada to world junior gold with a historic tournament, and looks like the next generational star of the NHL. If you're in no position to compete for a playoff position, then it's time to throw in the towel and prioritize the future.
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