The Montreal Canadiens may be injury-riddled, but they are playing strong competitive hockey despite it all.
A win over Toronto and a solid effort in defeat against Boston have highlighted this week. Expectation was that the Detroit Red Wings would be easier, but they were not as it went to overtime, with Detroit winning 4-3.
For a while it looked like the one trade that General Manager Kent Hughes definitely did not win was Artturi Lehkonen to the Colorado Avalanche. Lehkonen has won a cup, plays on the first line, and is turning in the best numbers of his career.
At the same time, the prime piece of the return, Justin Barron, had a poor camp and was sent to the minors to find his game. Thankfully, he did. All through the season, Barron got better for the Laval Rocket.
However, the transition to the National Hockey League is a much more difficult proposition. He is figuring it out now in this second half of the season.
In this game, Barron had an amazing 150-foot pass to Kirby Dach to free him. Barron’s greatest skill is his ability to find the man on stretch passes. He also skates the puck up ice effectively, and will do so even more when he gains in confidence. His weakness is defensive zone coverage, and as a defenceman, if you can’t figure that out, you can’t play in the league.
Barron is figuring it out. His coverage is much better. His ability to puck battle is improving. His decision-making is going from suspect to impressive in a short amount of time. He’s becoming an NHLer.
The former first-round pick is beginning to live up to his billing. Right now, the winner of the trade is still Colorado, but there could come a day when that’s a tie. Barron only needs to become a regular defender in the NHL, then considering he is six years younger than Lehkonen, that times out better for a team like Montreal in a rebuilding phase.
It is rumoured that Joe Sakic of Colorado and Hughes could be trading partners again this trading deadline. Sean Monahan is on the Colorado radar, and he should be. Monahan plays a strong two-way game, and they have not replaced Nazem Kadri in their lineup.
The Avalanche are not winning the Stanley Cup again, if they don’t get stronger down the middle. They need to replace Kadri. Interestingly, the Avs do not have a good name in their pipeline to come to Montreal, so Hughes will need a first round draft pick.
At where that pick is overall — at 25th or so — the Avs will make that deal. The 25th pick historically makes the NHL only 50 per cent of the time. They want the cup now. Not a 50-50 chance of a player in three years.
It’s quite impressive and also kind of bizarre that some of the best players on the club right now are only in Montreal because of injuries. Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Rem Pitlick and Jesse Ylonen are three who look just as good as the players that they are replacing.
Harvey-Pinard with a terrific goal in this one upstairs from 10 feet. It was a shorthanded marker to tie the contest at two. Harvey-Pinard then tied the game at three with his second goal. It was a beauty as well, as he scored on a breakaway with a gorgeous backhand to the top corner.
Another player from Laval Michael Pezzetta scored the first goal. All the Laval players were among the best in the game. Remarkable and exciting.
There’s only one injured player who is completely irreplaceable and that’s Cole Caufield. It would be interesting next season to see these rookies continue to get regular work. Also, give the new recruits a chance like Joshua Roy and Sean Farrell.
Considering the club is playing for the future, let’s see the future in the present to see who has the goods to cut it, and who does not. They will bring a lot more energy as well as excitement, rather than some veterans playing out the string.
Replacing the players that will be gone next season, like Evgenii Dadonov, with other veterans doesn’t provide any lessons for the future. The only reason to construct the lineup with players like Dadonov next season is for the value of picking up bad contracts for good draft picks.
The one thing we all know about next year’s lineup is that we do not know about next year’s lineup. It should be interesting.
One player who will definitely be there is Kirby Dach. In fact, by next season, he might just be the best centre on the team. Dach is only six points behind Nick Suzuki now in team scoring after making a beautiful pass on a 2-on-1 to set up Harvey-Pinard.
While Dach is hot, Suzuki has only one goal in 18 games. Dach is turning into a terrific two-way centre whose game is growing so quickly that his ceiling is not known, and it could be high.
It’s actually possible that Dach could be the leading point-getter on the Canadiens by the time we get to mid-April. He is just brimming with confidence and the trade with the Blackhawks looks like the theft of the year.
The downside of this one for sure is the injury to Joel Edmundson. He played only two minutes of the first period before suffering an injury that he was not able to spot during the action. It’s a lower-body injury.
Edmundson is expected to be dealt at the trading deadline. Edmonton has been rumoured many times. It has been rumoured he could be worth a top prospect or a first-rounder, but if he remains injured, he will not be moved for anything this year.
However, the window remains open as his modest contract extends beyond this campaign.
It’s becoming more apparent where the Montreal Canadiens will draft this summer, if they don’t win the lottery. It’s looking like the six or the seven spot for the Canadiens.
As a result, it is getting clearer who General Manager Kent Hughes is likely to take when he gets on the stage to make the pick. There’s never a guarantee here, but the consensus choices are surprisingly clear.
There is strong unanimity overall in the top six with only one caveat to speak of. The wild card is Matvei Michkov. He would be the second choice, without a doubt, behind only Connor Bedard. However, because of politics in the war with Ukraine, and a long-term contract that he has signed to stay in the KHL, GMs may be anxious to take the Russian.
The result of that anxiety is Michkov could go second, or he may fall into the second tier. It is even possible with GMs that he may fall to mid or late first round — it seems unlikely, but a GM needs to make sure that he is picking a player that has plans to actually come over to North America.
If Michkov does go according to his ranking, the next two are known commodities and consensus is clear that Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson are set for the third and fourth spots. Fantilli is the leading point-per-game player in college hockey, and Carlsson is putting up strong numbers in a very good league in Sweden.
At five begins the area where the Canadiens will draft. Zach Benson of the Winnipeg Ice is likely to go in this spot, and the Canadiens are not likely to draft at five. It would take a remarkable collapse by the Canadiens, or a remarkable winning streak by the San Jose Sharks, for Montreal to lift to number five.
The Canadiens are likely to draft either sixth or seventh — seventh if the Vancouver Canucks continue to falter, sixth if the Canucks start to find their better selves under new head coach Rick Tocchet, who is strongly motivated to right that listing ship.
It may not matter if the Canadiens finish sixth or seventh. The Canucks could be motivated to take Brayden Yager of the Moose Jaw Warriors, or Colbey Barlow of the Owen Sound Attack. They also may be interested in Will Smith of the United States Development Team.
Hughes is almost 100 per cent, out of those three names, interested in Smith of the USDP. Believe it or not, Hughes actually coached Smith when he played for the Boston Junior Eagles. Talk about knowing a player through and through — not just the hockey ability, but the personality as well.
The numbers for Smith are as good as they have ever been at the USDP level. The gold standard is the number one pick overall in 2019, Jack Hughes. Hughes had 112 points in 50 games for the USDP.
Another comparable is Logan Cooley, who went third overall last year with 51 games played and 75 points for the USDP.
Smith ranks right up there with the best in history as he has played 34 games and has 64 points this season for the USDP. Smith is averaging almost two points per game. This is a rare feat. That this player could be available at sixth overall shows how magnificent this draft year is.
Smith would be the number one pick overall last season, and many other seasons as well with those numbers. He also is a terrific player with a tremendous release on his shot, and breakout speed on the rush.
He’s a centre as well, and you cannot have too many of those. He is also the player that Kent Hughes is eyeing. If you see Smith in a Canadiens uniform on draft night, celebrate.
With that said, if it’s Yager or Barlow, or for some reason Benson has dropped down because a team drafting higher is eyeing a defenceman, it’s going to be an amazing night for the Canadiens.
They will be drafting a top-six forward. In fact, they could be drafting a top-six forward as well with their second first-round pick from the Florida Panthers. This draft is that good.
It has been said that the top six players this year would have gone number one last year, and the top-15 this year would have been top-five last year.
It’s exciting times for the rebuild. The Canadiens will be drafting two outstanding hockey players this summer, at least. Keep your eyes on Will Smith. If they don’t win the lottery, he’s the target for the Canadiens.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.