July 32-In-32: Montreal Canadiens

Aaron Itovitch

2023-07-16

The off-season is certainly off to quite the start for the Canadiens, who are now concretely in year two of their rebuild. Not active in free agency, management has focused their energy on retaining their RFA’s, and building through the draft.

The 2023 Draft

I was lucky enough to represent Dobber at the 2023 draft in Nashville, and I got a front-row seat to watch the Canadiens have the most… interesting… draft I could have possibly imagined.

#5 – David Reinbacher

Leading up to the draft, there was a rumour that the Nashville Predators were willing to trade Yaroslav Askarov, a former 11th overall pick, as well as the 15th and 24th overall pick in this years’ draft for the fifth pick. When the Canadiens turned this down, I became incredibly confident that the team would select Russian superstar Matvei Michkov. If you ask any of the public scouts around me, including DobberProspects head scout Sebastian High, the look of shock on my face was bordering on legendary.

David Reinbacher is a great player. He fills a major team need at RD, and he’s inherently projectable. There’s some elements of his game that add to his value as a player. He plays with smart physicality, and is strong along the boards, and his playmaking is intriguing. In a very short sample at the Canadiens’ training camp scrimmage, Reinbacher felt much more engaged offensively, and had instant chemistry with Lane Hutson. If he can click with a player like Hutson, it is his best shot to be a complementary first-pairing defenseman.

Reinbacher will be an amazing Hab, but it is hard not to think about what could have been.

#69 – Jacob Fowler

The USHL is one of the toughest leagues for goalies. The average save percentage hovers below .900, so when a netminder throws up a .921 as an 18-year-old starter, it turns heads. Players with Fowler’s numbers seldom miss the NHL, such as Dan Vladar and Cal Petersen. Fowler’s game is unique, and he thrives in his agility. He isn’t the smartest or toolsiest goaltender in the class, but he’s intelligent and consistent. These traits immediately make him the best goaltender in the Habs system, and if he continues his performances at Boston College next season, he could be a hidden third-round gem.

#101 – Florian Xhekaj

This pick was the first genuine surprise of the draft, as Reinbacher had been rumoured to the Canadiens for months. The overager just finished up his rookie season in major junior, with well under a half-point per game. It is not a stretch to say that if Florian’s last name hadn’t been Xhekaj, he wouldn’t have been drafted this high. If he can match his brothers’ incredible development curve, the Canadiens have a character bottom-sixer on their hands. If he doesn’t, he maxes out as a fringe 13th forward on a bad NHL team. It’s worrying to see nepotism like this in the fourth round, when the player almost certainly would have been available in the seventh.

#110 – Bogdan Konyushkov

After what is likely their worst pick of the draft, the Canadiens took a smart swing with Bogdan Konyushkov. The D+2 overager had a breakout year in the KHL this season, and cemented himself as a true NHL prospect. Less than a week after the draft, Konyushkov came to terms on a three-year extension with Torpedo, meaning he will likely only come over to the NHL at 24 years old. If he is already playing top-pairing minutes and top special teams minutes at 20, its safe to expect he’ll be NHL ready by the time he’s ready to make the jump. Konyushkov thrives along the boards, where his physicality and high-end stickwork makes him a puck-protecting threat. He’s a smart playmaker as well, completing long-range passes with surprising accuracy. He does become slightly lethargic in his own zone, and his passive play away from the puck has room for improvement. While it is impossible to know if he’ll ever come over at all, the Canadiens comfortably have a top-four piece in Konyushkov, which is phenomenal value for the fourth round.

#128 – Quentin Miller

Miller is a very interesting prospect. In his first season in Major Junior, he served as the backup on the Memorial Cup winning Quebec Remparts. Unfortunately, this limited him to 20 games, 18 of which were starts. He won 14 of those 18 games, and put up some of the strongest numbers in the QMJHL. He also performed well enough for the Remparts to move on from long-time starter William Rousseau, who will play for Rouyn-Noranda next season. Miller will likely go up to 40-50 games next season, and his consistency will be tested. In his small sample he has proven that he is a smart and athletic goalie, who struggles on rebound control. Many people who I spoke to at the draft had good things to say, with one team scout even saying he was their second-ranked goalie in the draft. The second of the three goalies the Canadiens took, the organization is clearly looking for a hit. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a ‘p’tit gars de chez nous’.

#133 – Sam Harris

Another pick on the puzzling side, Sam Harris is a 2003-born D+1 USHL perimeter sniper. I’ve only watched one sample at this point, but the pick is eerily similar to that of Jared Davidson last year – an offensively-gifted player that doesn’t do all that much else. Playing on one of the worst teams in the USHL, his production (exactly a point-per-game) is pretty good, but the big test will come at the University of Denver next season. It’s hard to imagine that Harris would have been drafted by any other team in the fifth, but clearly the Canadiens couldn’t pass up on more potential middle-six offensive depth.

#144 – Yevgeni Volokhin

If there’s one clear trend with the Canadiens’ three goalies, it’s that they’re betting on save percentage. As rudimentary a strategy as it may seem, it’s proven effective for teams in the past. Volokhin is a 6-3, athletic goalie who has fantastic analytics. He weighs in just under 170 pounds, which is a little concerning for a guy of his height, but he will surely bulk up in the future. An MHL starter this season, it will be interesting to see when he makes the jump to the KHL (or North America). Analytical-darling Russian goalies have certainly been worthwhile bets for teams in the past, and Volokhin could possibly be something special.

#165 – Filip Eriksson

I haven’t yet watched Eriksson directly (I might have in passing, but honestly can’t remember), but there is something that is always interesting with 18-year-olds who crack the SHL (especially in the playoffs). The last off-the-board Swede the Canadiens took looks pretty darn good in Adam Engstrom, so I won’t judge the pick until I have a lot more information.

#197 – Luke Mittelstadt

I’ll preface this one by saying that I’m thrilled Luke Mittelstadt got drafted. He deserved to be drafted in 2021, I was rooting for him hard in 2022, and now, in 2023, he finally heard his name get called. Unfortunately, fit-wise, it couldn’t be to a worse organization. As a D+2, he is set to stick around in the NCAA longer, and he’ll have to, as the Canadiens have a wild surplus of left-shot defensemen. With names like Adam Engstrom, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, William Trudeau, Jayden Struble, Kaiden Guhle, Mike Matheson…… there is already not enough room even in the top two tiers of pro hockey to fit the Canadiens’ left-shot depth, and Mittelstadt will likely not get the chance he really deserves. If they were deadset on taking an LD, they could have snatched up Francesco Dell’Elce, who they invited to training camp. With Mittlestadt being nearly 3 years older, Dell’Elce likely could have caught up.

Off-Season Moves

The off-season thus far has been highlighted by two trades, and three RFA signings.

Newhook Trade

I’ll always remember where I was when the Alex Newhook trade went down, because seven people all getting the same Elliotte Friedman notification on Twitter lights up a group of hockey fans like nothing else could. The Canadiens traded a lot for the 2019 1st rounder, especially in as deep of a draft as this one was. Trading the 31st and 37th overall picks, as well as defense prospect Gianni Fairbrother, the Canadiens certainly didn’t steal Newhook from Colorado. What Newhook brings is a whole lot of skill and powerful forechecking ability. If he finds his groove in Montreal, this deal could look very good.

Edmundson Trade

Joel Edmundson’s value peaked at the 2021 trade deadline, and has been on a steep decline ever since. Dealing with back injuries, he was dealt for a 3rd and a 7th to the Capitals. The Canadiens retained half of his salary in the deal. On paper, this is a fine deal, but I’m not so sure how I feel about the Canadiens using up a retention slot on such an inconsequential move. If they could have traded Edmundson for future considerations, that retention slot could have quite possibly fetched us more than a 3rd and a 7th in a future move. This is a very minor gripe, but in a cap-strapped league, that flexibility is a very hot commodity.

 

 

 

 

Cole Caufield – 8 x $7.85M ($62.8M)

The numbers don’t lie. Caufield, in 83 games since Martin St. Louis came on as head coach of the Canadiens, has scored 48 goals. That’s a… 48-goal pace over a full 82-game season, and that’s something the Canadiens haven’t had in decades. On a roster still lacking elite talent, Caufield is our franchise star, and as he continues to bloom and develop, he could realistically become a 50-goal scorer. If he completes that feat making under $8-million annually, the Canadiens are in good shape.

Alex Newhook – 4 x $2.9M ($11.6M)

Newhook’s extension was essentially exactly what people expected, as it is very similar to Kirby Dach’s $13.45M extension last season. Newhook has the chance to get some security, but the Canadiens have the opportunity to have a great value contract on their books. If there is one thing Kent Hughes has been great at, it’s contract negotiations.

Rafael Harvey-Pinard – 2 x $1.1M ($2.2M)

This signing was a relief, as after RHP’s rookie stint, with an unsustainably high shooting percentage, he could have likely gotten a bit more money. This deal is perfect for both sides, as if Harvey-Pinard can keep up his role as a top-six contributor, he’ll be due for a raise when the cap goes up significantly, and if he can’t live up to expectations, the Canadiens won’t be locked in long-term. His analytics with Nick Suzuki were fantastic – I’m hoping they will be a cemented combo next season.

Outgoing Players:

Jonathan Drouin, Joel Edmundson, Anthony Richard, Alex Belzile, Corey Schueneman

Incoming Players:

Alex Newhook, Philippe Maillet, Strauss Mann

Final Thoughts

I won’t go out and pretend that this has been the off-season I expected or hoped for. 2022 went as good as it possibly could have for the team, with a fantastic draft, and a highlight trade for Kirby Dach. Some can say it’s revisionist history to say I was thrilled with the draft last year, but I am still chasing the high of the Lane Hutson selection. Habs fans rightfully left the ’22 draft feeling like the organization was headed in a good direction, and that just wasn’t matched this year. The Reinbacher pick is what it is, and he is a great player and person, but the organization needs to be able to explain itself when it makes a shock move. It’s all good saying that he was the teams’ best player available, but can they tell us why?

The organization initially prided itself on transparency, and there is nothing of the sort at this point. The Canadiens very clearly lack elite skill and talent, and adding more middle-six ceiling players won’t help build a contender. Depth is great, but depth isn’t what wins cups. As a Canadiens fan, I still have faith that this team will get to the promised land for a 25th time one day, but as a purely objective scout/analyst, I don’t know what direction this organization is headed in anymore. This off-season has by no means been a disaster, and it could have certainly gone worse, but there is absolutely no way to rationalize this off-season as being the highest-value route.

I hope I am proven wrong about a lot of things this season, and that’s something I’d hoped I wouldn’t have had to say.

 

You can follow my work on Twitter @itovitch , on Threads @ajitovitch, and tune in to the Puck and Roll podcast!

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