The Montreal Canadiens: All That Glitters…

Sep 26, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; A detailed view of a Montreal Canadiens jersey with the RBC patch during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; A detailed view of a Montreal Canadiens jersey with the RBC patch during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

In a season marred by considerable challenges and disappointments for the Montreal Canadiens, there have been many marks of criticism.

Most have been directed toward obvious and safe targets. Meanwhile, the most precise has been overlooked, perhaps avoided, by fans and analysts alike. However, before elaborating on exactly what that is, let’s briefly review the trajectory of concerns thus far.

Players first drawing attention were those in mid-career and stumbling – Drouin, Dadonov, Armia, Monahan, etc. They had become vulnerable and marginalized in recent years by circumstance and disappointing performances. As the Canadiens were clearly gambling on them, the question from the outset has been “Is this gambit working out or not?”

Most, in that category, have not. Meant to be a supporting cast to add depth to the offense, the Habs’ second and third-liners, whether through poor play or due to injuries, have added very little.

A couple of months into the season, after having ample opportunity to settle in, it was fair that the rookies and other young players came under scrutiny. This vast group has exhibited a wide range of performances; from the impressive, mature skills of Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj to the modest start, then concerning drop-off, of Juraj Slafkovsky. Overall, however, having so many inexperienced players has hamstrung the Canadiens.

In goal, veteran and number-one netminder Jake Allen has been mediocre, if not poor. His save percentage continues to dwindle year after year and he is injury prone. Backup Sam Montembeault has been fairly impressive and doing more than his share under difficult circumstances.

The rest of the lineup, including established veterans Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson, Brendan Gallagher, and the like, have also been average at best.

What most of the above have in common is that any impending roster adjustments that impacts them, including trades, will not shock, surprise, or upset fans and critics.

Slafkovsky, as a first overall draft pick, might be the one player that most would have some difficulty with in terms of trading, but a trade is unlikely at this early stage of his career and, I submit, not even remotely the Canadiens real problem.

Nick Suzuki’s contract is a cause for concern for the Canadiens

Last season, during a Hockey Nation Live Show broadcast on YouTube, a few other viewers and I questioned the appropriateness of Nick Suzuki’s 8-year, 63-million-dollar contract. We were immediately shut down by host Coach Frenchy with the simple fact-of-hockey-life retort that all teams need a number-one center, and the Habs had little choice but to secure Suzuki, and that was that.

Noting the intensity of the rebuttal and having since closely monitored similar discourse, it can be said that Suzuki is something of a golden calf for the Canadiens. He very much represents a fresh start and great potential, and his popularity, in part, could also be due to his persona as a fine young man with a degree of quiet charisma and positivity.

Unfortunately, personal and social qualities have no play on the ice, and the disturbing reality to face is that it may be time to admit that the Habs’ commitment to Nick Suzuki is a significant, if not crippling, mistake.

This season, forty (!) centerman have outscored Suzuki, meaning, among other things, that he would not even be the second center on many teams, let alone the first.

Although in his fourth year, Suzuki is showing little sign of offensive development. The default response to this is that he is limited by a lack of surrounding talent, suggesting he will improve as the roster does.

To a degree, his linemates do matter. If I were his winger, for example, Suzuki would garner zero assists unless pucks deflected in via my body parts. But how do we reconcile that argument with the fact that there are ten players with more points than Suzuki playing on the five teams lower in the standings than the Canadiens?

There are, it is true, some high-profile players that do significantly improve later in their careers as their teams develop. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jeff Skinner, as examples, are greatly benefiting from their clubs’ reconstructions. For the most part, however, what you see is what you get, and I propose the sooner Habs nation acknowledges that success – as in Stanley Cup contender success – will not be in the cards with Suzuki at the helm, the better.

Of course, there is always the possibility he could blossom. But is that a hope worth hanging on to? Or, should the Canadiens instead put their energies into convincing other teams that Suzuki could become a star for them and toss him into the trade pool?

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Before it’s too late, meaning another year to two of underwhelming performance and after which there would be no doubt that Suzuki is not a premier player, the Canadiens should trade him, eating whatever part of his contract they may have to in the process.

Acknowledging the mistake of Suzuki’s contract and dealing with it courageously would not be easy or popular. Still, it’s very much about risk/reward, and if the Canadiens are serious about building a Cup contender, this is needed regardless of how the team’s other areas of weakness are addressed. Even if it turns out Suzuki thrives and rises to great heights elsewhere, it would not negate the wisdom and necessity of a rebuild all-in move that could reap great rewards.

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