For many, looking at the Montreal Canadiens’ situation from afar, they would classify it as a “rebuild.” After appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals in the shortened 2020-21 season, the team was eager to repeat their success, but instead found themselves in the basement of the NHL standings. Not only that, it began to appear more and more clear that future Hall of Fame goaltender Carey Price would be sidelined long-term, if not for good. Losing their once-in-a-generation netminder would seem to make it all the more clear that this was a rebuild.
On Tuesday, Canadiens GM Kent Hughes discussed the state of the franchise with Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic. Hughes said that early on after being hired (Hughes was named General Manage on January 18th of this year), he and his boss, Jeff Gorton, had declined to put any sort of label on their plans, whether that be a rebuild, a retool, a reset, or something else. However, when pressed by LeBrun about whether Price’s status impacts the direction of Montreal’s plans, Hughes said “I think so” before adding, “[I]f we had a fully healthy Carey Price,” then remarking that they did owe it to Price to try and remain competitive.
While Hughes still failed to put a label on their plans, being without Price for the 2022-23 season and likely beyond seems to push Montreal closer to a more conventional rebuild. Had Price been healthy and the the player everyone has come to expect, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Montreal, with a few changes, could become competitive rather easily. Now, without a game-changer like Price, Montreal could opt to change course and take things slow.
When it comes to labeling the team’s process, one might wonder why the team would avoid doing so, and that reasoning could, of course, simply be subjective. On his reasoning, Hughes says, “people can put different connotations on what a rebuild means versus a reset or a re-tool. To me, they’re just words.” Instead, Hughes added, it’s more about trying to build something while not limiting his flexibility as far as conforming to the timeline and process that his words have put him into.
That seems to make the most sense for any team in this sort of situation, but especially the Canadiens. For one, there is a chance, albeit small, they could have Price back in the future. Second, this group has recently had great success. And third, although the team finished dead last in the entire league last season, there was a noticeable positive change after current head coach Martin St. Louis replaced Dominique Ducharme behind the bench, not to mention their injury situation, which was among the worst in the NHL.
Some might worry that Hughes’ unwillingness to put a label on the process constitutes unwarranted optimism that there may be no long-term tear down or protecting his and the team’s image as they prepare for a long-term teardown, and that concern may be fair. However, consider a similar situation that played out a few hundred miles south of Montreal with the New York Rangers. Recall in early 2018 when Rangers management, including Gorton himself, somewhat infamously issued a statement to fans, essentially advising them of a full-scale rebuild after years of success.
Many feared the worst after the team had traded an overwhelming majority of its prospects and draft picks in the years prior. But, the organization was able to hit on a number of their draft picks, many of which they acquired when they traded away veterans from their team. They were also fortunate to score in the draft lottery by securing a first and second overall pick, used to select Alexis Lafreniere in 2020 and Kaapo Kakko in 2019, respectively. Add on to that the acquisition of Adam Fox, who developed into a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and the emergence of superstar netminder Igor Shesterkin. Perhaps most notable was, just 17 months after their announcement of a rebuild, the team signed superstar Artemi Panarin to a blockbuster deal.
Two seasons after that announcement, the Rangers found themselves as a play-in team in the 2020 bubble; three years later, they were in the playoff hunt up until the last week or so of the regular season; and four years after, they were big-time buyers at the trade deadline, gearing up for a Stanley Cup run. Sure, the Rangers were far more clear about their intentions (not many teams explicitly state their intention in a letter to fans either), but Hughes vagueness could give him the opportunity to assess his situation as it progresses and see where it fits. Perhaps there’s more good fortune beyond number one overall selection Juraj Slafkovsky and the process is accelerated like in New York; perhaps it’s a little longer and more deliberate like that of the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings; or perhaps it’s a drawn out, full-scale rebuild like the Arizona Coyotes. For now though, based on Hughes’ comments, flexibility in the process will be the name of the game in Montreal.