Let’s assess the mess new Canadiens GM Hughes must clean up

Here’s the thing about changing your GM: they still have to deal with the decisions the fired executive left behind. So, sure, Marc Bergevin is no longer Canadiens GM, but Kent Hughes isn’t just charged with putting his own stamp on the Habs. He also has to deal with Bergevin’s baggage.

And, frankly, you might need Bergevin’s biceps to be able carry those bags. Perhaps that’s why, at the highest executive level, running the Canadiens is a two-man job between Hughes and Jeff Gorton?

Let’s break down the many questions plaguing the Canadiens, rummage through the rubble of the Bergevin regime, and try to guess at some early (2022 NHL Trade Deadline?) steps for Hughes, Gorton, and the rest of the Habs staff.

Bergevin leaves Hughes, Gorton, Canadiens with very few boxes checked

Think about the elements of a successful NHL team. While it’s possible that things may look better for the Canadiens down the line, right now, they’re flooded with questions and dry for answers.

Dominique Ducharme is far from a sure thing as an NHL head coach

Jeff Gorton stated that Ducharme would remain as Habs head coach for the rest of this season. But that’s about it. And, while some will point to Ducharme being behind the bench for (most of) the Canadiens’ 2020 Stanley Cup Final run, the failures of this season loom large.

Unclear situation for Carey Price, Canadiens goaltending

Following a profoundly redemptive playoff run, Carey Price hasn’t played a single game this season. To the start the season, Price entered the player assistance program, and may or may not be rehabbing a knee injury on what could be a long road back to playing again.

Even if you assume that Carey Price can return — possibly late this season, next season, or so on — he’s 34, and has mostly struggled in recent years. His $10.5 million salary cap hit runs through the 2025-26 season.

Jake Allen, 31, appears to be a fine platoon option, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be part of a long-term fix.

While Montreal may have a deep pool of goalie prospects, it’s no guarantee that there’s quality to go with the quantity. It all shapes up to a very unclear (but not exactly cheap) situation in net.

Few reasons for optimism on defense

While Price has been out all season so far, the Canadiens indicated that Shea Weber may never play again. Sadly, the main questions may revolve around whether his contract lands on LTIR, or Montreal ships that deal to Nashville (as the Predators may fear recapture penalties re: retirement).

Either way, you can more or less mark off 36-year-old Shea Weber.

Surveying the rest of the Canadiens’ defense, the picture isn’t pretty.

  • If you’re charting Marc Bergevin’s peak moments as Canadiens GM, it won’t take long to reach trading for Jeff Petry, and signing him to a bargain extension in 2015. At 34, Petry’s likely worth his current $6.25M cap hit. But will he be worth that much through 2024-25, and how long will it take for the Habs to get back on track? If there’s a trade market for Jeff Petry, and the Canadiens can work with his no-trade clause, then it might be best to move him before the rest of the league sours on him.
  • Really, that goes for just about any Canadiens defenseman. This is an aging group, with term in basically all the wrong places. If you can trade Petry, Ben Chiarot (30), Joel Edmundson (28), and if you’re really lucky, David Savard (31), then you do it. Not much is sacred with that group. Savvier teams may come across similar findings to this Evolving Hockey XGAR chart, especially as time goes on.
Let's assess the mess new Canadiens GM Hughes must clean up Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

Areas where Hughes, Gorton, Canadiens have more hope to improve

So, if you’re Hughes, Gorton, and the Canadiens, what do you do next? Besides maybe cry for a minute?

A matter of emphasis in development, coaching?

During his introductory press conference, Hughes spoke about how he’d like to emphasize offense as Canadiens GM.

Anecdotally, critics believed that the Canadiens focused too much on what prospects couldn’t do, rather than developing with an eye toward emphasizing strengths. That’s an area where new Habs management can change things.

That can go for an approach at the head coach level, all the way down different chains of development. Amid tough seasons, maybe players like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield need less “tough love,” and more confidence-boosting? Do they need a Bruce Boudreau-style boost?

This may be one of the areas where Montreal hopes Hughes can be to the Canadiens what Bill Zito’s regime has been for the Panthers.

Look back at how coaches like John Tortorella fixated on the bad instead of the good with a player like Anthony Duclair. Duclair rebounded quite a bit with the Senators, but then really took off with the Panthers. At some point, you stop being lucky to unearth unappreciated players, and instead spotlight the difference between optimizing and minimizing.

Right now, the outlook is less bullish about Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Yet, both players possess the sort of tools and are young enough to work out this. Having a positive coach, and a supportive organization, could increase their chances for success. (And the same goes for other prospects.)

With that in mind, it’s key to determine if Dominique Ducharme is the right head coach for that approach, and on down the line.

Canadiens should sell aggressively at 2022 NHL Trade Deadline

Another key near-future Canadiens phase is the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. This may be where Hughes, Gorton, and the rest of the Canadiens can flex their muscles (maybe that will be figuratively impressive where it’s literally impressive with Bergevin?).

  • First, there’s the easy stuff. Rental options like Ben Chiarot could fetch decent returns.
  • What about shaking loose of other investments? Teams might be more interested in Petry and others with term during the offseason, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Or to dangle the possibility of some salary retention.
  • Truly, no stone should go unturned. Tyler Toffoli still boasts value at 29, and his contract is a pretty hilarious bargain. But would those strengths yield a trade return that would make more sense to the Canadiens? Probably, especially if they’re embracing at least a semi-rebuild.

A tough job, but fortunes can change quickly in the NHL, and sports in general

Honestly, right now, the Canadiens look like a mess. Hence the headline.

Yet, over the years, teams have surprised. The Ducks appear to be a year or even two ahead of schedule. Instead of rebuilding, the Wild seized on Kirill Kaprizov‘s arrival, and look legit (although that could change if they don’t manage things well post-buyouts). A steadfast rebuilding approach can look promising (Red Wings) or a bit grim (Senators).

Really, the Canadiens can attest to the big shoulder shrug that is hockey results. Last season, they were three wins short of a Stanley Cup after firing their coach and finishing with the North Division’s final playoff spot. This season, they fired their GM and look adrift.

It won’t be easy for Hughes to steer the Canadiens the right way as GM. Maybe that will be part of the fun for the former player agent?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For: