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.

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    Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Jonathan Marchessault scored twice and started an early blitz that chased the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie, and the Vegas Golden Knights seized control of the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-2 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game 2 on Monday night.

    Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Golden Knights, who grabbed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We finished some plays,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s a good performance for us. Our guys were ready to play.”

    Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all coming after the first round.

    Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

    It was too much for Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

    “We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

    Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

    Teams that take a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era. The Panthers will try to buck history beginning with Game 3 on Thursday in Sunrise, Florida.

    Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

    “He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

    The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

    The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

    That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

    Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

    “We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.