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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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.