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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens come back to beat San Jose Sharks

It was a must-win for the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal had a chance to be one point out of the playoffs at the American Thanksgiving break. Most of the time, if a club is in the playoffs at Thanksgiving, that club makes the playoffs. The Canadiens are one point out of the playoffs after a 3-2 shootout win.

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The Canadiens had only two good sequences in the first two periods, but at least the right player was a main catalyst.

Juraj Slafkovsky led a 2-on-1 rush. The defender took away the pass. Slafkovsky shot. He’s been reluctant to shoot, so it was good to see him take the right option.

However, the shot wasn’t much as he fired it essentially right into the torso of Mackenzie Blackwood who didn’t have to move to make the save. A pro shooter has to be finding a corner with a big amount of time.

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Still, no one will deny the follow-up from Slafkovsky after the shot. The puck came back to the Slovakian and he made an amazing pass to Cole Caufield cross-ice. Caufield should have counted on the pass. It was a no-look pass through three players. It was one of the best passes of Slafkovsky’s career, if not the best.

The other top moment was a big one for Jayden Struble. In only his second NHL game, Struble got his first NHL point. It was a cross-point pass to Jonathan Kovacevic who roofed the shot.  Struble did an outstanding job selling he would take the shot. He put his body in a position to shoot and looked squarely at the goalie. That opened up the ice for Kovacevic to make it count. Deception is often the start of success at the NHL level.

It should also be noted that on the Canadiens opening goal Slafkovsky was setting a great screen, annoying the Sharks defenders who could not clear him out. Slafkovsky is getting more implicated in the play. Good moments are becoming more common for the sophomore.

Slafkovsky did great work on the tying goal in the third period as well. He finished a tremendous shift with the outlet pass to free Caufield on a 2-on-1. Caufield fired a well-placed howitzer into the top corner to improve his mysteriously low shooting percentage. Two points on the day for Caufield.

The game went to overtime where Slafkovsky got on the ice and played strong. It’s the first time that Head Coach Martin St. Louis had the confidence to use Slafkovsky 3-on-3. He also got to take a shot in the shootout. Slafkovsky had the goalie on the wrong side of the net when his deke was finished, but then he hit the outside of the post.

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The Canadiens won the shootout on their sixth shot as Jesse Ylonen came through with an amazing move that left Blackwood looking lost. Nick Suzuki did the same move as he continues to be one of the most electrifying shootout players in all of hockey.

The final piece of the puzzle in the comeback win was Cayden Primeau. Montreal was terrible the first half of the game, but Primeau kept it a contest. He stopped 31 of 33 shots, then stopped five of six shots in the shootout. Primeau is looking more and more comfortable at the NHL level. He would not clear the waiver wire, if they tried to send him down. He’s arriving finally.

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The Canadiens had a terrible time finding their legs in the first two periods. They only generated two chances in the entire first 40 minutes. The Sharks had not outshot their opposition their entire season, but outshot Montreal 33-24.

For Montreal, it was one of those games that made it feel like more is needed from this rebuild despite the win, so straight to the rebuild in the Wilde Cards.

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Statistically, 70 per cent of the stars in the NHL are taken in the top-ten picks in the entry draft. By the end of the first round, 97 per cent of the players picked will, at best, be a back-of-the-roster players.

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Right now, GM Kent Hughes is trying to conclude a rebuild that gives the Canadiens a best chance for Stanley Cup glory. His work so far suggests a massive number of prospects.

For example, everyone of these blue liners has NHL calibre talent: Kaiden Guhle, Mike Matheson, Justin Barron, Jonathan Kovacevic, David Savard, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, Jayden Struble, Logan Mailloux, Lane Hutson, and David Reinbacher.

That’s a quick 11, without even diving deep, for names like William Trudeau or Mattias Norlinder, who also may be NHL regulars. There is absolutely no need to add more prospects that top out at anything but an excellent chance of becoming a star.

The same situation presents at the forward ranks for the Canadiens where there is zero difficulty finding depth players to fill out a roster with names like Filip Mesar, Owen Beck, Joshua Roy and Sean Farrell.  However, this is roster riches; it is not star riches.

The Canadiens lack stars at the forward position.

This is why when looking at a possible trade of Samuel Montembeault for a first round draft choice, or perhaps Sean Monahan or even Mike Matheson, you have to ask where is that first rounder placed.

The reports out of Edmonton when examining a trade that includes their first rounder mentions say that it would be protected. That likely means if the Oilers were to draft ninth, then you would not get that pick. It would default to a year that they were successful, and the pick would end up being around 25th overall.

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This is a massively different outcome for the Canadiens, if they were to trade with Edmonton. Montreal doesn’t need more third liners picked 25th. What they need is that top 10 pick so they can add a star to the roster.

If the trade with the Oilers is top-ten protected, the star that the Canadiens should keep is Montembeault himself. He’s the budding NHL goalie who is top-15 in goals saved above expected for the last two seasons. Montembeault is the player worth investing in over a back-roster hopeful draft pick.

The goal for the Canadiens as they move forward here is a simple one. The defence is taken care of. They have two probable first pair defenders already in Matheson and Guhle. They have two strong hopefuls to come in Hutson and Reinbacher. They get lucky and strong development continues for Mailloux or Barron, and the Canadiens could have one extremely talented blue line in 2025.

However, the picture up front is not at all rosy. Among the forwards, there are three top-six players and none of them would one call elite and dominant. The three are Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach. None of them are point-per-game players yet. None are in the realm of even a Tim Stutzle, never mind a Connor McDavid. Offensively, this rebuild project is not close to done.

The Canadiens must find offence. They must find 50 goals. They are not finding a star with the 25th pick. Certainly, one loves to point out the Nikita Kucherovs of the world, and it is fun to play that game in an argument, but the math is 97 per cent in favour of not finding that Kucherov at the 25th pick.

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How will the Canadiens achieve their offensive dream of moving from 230 goals a season to an absolutely necessary 280 should they want to vie for a championship?

There are three options to improve a roster: by trade, by draft, and by free agent signing.

By trade, Hughes could try to leverage his depth on the blue line to acquire a 30- to 35-goal winger.  By draft, a top-ten pick appears on the way this summer with Hughes needing to target 35 goals.  By free agent signing, the Canadiens have a lot of money in cap space and a player’s coach in Martin St. Louis to help the sales pitch.

The possibility also exists that the roster already has some of those 50 goals needed with hopeful development of Juraj Slafkovsky and/or Alex Newhook. Overall, the goal for Hughes is clear, as is the pathway. The pathway should not include Matheson or Montembeault being traded for the 25th pick overall. The draft math does not work.

Montembeault is a top-15 goalie in the league. Matheson plays 28 minutes per game. Keep the star you have already obtained over a bad math roll of the dice. Acquire the 50 goals needed over the course of time in one of the three ways possible. It’s the patient route, and it’s the smarter route.

Find 50 goals overall, and in 2025-26, you will find a very exciting team to watch in Montreal.

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Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.

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