Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens finish season with 5-4 shootout loss to Detroit

Montreal Canadiens' Logan Mailloux (94) warms up for his debut NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings in Montreal on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

The 2023-2024 season has concluded for the Montreal Canadiens.

Apart from a full infirmary once again, it was a positive season for the Canadiens as the rebuild continues in earnest. This rebuild is in the best hands of general management that the Canadiens have had since Serge Savard. Kent Hughes is that good.

Game 82 saw the Canadiens and Red Wings play another dandy with Detroit winning in a shootout 5-4. Montreal had 27 one-goal losses this season.

Wilde Horses

The future looks so bright on defence. The next wave had a chance to shine the last two games, and did they ever. It was expected that Lane Hutson might need a year’s worth of seasoning in the minors, but judging from the two games he played, that needs to be reassessed.

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Hutson looked extremely comfortable at the NHL level. He logged over 22 minutes of ice on Monday, and on Tuesday, he was on for 23:32. He made outstanding plays all over the sheet.

When Hutson was on the ice with the Nick Suzuki line, the Canadiens were a handful in the Detroit zone. He read their actions beautifully, finding freeing passes often.

Hutson finally got to show his skills on the power play and he lived up to the advanced billing.  On one rush, he won the offensive zone by easily confusing three players. Hutson moved around two and backed another one off, before finally feeding it to a teammate.

These are the skills that the Canadiens hoped he could translate to the pro game, and in two contests, he had no difficulty at all. In the third period, Hutson held the puck for eight seconds, weaving through every single Wings player. He eventually got off a shot in the slot that was barely stopped. It was sensational. The crowd was buzzing.

On his next shift, he was buzzing so brilliantly at the blue line that he actually made David Perron do a 360. Perron then just stepped back and gave up. He gave up. Hutson shot it toward goal where Juraj Slafkovsky deflected it.

For Slafkovsky, it was goal number 20. He was mobbed by his teammates. It was significant, as that was the goal that kicked in his performance bonus of $250,000. Hutson was the architect of the goal. He was magnificent.

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As far as Hutson’s play on defence, he wasn’t challenged that much in his second game. Again, he looked exactly like he did at Boston University. No difficulties at all. He won’t be in Laval next season. He’s too good.

Logan Mailloux played his first NHL game on Tuesday as a reward for an outstanding season in Laval. Mailloux, one of the top defenders in the American Hockey League, has a big shot, and he uses his big frame in an imposing manner.

Mailloux is prone to the odd gaffe defensively, but the base of being a top-four defender in the NHL is talent while the improved decision-making is the solidifier to work on over time. Mailloux has all the offensive skill necessary to be a strong NHL defender.

Just like Hutson on Monday night, Mailloux also got an assist in his first period of NHL hockey. It wasn’t as pretty as Hutson’s deking three players, but he did start a two-on-one rush with an outlet pass to Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher then perfectly set up Alex Newhook, who fired it home.

Both Newhook and Gallagher have been hot in the last dozen, scoring a point per game as they seem to be getting excited about next season already. Newhook set a career high in goals and points this season. Not bad for player who missed a third of the year.

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Gallagher also showed that he is far from done with his second half of the season. Gallagher scored two Monday and added another on Tuesday to finish with 16 goals on the season. For a player without much power play time, 16 is a solid total.

The Suzuki line got its customary goal as well. Suzuki the helper finished his season with 77 points, easily eclipsing his best 66 last year. Not quite a point-per-game player, but next season, it feels as if he will attain it.

Cole Caufield had the goal to finish his disappointing (sic) season with 28 goals. If only everyone’s seasons could be so disappointing. The line finished the season with 53 goals in its last 41 games. The Canadiens are on the verge of having their first 100-goal line since Bellows-Damphousse-Mullen in 1993.

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The big negative to come out of the final day of the season is that Kaiden Guhle confirmed that he did suffer a concussion. Guhle hasn’t been in the lineup since being hit from behind by Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was a dirty hit that the NHL did nothing about; neither did the teammates of the Canadiens who let Kucherov skate freely after hitting Guhle between the numbers. That is the second concussion that Guhle has suffered this season. The cumulative effects of concussions is the greatest danger, and that Guhle so needlessly suffered another one is concerning.

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Guhle is feeling better, but not so well to play in the final game of the season. He has been asked to play for Canada at the upcoming world championships. Guhle has accepted the invitation, but will only play if he feels healthy.

The worlds are in Czechia beginning on May 10th.

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Call of the Wilde

Arber Xhekaj also met the media before the contest. The big reveal in that interview was that Xhekaj played just about the entire season with an injured shoulder. He also admitted that he kept the injury a secret from the Canadiens training staff.

Xhekaj wanted to play hockey, but that is not advised. Doctors will tell you if you can do long-term damage by playing. That’s advice to be heeded. Thankfully, Xhekaj will be ready for next season.

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An unusual negative is that the Canadiens’ point earned made it more difficult to enter the lottery as the fifth seed. To get the five-spot, the Coyotes must, at least, tie in their last ever contest in Arizona. The Coyotes will host the Edmonton Oilers. The Canadiens are guaranteed, at least, the six spot after Ottawa won in Boston.

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The Canadiens are close to coming out of this rebuild. They still need 50 to 60 goals, and they should get a large portion of that with the emergence of a second line next season led by a healthy Kirby Dach. They also will have Joshua Roy return from injury, and Alex Newhook’s situation stabilize with regular linemates, and a move to his more comfortable position on the wing.

The club will also draft somewhere from five to eight which will also lead to a big improvement as the talent at the forward position is outstanding this draft. Barring the Canadiens winning the lottery to acquire Macklin Celebrini, they would look to Ivan Demidov, Cayden Lindstrom, Berkly Catton, Tij Iginla, and even Cole Eiserman to add goals in the coming years.

However, they may not actually use that top pick, and they might not use the pick acquired from the Winnipeg Jets, either. GM Kent Hughes may opt to acquire proven NHL talent with his first-round picks. He also may use his surplus of talent on the blue line to improve the roster dramatically this summer.

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The Canadiens have 12 bona fide NHL defenders, but only six place settings for them. Couple this with a shortage of high-quality forwards, and the idea that there could be major moves is one that must be heeded.

Listening to all of the conversations that owner Geoff Molson is having with various media outlets, it is quite apparent that the organization feels that they are close to making moves to turn futures into now. Montreal has a massive amount of assets, but they lack a star.

The Canadiens have more cap space than they need, and if they don’t play the market this season, then the following year a player like Leon Draisaitl would end the rebuild and start the excitement. The free agent market is calling for Hughes to strike at the right moment.

The players have to want to come, and that is the best news that there is in this new regime. Whereas the past regimes had sentences like, ‘if you want loyalty, get a dog’, this management team treats the players with so much respect that around the league, momentum is building that Montreal is a destination to find a great environment.

This wasn’t always such an important aspect in the days of Michel Therrien, but in today’s world it matters greatly. Martin St. Louis is a coach that players want to be near. The league scuttlebutt is that St. Louis creates an environment where learning and growing are the building blocks to wins and titles. There’s no tough love, just love.

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Hughes has earned a reputation as a tough negotiator, but also as a man who values people. It may sound bizarre to say about a team that finished near the bottom of the standings that the future is looking brighter now than it has at any time this century, but that is the truth.

Have a great summer. Thank you for reading. Without you, the Call of the Wilde exists only in my head.

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

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Call of the Wilde

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