Montreal Canadiens hope to take a step next season, but not at expense of long-term plan

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Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis’ contract extended
WATCH: The Montreal Canadiens cleared out their lockers on Wednesday after another disappointing season. But even though the Habs once again failed to make the playoffs, fans remain optimistic about the team's future. Global's Dan Spector reports – Apr 17, 2024

The Montreal Canadiens’ brass is committed to reversing the team’s trend of missing the playoffs.

But general manager Kent Hughes and executive vice-president Jeff Gorton won’t deviate from their long-term plans to do so.

“We don’t have a lineup to win the Stanley Cup, and everyone here is aware of that,” Hughes said Wednesday, as players cleaned out their lockers at Montreal’s practice facility. “And it’s Jeff’s and my responsibility to do everything we can to change that. But it doesn’t happen in 24 hours.”

The Canadiens will miss the playoffs for a third straight season after finishing last in the Atlantic Division with a 30-36-16 record, improving by eight points in the standings compared to a year ago.

Although there’s pressure to make the post-season in one of hockey’s biggest markets, Hughes is taking a measured approach this off-season.

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“We’ve improved from year to year and we expect there to be an improvement. How big that is, we’ll see,” he said. “I read (team owner) Geoff Molson said we’d like to be in the mix, and I think that’s a fair characterization. Whether we push it over the threshold or not, I don’t know, but we need to be better.

“We’re going to try to do what we can, but we won’t do it at the expense of this long-term plan.”

Montreal ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in goals for and against, and both special teams entering Wednesday’s NHL action.

Click to play video: 'Call of the Wilde'
Call of the Wilde

But Hughes and Gorton believe their team is on the right track in its rebuild thanks to the development of their core players, including Juraj Slafkovsky, captain Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield flashing their potential as a top line for years to come.

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They also noted the progress of Kaiden Guhle and Mike Matheson, who became the first Canadiens defenceman to break 60 points since P.K. Subban in 2014-15, and Sam Montembeault and Cayden Primeau becoming a dependable goalie tandem.

Hughes identified adding offensive talent beyond Montreal’s top line, increasing the team’s physicality and improving special teams as his next objectives.

The Canadiens are also well aware they have the capital to make moves with 12 picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts and a logjam of young talent on defence.

“If there’s a free agent out there, a great one that can really help us, we’ll be looking. If there’s a trade, we’ve made a number of trades since we got here that helped that, I think move it along,” Gorton said.

The players don’t believe they’re far removed from playing well into the spring.
“We’re definitely not that far off from being a playoff team and competing for the Stanley Cup,” Suzuki said. “So that’s our goal definitely going into next season.”

Slafkovsky’s turnaround

Juraj Slafkovsky’s turnaround is one of the most significant developments for the Canadiens this season.

Drafted first overall in 2022, the 20-year-old Slafkovsky struggled to one goal and one assist in 15 games after an underwhelming rookie campaign. Since Feb. 6, however, the six-foot-three, 230-pound forward produced 30 points in 33 games, effectively squashing concerns he may not develop into a player worthy of a top pick.

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“He’s gonna be a top-five winger in the league,” Suzuki said. “He’s got everything. He’s gonna get more confident, get bigger, stronger, faster — and that’s pretty scary.”

Suzuki takes a step

The Canadiens have lacked elite offensive production in recent decades, but Nick Suzuki showed this season they may finally have a true top centre.

Montreal’s 24-year-old captain took another step in his development with career-highs of 33 goals and 77 points, the second-most productive season by a Canadiens player since the turn of the century.

“On the ice, yes we saw a big progression from Nick again as a player, and I think also in the room,” Hughes said. “I saw it in Boston with Patrice Bergeron. He continued to learn how to be the best captain possible, and I see a lot of similarities in their personalities.”

“He showed his ability to be in a No. 1 centre for this franchise. So that’s huge for us,” added Gorton.

St. Louis here to stay

The Canadiens exercised the two-year option of the contract of head coach Martin St. Louis, committing him to the team for the next three seasons.

Montreal brought in St. Louis on an interim basis following Dominique Ducharme’s dismissal in February 2022.

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The 48-year-old from Laval, Que., has a 75-100-26 record as head coach while the Canadiens undergo a rebuild.

“We all love him,” Slafkovsky said. “He’s just, I would say, too smart — all his ideas and everything. It’s just great to see someone who’s looking at the game that way. And it’s, yeah, it’s great to have someone like who gives you new ideas every day.”

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