The Montreal Canadiens conclude their play before the All-Star break with a home and home against the Ottawa Senators. Night one Saturday in Ottawa had the Senators skating to a 5-0 win.
Rebuilding seasons are not about wins and losses. They are about development. They are about building a foundation toward something sustainably great.
With that in mind, let’s assess the Canadiens’ season, because it has been simply phenomenal. In fact, so phenomenal, they are not losing enough games. However, that’s a fine balance. A GM wants to get another high draft pick, but he also needs to see the foundation grow. And grow it has.
Kirby Dach has eight points in his last nine games. He is having a breakout season. He was drafted third overall for a reason. He had a serious wrist injury that made him struggle for a reason. Now he is arriving in a big way.
Dach is a true centre. He is a possession monster. His shot share in this contest was 75 per cent. Imagine when he is able to exit and enter the zone as effectively as he does, but after taking care of all of that business, he passes it to outstanding wingers.
The next generation of wingers is coming for Dach to shine with, to continue the outstanding plays that he starts. Imagine the domination that Dach with two high-quality wingers could bring to the Canadiens. Dach is a foundational piece.
Another player having the best season in his career is Nick Suzuki. He has slowed down recently, but he is still having a career year, and improvements should continue at his age.
Cole Caufield is another foundational piece as he was set for a 46-goal campaign at his pace but he was removed from the line-up to have shoulder surgery before he suffered more damage. In an outstanding article from Arpon Basu at The Athletic, it was learned that Caufield could have suffered permanent damage if he continued to play, according to doctors.
Caufield dislocated his shoulder in two different games and popped it back in so he could continue to play. Doctors say that Caufield has a 90 to 95 per cent chance of returning to play with the same range and power on his shot. Caufield is another foundational piece.
Beyond that, there are many more who potentially could be foundational pieces to a sustainably winning team: Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, Jonathan Kovacevic, Mike Matheson, Justin Barron, and Juraj Slafkovsky.
Rafael Harvey-Pinard could be a fourth line player on the future Habs as well.
Finally, to the goalie who has suddenly turned into one of the best in hockey for the last dozen games: Samuel Montembeault entered the season as a question mark. He leaves the season as the future number two goalie, and if he can continue to sustain a remarkable .930 save percentage, then with that number, he is a number one.
That’s a lot of good happening in a year, despite what the standings show. It is not a bad year. GM Kent Hughes has discovered a first line centre, five capable NHL defenders, and a suddenly strong goalie.
That’s a terrific year. Now, if they could just knock it off for a little bit, so they can pick top five at the highly touted NHL draft this summer to add yet another foundational piece.
This is exactly what you want in a rebuilding year.
The Canadiens actually held the advantage in expected goals for much of this contest. Sometimes, the final score is not always a perfect reflection of the actual run of play. Ottawa was opportunistic while Montreal was stymied.
Montreal was a one line hockey team with Kirby Dach’s dominance down the middle leading to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov having a 75 per cent share.
There is a bit of concern that Suzuki is struggling. However, he is without Caufield, so there’s a clear reason for lower output for an extended period. Suzuki also faces top opposition, and he may be overused at 22 minutes per game.
Not much to be overly negative about though. Ottawa found the net. Montreal could not get any puck luck. This is hockey. The score is all that counts, but it isn’t always an exact barometer of how the game went.
“He’s super smart. He has a lot of intangibles that will serve him well in the NHL. I”m excited to see him.”
Those were the thoughts of budding star Kirby Dach when he spoke of Owen Beck. The Dach thoughts say it all because he has described exactly why Beck was the emergency call-up to fill out the roster for the Canadiens.
Montreal was allowed to call up a junior player mid-season because of a little-used rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that only kicks in if a club is as injury-riddled as Montreal has been. The Canadiens have been going with 11 forwards for two weeks. It’s not a recipe for long-term success.
The club could have given Filip Mesar his first game in the NHL, or Joshua Roy would have made sense as well because of his success at the World Junior Championship. Roy would have also been a more expected choice because he is 19 years old and two years out from the draft.
However, to the coaching staff and management, Beck was the choice to play his first because he has the more mature game of the three forwards who could have been called up.
What a whirlwind for Beck in the month of January. He was called upon to fill in for Canada at the Worlds when they suffered injuries as well. He turned that opportunity into being a vital part of the playoff round of the tournament that ended with a gold medal around his neck.
A short time later, he was traded from the Misssassaugua Steelheads to the Peterborough Petes as they load up for a playoff run. He only just started to get comfortable there, and already another change of scenery.
But what a scene for an 18-year-old to get this opportunity to show what he can do. The stat line for Beck is, of course, modest considering it was his first NHL game.
Beck played nine minutes and ten seconds on 13 shifts. All in all, acceptable numbers for a player who could be one of the best third line centres in hockey in five years. This one was simply to get a little experience.
Beck does not have the necessary skills to be a top-six forward most likely, but he does have the intelligence to be one of the best shutdown centres, and that’s a requirement on any good NHL team.
It isn’t just about outscoring the other club with your best players. It is also about shutting down the other club’s best players. That is what Beck has the skill set to do. He could be an outstanding player in his role.