The Montreal Canadiens weren't planning to compete for the Stanley Cup in 2022-2023, but their young squad hoped to see some improvement. Instead, the team finished last in their division with a 31-45-6 record, which was fifth-worst in the league. Heading into the season, inexperience among their skaters and subpar goaltending had experts projecting that the team would see some struggles. The Canadiens didn't have the depth to compete in a stacked Atlantic Division, and injuries to some of their best skaters would prove to be their downfall. Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, Juraj Slafkovsky, Sean Monahan, Mike Matheson, and Jake Evans all missed extended periods with injuries. Despite the injuries, Dach, Caufield, and Matheson all finished in the top five in scoring on the team. Let's look at some storylines heading into the Canadiens training camp.
Slafkovsky needs to prove himself in training camp
Juraj Slafkovsky was a controversial first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL entry draft. The draft was in hockey-mad Montreal, and all the fans anticipated a selection of Canadian star Shane Wright. Talks began to pick up pre-draft that the Canadiens had zeroed in on Slafkovsky to be their first pick, but it was still up in the air. Many fans in the stands who already had Shane Wright jerseys were left in shock as the team chose Slafkovsky. The choice was based on two good tournaments from Slafkovsky, the 2022 Winter Olympics and Men's World Hockey Championship. Many scouts were buzzing about the prospect, as he had an NHL-ready body and a deft scoring touch. However, when he made his way to North America, his NHL-ready body proved unready for the physicality.
By January last season, Slafkovsky had participated in 39 games and tallied 10 points. He averaged 12 minutes of ice time per game, the lowest among Canadiens players. Montreal is generally an overreactive city with its hockey team, and there were already cries of the young Slovakian being a bust. Slafkovsky sustained an injury, and his lower-body ailment was slated to need a 12-week recovery period. This would be the end of a disappointing rookie season. A saving grace for Slafkovsky was the slow development of Shane Wright, which helped not pressure him any further. The debut of Logan Cooley this year in Arizona, whom the Canadiens also passed on, may have Canadiens' fans in an uproar again. The 19-year-old will have to prove himself in Canadiens training camp in hopes of kickstarting a solid sophomore campaign.
A goalie needs to step up in training camp
In a cruel twist of fate for the Canadiens, they are left looking for goaltending to help their talented skater group. Carey Price led Canadiens teams to success without much help in the skater department for years. The goalie would regularly steal games for the Canadiens, and Montreal fans would beg the front office to get him some scoring help. Price's swansong was in the 2021 playoffs when he led a less-talented team to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Canadiens were a few pieces away from being Stanley Cup contenders. However, Price heroically stole series from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Vegas Golden Knights before eventually losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Price had accumulated injuries in the playoff run that needed some time to recover, couple that with off-ice issues and Price has only played five games since the playoff run.
The Canadiens didn't stand a chance last season with all their injuries, but their goaltending didn't help. Samuel Montembeault emerged as a possible option for the Canadiens, but he only managed to post a .901 save percentage and 3.42 goals against average. The Canadiens have made it clear that they are interested in getting Jake Allen more playing time this season, but his 3.55 goals against average and .891 save percentage last season is far from appealing. The Canadiens will fail to be a legitimate contender until they shore up their goaltending situation. Who knows whether that will be internally or with a trade, but their internal options don't look great.
Did they add enough?
The Canadiens Executive VP Jeff Gorton has made it clear that the team is still in rebuilding mode. It is unlikely that the city of Montreal will accept losing much longer, so they will need to soon get to a playoff level. The team is much healthier going into training camp, and have also bolstered their lineup through trades and signings this offseason. Alex Newhook, Tanner Pearson, and Gustav Lindstrom will get their first taste of the Canadiens training camp. Being a part of the Montreal Canadiens can be a tall task for some, but these have experienced a lot in their careers.
Newhook is a Stanley Cup champion with the Colorado Avalanche and can contribute to the top six. Pearson is a veteran winger who will help to shore up the team's depth in the bottom six. Lindstrom is an NHL-ready defenseman who will challenge for a spot out of camp and be one of the first call-ups when needed. It's unlikely that this team is ready to contend on paper, but their young core can make some noise in the coming years. The great hockey fans of Montreal shouldn't have to wait much longer to continue with one of the best playoff atmospheres in sports.
Final projected roster
Forwards: Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, Alex Newhook, Juraj Slafkovsky, Kirby Dach, Josh Anderson, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Sean Monahan, Brendan Gallagher, Tanner Pearson, Jake Evans, Michael Pezzetta, Joel Armia
Defensemen: Michael Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, David Savard, Jordan Harris, Johnathan Kovacevic, Justin Barron
Goalies: Samuel Montembeault, Jake Allen