Five Canadiens storylines ahead of 2022-23 season: Could Suzuki wear the 'C'?

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki skates prior to NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers in Montreal, Saturday, January 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens captain.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

We’ll find out by the first week of October if the Canadiens agree. They’re expected to appoint a new leader before the 2022-23 season gets underway, and they have to decide if they want to saddle a 23-year-old who’s entering the first of an eight-year, $63-million contract with that type of pressure—if they’re prepared to make Suzuki’s name synonymous with the big ones that have come before on the illustrious list of Canadiens captains.

It’s an honour and a privilege to serve in the role once expertly commandeered by Gainey, Beliveau and Richard, among others.

But the captaincy, and all it entails—being the face of this historic franchise in a white-hot market, being the spokesperson for the players, being the ultimate teammate on and off the ice, being the leader of the room and the go-to player in the pivotal moments of games—can be a crushing burden.

Do the Canadiens believe Suzuki can avoid having it become one right now?

Management holds him in the highest regard, the coaching staff respects him immensely, and the players feel he’s made for the role.

We think back to what longtime Suzuki teammate Ben Chiarot said about the London, Ont., native upon being traded to the Florida Panthers at last season’s deadline and consider it congruent with how most the players in Montreal feel.

“He’s as talented as anyone in the NHL and mature beyond his 22 years,” Chiarot told us in an exclusive interview. “I see him being a leader here for a long time; being a top player and obviously the face of the franchise here. I see a passing of the torch from Shea (Weber) and Carey (Price) to Nick. That’s how I see it going, and I can’t think of someone better suited for it considering how mature he is and how he handles himself.

“In my mind, he’ll be the captain.”

Whether or not Suzuki is prepared to assume the role immediately is the question.

Brendan Gallagher, who’s been a heart-and-soul player for the Canadiens since 2013, is as viable a candidate as the team has if they wish to ease Suzuki into position more gradually.

If Gallagher is willing to keep this seat warm, he could be who they turn to.

Joel Edmundson, who stepped into the void left by Weber last season, has two years left on his contract (three years less than Gallagher) and, as a result, could be the best option to buy Suzuki just a bit more time.

But there’s ample reason to believe he doesn’t need it. Suzuki has shown he thrives under pressure—he’s a player with a higher point-per-game percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than in the regular season—and making him captain now could bring out the best in him.

Until the decision gets made, no Canadiens story will be more compelling.

But here are four others we’ll be keeping a close eye on this season.

Where will Juraj Slafkovsky play?

The Canadiens have already said it’ll be in Quebec, but there’s no telling how long the first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft will be in Montreal.

With the exception of Owen Power, who was drafted first in 2021 by the Buffalo Sabres and elected to return to school for one more season, virtually every top pick this millennium has spent the majority of their first season in the NHL.

Whether or not Slafkovsky follows that path will ultimately be dictated by how he plays. We imagine he’ll be given as much rope as the Canadiens can extend to start, and that a nine-game stint to start in the NHL is all but guaranteed, and he’ll have to earn the rest.

But we don’t see the Canadiens hesitating to send Slafkovsky to the Laval Rocket if they feel he needs some time there. They’ve made player development their top priority—in possession of a roster that’s still a couple of years away from being truly competitive—and they’ll do whatever is best for Slafkovsky’s development.

He seems to be on board with that.

“Camp starts next week and (the plan) will come from there,” he told reporters at the NHL’s rookie showcase on Tuesday. “It’s about how ready I’ll be. I hope I’m ready, so we’ll see.”

“I’m trying to do everything so that I can play in the NHL,” Slafkovsky continued. “But, of course, I will do whatever Montreal says and thinks will be better for me.”

We believe what’s best for the big Slovak is to play with the type of players he’ll be alongside when he is developed in the NHL—top-six forwards like Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

But Slafkovsky’s play will reveal whether or not he’s prepared to continue in that role as the season progresses.

The Redemption Tour

If you’re hoping to see the Canadiens bottom out this season and give themselves the best odds at drafting a supposed generational talent in Connor Bedard, head coach Martin St. Louis, who’s proven to be an exceptional motivator in his short time behind the bench, might not be the only person in the way of achieving that.

This team has no shortage of players who should be extremely driven to redeem themselves after disappointing 2021-22 campaigns, and those players could help vault the Canadiens a little higher in the standings than most people anticipate.

Start with Brendan Gallagher, who had just seven goals in 56 games and struggled with injuries last season. He’s had the better part of five months to rejuvenate his body—something he said was essential to him returning to the player who regularly scored more than 20 goals per season—and when we checked in with him last week, he said he was feeling good and ready.

Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak and Joel Armia are three players who best be prepared to offer something much better than what we saw from them for the majority of games they played with the Canadiens last season. All three of them are being paid for middle-six production and reliability and none of them delivered that.

Hoffman, who signed a three-year, $13.5-million contract with the Canadiens in the summer of 2021, is only two seasons removed from scoring 29 goals in 69 games and needs to come much closer to being that player than he was for his first 67 games in bleu, blanc et rouge. Dvorak’s two-way play, which only picked up in the back half of last season after he struggled mightily out of the gate, needs to be strong enough to help insulate younger centres on the team. And Armia, who put up only six goals in 60 games after signing a four-year, $13.6-million deal, needs a mulligan.

The big Finn, Dvorak, Hoffman and Gallagher aren’t the only Canadiens who need to show better come fall. Josh Anderson had a respectable 19 goals in 69 games last season, but the expectation—after he signed a seven-year, $38.5-million contract with the team in 2020—is that he be much more like the player who had 27 goals during the 2018-19 season.

Kirby Dach and Sean Monahan, new to the Canadiens after summer trades brought them to Montreal, also have much to prove.

This past Wednesday, Dach, 21, signed a lucrative new contract which will pay him mostly for his potential, and he can immediately make it a good deal with a fresh start under St. Louis.

And Monahan, who’s coming off his second hip surgery since the summer of 2021, feels healthy and ready to contribute in a way he wasn’t able to in Calgary over the past two seasons.

"I think this summer is a big one for me," Monahan said in his first media availability as a Canadien on Aug. 18. "I got the surgery earlier than I did the year before, so I’ve put in a lot of work this summer and right now I’m back on the ice four times a week. It's been a long time coming for me to feel healthy, so I’m excited to play hockey again at a high level and I’m really excited to join the Canadiens.”

The Youth Movement on Defence

Kaiden Guhle (20), Justin Barron (20) and Jordan Harris (22) are the primary three of several young defencemen hoping to play full-time with the Canadiens this season.

Spots are open, with Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, David Savard and Chris Wideman the only veterans on Montreal’s blue line. The competition for time alongside them will be one to track for the entirety of the 2022-23 season.

Expect to see a rotation, with Guhle, Harris and Barron all splitting time between Montreal and Laval, and with 21-year-old Arber Xhekaj, 22-year-old Mattias Norlinder, and sophomore Corey Shueneman pushing to unseat them.

The Canadiens will have to straddle the fine line between results and player development here, leaning heavily on development to ensure confidence remains intact for all parties.

Goaltending Carousel

With Carey Price on long-term injury reserve due to his persistent knee injury, Jake Allen will be leaned on heavily in Montreal’s net.

Just how prepared he’ll be for the workload, after multiple groin injuries limited the 32-year-old to just 35 appearances last season, is in question.

If young Cayden Primeau—who had an exceptional playoff with the Rocket last spring after struggling last winter with the Canadiens—was discouraged when he saw Samuel Montembeault sign a one-way contract with Montreal earlier this summer, Price’s updated status should have him feeling like the road to the Bell Centre suddenly has less construction cones to navigate.

Just how well Allen, Montembeault and Primeau can fare is a major question heading into training camp. And how the competition shapes up as the season progresses will essentially dictate how Hughes and the Canadiens’ brass attempt to navigate Price’s probable absence in the future.

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