Canadiens Mailbag: Who stays, who goes on crowded blue line?

Montreal Canadiens defenceman David Savard (58) is congratulated after his goal against the Minnesota Wild during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in St Paul, Minn. (Matt Krohn/AP)

MONTREAL — Let’s dive straight in!

Over 50 questions came in for this mailbag and the majority of them were on this subject, which was to be expected.

This has been lingering since well before the season started and, though the trade deadline is still over two months away, we’re 33 games in and getting closer to the Canadiens needing to solve at least part of this riddle.

That’s not to say they’re completely resolved just yet on how they’ll go about it. It’s just that, with general manager Kent Hughes already publicly stating his intention to sign Lane Hutson at the end of the player’s sophomore season at Boston University, decisions are looming — and not just to clear space for Hutson’s imminent arrival but to also make some to reintegrate one (or both) of Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris.

The latter is close to returning from a lower-body injury, the former is in the process of refining his defensive game in the American Hockey League, and the sudden emergence of Jayden Struble in both of their absences has potentially displaced both from the top six for longer than either of them would hope.

Short sample be damned, he looks like he’s already established through 15 games that he’s a viable NHLer.

I think it’s anything but a problem the Canadiens have eight more defencemen who can, at the very least, make the same claim. But that doesn’t mean sorting out which ones among them should be a part of the core moving forward will be an easy task.

Outside of Kaiden Guhle, it’s hard to decide which other defencemen under the age of 23 might elevate themselves beyond their established third-pairing floor to become top-four options. The immediate objective for the Canadiens, though, should be to buy themselves more time to further complete that evaluation.

As Harris returns, waiving or trading Gustav Lindstrom feels like the first step in that process.

The Canadiens are then going to have to seriously consider moving David Savard in short order.

The 33-year-old Stanley Cup winner is a stabilizing force for them, a shot-blocking, penalty-killing warrior, an unheralded offensive contributor, and so strong a leader he’s practically considered an extension of the coaching staff. His value to the team is unquestionable.

But Savard’s value to the Canadiens on the trade market is likely too high to turn away from. That he doesn’t have any protection baked into his contract opens the field up wide, and there are at least a couple of teams that would be even more inclined to pay a high price to acquire him knowing he’s not just a pure rental.

Savard has one more year under contract, and his $3.5-million annual salary is anything but prohibitive. Fitting him in from March 8 onward shouldn’t be a problem for an acquiring team — with $2.68 million already paid by the Canadiens by then — and taking on the hit next season shouldn’t be one either, as the cap increases from $83.5 million to at least $87.67 million over the summer.

Is there urgency to sort out the rest of the defence if/when Lindstrom and Savard move? Not this season, there isn’t.

Sure, Hutson’s coming. And barring the unforeseen — him choosing to return to BU for one more year — he’s likely going to play at least a game with the Canadiens before this season ends.

But the Canadiens don’t have to carve out a full-time spot for him between now and then.

They also don’t have to make any rash decisions on youngsters Harris, Xhekaj, Struble or Justin Barron yet.

Hopefully, all of them continue to develop, increase their value and paint a clearer picture to the Canadiens — and to the rest of the league — as to what they might be once they’re finished products. Under that scenario, a couple of them become valuable pieces of the Canadiens’ future core and the other two can be used in packages to help them acquire pieces needed to help complete other parts of that core.

The Canadiens will likely take their time evaluating who’s who in that equation before acting. As they should.

Knowing that, it’s hard to predict who stays and who goes at this point.

All I can do is agree with you that spots are scarce.

I would add that, on top of Hutson and Reinbacher, Logan Mailloux and Adam Engstrom aren’t too far away either, and that this surplus — coupled with upcoming picks — represents the Canadiens’ best opportunity to fill the deficit of premium talent up front.

The Canadiens haven’t put a limit on the number of games Xhekaj will play with the Laval Rocket, but that doesn’t mean his time in the AHL is limitless.

He needs to continue to work on things and progress and, so long as he does that, I expect he’ll be back in Montreal well before the season ends.

And even if I couldn’t say for sure which of the team’s young defencemen might eventually be moved to address other gaps in their lineup, I have a strong inclination Xhekaj will remain with the Canadiens when all is said and done.

Grouping these two questions with both of them mainly focused on Sean Monahan’s future.

Before we get to that, I’m not expecting Josh Anderson to be traded this season. Even if the 29-year-old suddenly carries momentum out of the holiday break and explodes offensively after busting his slump to score four goals in his last four games, he has three more seasons under contract after this one at $5.5 million against the cap and I don’t see any team wanting to take that on.

But I think there are a number of teams who would love to snag Monahan, who would count for roughly half a million against the cap if acquired at the trade deadline.

Have the Canadiens concretely discussed an extension with the player, who will be 30 next October? Not to my knowledge.

But they have to be evaluating what that might look like so they can appropriately weigh their options.

My thoughts are trading Monahan before March 8 will prove to be the best option, with the potential to acquire another first-round pick — on top of the one they got from Calgary for taking him to begin with — or a quality prospect too strong to ignore.

I know the fans appreciate what he’s brought to the Canadiens so much that they’re skittish about trading him instead of signing him, and I get it. I don’t debate he’s been a serviceable, versatile forward in collecting 17 points in 25 games last season before rebounding from injury this season to grab nine goals and 20 points in 33 games.

But with Jake Evans and Christian Dvorak still signed through next season, and with Owen Beck in the pipeline, signing Monahan to any type of term versus trading him for what should be a healthy return doesn’t make much sense, and Monahan has earned term.

Hey, if the Canadiens get lowballed for some reason on the market, perhaps they should actually consider giving it to him.

But knowing how many teams could benefit from adding Monahan between now and the deadline, I’d be shocked if Hughes couldn’t extract fair value in a trade.

I think these two questions belong together.

To start with, I think Hughes is committed to building the Canadiens the right way and there’s nothing taking him off track.

The team could somehow force him to show a bit more restraint than he’s likely planning to ahead of the deadline, especially if it not only remains in the hunt for a playoff spot but actually goes on such a good run over the coming weeks that it gains favourable position in the standings.

But even if that incredibly unlikely scenario unfolds, Hughes won’t spend any of his premium assets for short-term gain. He probably wouldn’t even fully relent on moving certain players out for futures, either.

Another grouping here to tackle.

The best-case scenario for the Canadiens is they continue to be as competitive as they can be regardless of what happens to their roster between now and the end of the season.

That may — and probably will — take them out of the top 10 of this year’s draft order, but the trade-off would be a healthier progression for the players on their roster who have already been identified as core pieces (like Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Juraj Slafkovsky and Guhle) and for those who must boost their value to help the Canadiens procure top talent outside of the draft.

If they make the playoffs — and it’s a real stretch to think they will — that will be a pretty healthy development for the team. And if the Canadiens narrowly miss them, the culture and identity gains will still propel them forward.

Sure, they’ll have to draft well from the middle of the pack if that’s where they end up. And even if they plucked Guhle and Caufield out of there in recent years, I know that’s a lot harder to do than it is from the top of the draft order.

But most of the fans who would consider “being in no man’s land” catastrophic also would’ve conceded back in September (when Kirby Dach and Alex Newhook were healthy) that the Canadiens were even less likely to finish in the bottom five this season than they were to make the playoffs, so they shouldn’t be so disappointed by a result they expected.

They should also view the injuries to such important players likely not changing the outcome dramatically as a sign of the type of progress that has value to the build. And lastly, they should also be able to recognize that the draft — especially the 2024 crop, which (according to my sources) isn’t particularly sparkling — might not even be the best way to obtain the premium talent the Canadiens lack up front.

The fans should be excited about the assets they have (in addition to the ones they’ll collect) to be able to procure it through trade.

The prospects on defence in the system open up intriguing possibilities, as discussed further up in this piece. The Canadiens also have money freeing up on their salary cap, which gives them much-needed flexibility. And having 29 picks banked — 19 of them in the first four rounds — for the next three drafts only helps.

In my opinion, yes, he will be.

I don’t want to directly compare him to his idol Patrice Bergeron, but he’s much more that variety of top centre than he is of the Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews variety.

Now, Suzuki is going to have to continue to improve his defensive game, but he’s already in the process of doing that to fulfil his potential.

Living up to Bergeron in this way will still be a stretch, but he can get closer while being at least as offensively prolific.

In saying that, I still don’t know if Suzuki is going to be much more than a point-per-game player once he reaches his prime.

But I do believe he has the ability to be at least that productive over the best years of his career.

Does Suzuki have to be a consistent point-per-game player to be the top centre of an eventual Canadiens contender? I don’t see why he would.

Bergeron had just one season in 18 in which he produced at least a point per game for the Boston Bruins. He didn’t do it when they won the Cup in 2011, nor did he do it when they reached the Final in 2013, and nobody debated his validity as a top centre in either of those years.

What also helped Bergeron consistently be one then and throughout his career was having elite wingers and a really strong centre in David Krejci behind him.

Suzuki has Caufield next to him and Dach behind him, and the Canadiens will have to pick up a couple of other pieces to support his leadership of the team.

But I see him as a No. 1 centre now and feel he’s only getting better.

Struble is the obvious answer to me, though I’m sure some are surprised by how much Cayden Primeau has improved.

I’m not overly surprised about it, but I can’t say I saw Primeau emerging as a viable tandem partner for Sam Montembeault for this season and for several more to come.

That makes Jake Allen expendable, and I’m sure I’ll be writing about him plenty before doing my next mailbag.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.