Injuries hampered Canadiens’ Hughes from making big splash in trade pool

Montreal Canadiens' Kent Hughes discusses the development management has seen by the team this season and if they're ahead of schedule in terms of the rebuild, acknowledging there's still pieces to be added before they're where they want to be.

ANAHEIM — Kent Hughes did what he could, which, in the end, wasn’t much at all. 

As for the reason the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager came up almost empty-handed in his quest to collect futures that would help advance the process of building out his team, that’s something he’s going to have to do something about as quick as he possibly can. 

Hughes wanted to get a jump on the trade market weeks ahead of Friday’s deadline and would’ve had it not been for injuries to his most coveted players. He would’ve willingly eaten half of Jonathan Drouin’s remaining (prorated) $5.5-million salary just to redeem even middling value but intimated after the deadline passed that the injuries which kept the player sidelined for 23 of 61 games this season — 10 of them from Jan. 15-Feb. 11 — didn’t help cap-strapped contenders digest the idea of giving up anything for Drouin. 

Instead of making paper transactions to only send Jesse Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard off his roster to the AHL before 3:00 p.m. ET., just to ensure they could participate in a Laval Rocket playoff run, Hughes would have surely included Justin Barron and might have even considered Kaiden Guhle had the former not suffered an injury on Thursday that made him ineligible and the latter not just recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for two months.

Juraj Slafkovsky, who was chosen first overall in the 2022 Draft by the Canadiens, would’ve been a candidate for such an opportunity, too, if he hadn’t been shelved in January with a knee injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. 

Hughes and the Canadiens are so shellshocked by their injury situation that the GM even struck down the idea of sending Slafkovsky to the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Latvia this spring. 

“I don’t know what the man-games lost are over two years,” said Hughes “but, since my arrival in January (of 2022) until this point in time, I can’t imagine there’s a team that’s had a more difficult situation.”

It’s one that left Hughes handcuffed and disappointed at this year’s trade deadline, but also one that left him determined to do everything possible to avoid similar circumstances moving forward. 

He didn’t specifically address it in his post-deadline comments, which were delivered to reporters at the Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility in Brossard, Que., but sources have indicated a thorough evaluation of the Canadiens’ medical procedures, medical staff, training and therapeutic procedures, rehabilitation processes, and practice and travel schedules has been committed to. Resources will have to be exhausted to research methodology across the NHL, in order to compare and contrast what’s being done in Montreal and best inform whatever decisions must be made over time to help the Canadiens in this department. 

Bad luck is out of the Canadiens’ control, and they’ve had an insane amount of it pertaining to illness and injury since even before Hughes took over. 

This season, Guhle, Slafkovsky and Jake Evans couldn’t be sheltered from knee injuries suffered earlier on. 

What could have been done about a recurrent back injury for Joel Edmundson, which ultimately took an ace out of Hughes’ hands when he sat down to this poker game weeks ago? Nothing really.

Could the GM still have traded the six-foot-five, 221-pound defenceman, who has a Stanley Cup ring, 75 games of playoff experience and an atypical player profile that had virtually all his teammates singing his praises upon his return to action in Los Angeles less than 24 hours from the deadline? Sure.

But there was no way Hughes was looking for pennies on the dollar, at this stage, for a 29-year-old player who still has a year left under a contract that pays him a reasonable $3.5 million.

“I like to be involved in deals,” Hughes said, “but at the end of the day it has to be moving us forward towards an objective and if it doesn’t advance our cause, we’re not going to make a trade.”

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Trading Edmundson for what was on offer wasn’t going to advance the Canadiens’ cause. 

Hughes said Edmundson’s injury history certainly “had an effect on what teams were (willing to give),” and added, “If I put myself on a team trying to contend, I think it would’ve had an effect on me as well.”

He didn’t have to say he wouldn’t have given up much for Sean Monahan, either. 

The 28-year-old centre, who came to the Canadiens along with a first-round pick from Calgary just for taking on his $6.375-million salary, put up 17 points in 25 games before being forced to the sidelines in early December with a foot injury that should’ve only kept him out a couple of weeks. He remains sidelined with an unrelated injury that left Hughes non-committal on tendering a contract extension offer and incapable of saying the player will be able to return this season.

When Hughes was asked if Monahan’s injury might have been suffered because he was permitted to play on the initial foot injury, he said it was unrelated.

But Hughes also said, “We’re learning every day how everything is inter-related on the body,” which didn’t exactly close the door on Monahan’s situation potentially being mishandled, even if Hughes said the Canadiens don’t believe the injury keeping him out now isn’t from compensating for the broken foot.

Meanwhile, Monahan’s body has been through so much over the past few years — including surgery to his hips in concurrent off-seasons — that anything could’ve caused his situation. 

There was no faith from contending teams he could be relied upon from here to the end of this season, let alone in multiple four-out-of-seven-game playoff series, and that was understandable.

In the end, the Canadiens were stuck with him, they were unwilling to move Edmundson for what was offered, they couldn’t pick up anything for Drouin, and their biggest splash in the market ended up being a trade that sent Evgenii Dadonov (at half price) to the Dallas Stars last Sunday for a reclamation project in 25-year-old Denis Gurianov.

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“I don’t want to say he didn’t get a chance to hit his potential (in Dallas). Often, a player has his role in that,” said Hughes. “But we also saw he showed at a point he could score in the NHL. There were probably several factors why he didn’t in the last two seasons. We did a lot of research on him, and if we’re comparing getting a young player who was a former first-round pick versus getting a late draft pick, we felt Denis was a better option for us.”

Hughes said Gurianov will have to remain healthy and prove his worth to earn the $2.9 million qualifying offer he’s due at the end of June. If he can, that would make a good move a great one, especially considering Dadonov was originally acquired in a summer trade with the Vegas Golden Knights made just to shed the remainder of Shea Weber’s enormous contract.

Hughes was also able to make another good one Friday, picking up a 2024 fifth-round pick and Swedish Hockey League defenceman Tony Sund from the San Jose Sharks for helping to broker a deal between the Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins by retaining 50 per cent of Nick Bonino’s salary.

Was he satisfied?

“No,” Hughes said. 

Was he surprised? 

Also, no.

Hughes knows he’ll have other opportunities ahead of the draft.

“The trade deadline’s the trade deadline; it’s not like a moratorium thereafter for the rest of time until this time next year to make trades,” said Hughes. “Last year we traded for (Mike) Matheson, Monahan and (Kirby) Dach post-trade deadline.”

The Canadiens will grow from that.

They’ve already taken some strides in other areas, which was a silver lining pointed out by Hughes on Friday.

“(Before the season started) I think I said that if we saw the development individually and collectively of our group — and clearly, at that time, we didn’t know the extent of the injury situation we were going to be faced with and a lot of young players got put in situations that maybe we didn’t project — I think we’ve seen that progress from the individuals, I think we’ve seen it from the group, which also means we’re seeing progress from the young coaching staff in terms of how they communicate what they’re looking to do and the adjustments that they make.”

Now the Canadiens need to find a way to progress on the front that limited them most on this day.

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