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Montreal Canadiens 2023-24 Season Preview

Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

A year after finishing in last place in the NHL standings, the Montreal Canadiens only improved to 28th in 2022-23, still one of the bottom teams in the league with a lot of work to do to get back to a competitive state. Already in one of the toughest divisions, the Atlantic is seeing surges from the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, making the Habs’ return to the post-season that much more difficult.

Montreal’s fortunes were little improved when the management staff left the roster largely intact over the off-season, choosing to accumulate future draft picks with their trades rather than addressing current needs for the team, but there was one change that could help them win more games this year.

Key additions/subtractions

General manager Kent Hughes approached the 2023 NHL Draft with three top-40 picks, but opted to send his late first- and early second-rounder to the Colorado Avalanche to acquire forward Alex Newhook. Newhook, the 16th overall pick in 2019, hadn’t secured a lineup spot with the 2022 Stanley Cup champions, and Hughes saw an opportunity to add a promising player with untapped potential.

Newhook has looked good at training camp, where his speed game is fitting in well with head coach Martin St-Louis’s style of play. With the ability to play either centre or the wing, he’s a versatile addition to the lineup.

That wasn’t the case for the forward moved out to make room for Newhook’s arrival. Mike Hoffman used to be a dangerous scoring threat in his prime, but in two seasons in Montreal he scored a total of 29 goals, and just five of those on the power play. For a player who doesn’t bring much to the table beyond a one-time release, that production wasn’t the expectation set for him. Hoffman has since made his way to the San Jose Sharks, and the Canadiens’ forward corps is now a bit more dynamic.


From the outside, an increase from 32nd to 28th probably doesn’t seem like a noteworthy rise, but when you consider that Montreal had five rookies on defence for much of last season, the increase was a fairly impressive feat. Justin Barron, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Johnny Kovacevic, and Arber Xhekaj combined to play 276 games last season, using a variety of skill sets to at least make the games interesting.

That said, the team’s defending was far from good, with the fourth-most goals allowed (307). Those same defencemen are still in the organization and will once again see major minutes, and this year it will be about showing more effective play in their own zone.

Biggest questions

It’s difficult to win games when you’re averaging nearly four goals against, especially when you have trouble scoring yourself. The issue wasn’t so much the team’s offence at five-on-five — Montreal ranked 22nd last season with 162 goals at full strength — but the power play.

Montreal’s man advantage has been a problem for many years, and even in this pre-season it shows few signs of improvement. Not only does that keep the team from scoring goals in the least-taxing situation to do so, but the constant failure saps energy from what has been decent play at even strength. A better power play would provide a boost to the team in more ways than one.

Star players

With two forwards of the calibre of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the roster. you would expect the power play to function well. But even with the special teams sputtering, the two still find ways to generate offence.

At the time of his season-ending shoulder injury in January, Caufield was tied for seventh in the league with 17 five-on-five goals, just a couple behind the likes of eventual Rocket Richard Trophy-winner Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak. Caufield is poised to at least match his 46-goal pace from last season, while Suzuki recently said he can be a point-per-game player this season.

It’s probably those two players you think about when it comes to the current Canadiens, but there’s another player to keep an eye on: Mike Matheson. The defenceman had a start-stop season in his first year with Montreal due to injuries, but he was exceptional in the games he did play.

He was only able to dress for 48 matches, but registered 34 points, and also led the club with a +7 goal differential despite matching up against the opponent’s best players. If he can play the majority of the season (he’s dealing with a minor injury in the pre-season once again), it could be a very big year for him, and some members of our community are already predicting the odd Norris Trophy vote.

Under the radar player

If not for the play of Samuel Montembeault last year, the lack of offence combined with the growing pains on the blue line could have resulted in an even worse record than the previous year. His .901 save percentage and 3.42 goals-against average don’t tell the story of his season. For a better indication, you can look at goals saved above expected, a stat that factors in the difficulty of the shots faced. In that category, Montembeault ranked 13th in the NHL with a mark of 16.78.

He’s a very athletic goalie whose development has been more about reining in his movement than having to add elements to his play, and it should be another season of improvement for a netminder the team claimed off waivers two years ago.

Key young player

Not to put any more pressure on Juraj Slafkovský than the 2022 first overall pick is already facing, but how well the 19-year-old forward plays will have a big say in how the Canadiens perform. Montreal doesn’t have a great deal of quality on the wings, and needs all the production it can get from those positions. If he doesn’t see a big improvement from last season’s 10 points, that would just be a sign that he needs more time to develop, which would be fine. But if he does have somewhat of a breakout sophomore season, the Canadiens could have some much-needed secondary scoring to take some of the attention away from Suzuki and Caufield, and that would make the Habs much more difficult for opponents to shut down.

Moderate improvements in the scoring depth combined with more solid play on the blue line could combine to elevate the Canadiens out of the basement, even if the rise still falls short of a post-season berth in a highly competitive Eastern Conference.

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