BROSSARD, Que. — The health of star goaltender Carey Price and the development of their youthful core will be key storylines after a whirlwind of a season for the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs navigated through one of the worst campaigns in their history, going from Stanley Cup finalists in 2020-21 to a 32nd, and dead last, finish in 2021-22.
At the start of the season, the Canadiens had Dominique Ducharme as head coach and Marc Bergevin as general manager. By season’s end, those two were gone as part of a sweeping overhaul in the front office and behind the bench.
Kent Hughes became GM, team owner Geoff Molson brought on Jeff Gorton as vice president of hockey operations and Martin St. Louis joined as interim head coach.
The ship still sank to the bottom of the ocean, and the on-ice issues could bleed into next season. Before a 10-2 rout of the first-place Florida to close the campaign, the Habs were in the midst of a nine-game losing skid.
Price started that final game to pick up his only win of a tumultuous season.
After helping the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup final in 2021, the 34-year-old Price underwent knee surgery last summer. He suffered numerous setbacks in returning to the game.
The Vezina and Hart Trophy winner in 2015 also sought help from the NHLPA/NHL player assistance program in October for substance abuse.
Despite the setbacks, Price returned to play five games in 2021-22. He has been nominated for this year's Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded to the NHL player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.''
Still, his future as a consistent starter remains in doubt.
“My honest opinion is no. I don't believe that in the current state it would be sustainable for a whole season,” Price said. “So in that regard, I have a lot of question marks and fortunately for me, I got a lot of time over the summer to prepare.”
The goaltender added he will be seeking a second opinion on his knee, which has still been swelling after games. When asked if another procedure was a possibility, Price said: “it’s on the table.”
The 34-year-old added that he prepared for the season finale as if it was his last game.
"The whole day, it was just an exceptional day for myself," he said. "I had a great sleep, it was just an A-plus day. If it is it, that would be a great way to do it."
Hughes said that Price will go through his exit medicals, then they will sit down with the doctors to try to get a clearer perspective on what Price can achieve going forward.
“At the end of the day, what we're hoping to get is clarity,” Hughes said. “Is this an injury that Carey is going to be able to recover from and return to true form or not?”
“Whether this is an injury that prevents him from ever being able to play again, I don’t think we have that answer and to tell you that that answer comes from a medical procedure or an imaging or any of that, I think we’re not at that point right now.”
Despite the rough end to the season, St. Louis instilled a different mentality from the bench as the Canadiens turned their eye towards youth development influenced by Hughes and Gorton.
“Are we behind? We’ll see,” Hughes said about bad performances leading into next season. “We’ll get younger. We saw (Justin) Barron, (Jordan) Harris, (Kaiden) Guhle is coming, (Jan) Mysak is coming, (Arber) Xhekaj is coming, so there will be a certain youth.
"The objective for us will always be to build a team capable of winning year-to-year. That’s our main objective and the decisions we need to make in the summer will be based on that."
With a young blue line a possible Jeff Petry trade is still looming. Hughes said that if he off-loaded Petry he would try to bring on another veteran defenceman.
“That would certainly be an objective for us," Hughes said. "Our priority will be to place our young guys in the right environment to develop. So to come into training camp by having three rookies in the lineup for 82 games, we won’t take that risk."
Hughes said Petry would only be traded if the offer made sense to the Canadiens, but the defenceman said he would take some time to reflect on his future as a Hab.
"I don't want to close the door and automatically say that this is the last time that I'm here," he said.
With the highest odds at the first overall pick and possibly centreman Shane Knight, Hughes said his biggest priority at the moment was the 2022 NHL Draft. The Habs GM also added that the centre line would be an area of interest.
“We’ll keep looking at options to keep improving,” Hughes said. “I’ve always said as a agent that it’s tough to find a centreman so we’ll see who isn’t signed for next year.”
“There is also the draft. If we draft a centreman it can change things.”
A NEW CAPTAIN
The Canadiens were without captain Shea Weber for the entirety of the season. The defenceman did not speak in the Candaiens end-of-season availability, but Hughes said that his situation is “complex” for league and insurance reasons.
"Since I arrived in January, the understanding was that Shea was not playing this season no matter what," Hughes said. "From an injury standpoint he needed time to recover. I think it's highly unlikely that Shea is going to be physically capable of playing again."
Montreal may have a new captain by the fall. Hughes said that a decision will be influenced on what the roster will look like next fall.
"I think we have a lot of guys that took strides as leaders and we’re going to need that going forward," added Brendan Gallagher. "You need leaders, you need a captain if you’re going to win. I think it’s important to have those steps in your locker room."
Despite his young age, Nick Suzuki said he would welcome the idea of becoming the Canadiens' captain.
“I think, for me, I want to take a leadership role. I have tried to do a good job ever since I came to this organization,” said Nick Suzuki. “Obviously we have a lot of good candidates to be the next captain, older guys that have been through a lot, but for me I don’t really control any of that.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press