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Canadiens GM Hughes discusses streaking Slafkovsky, rebuild progress ahead of trade deadline

Montreal Canadiens Kent Hughes - Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens kicked off their rebuild in 2022 by drafting Slovakian forward Juraj Slafkovsky with the No. 1 overall pick. The 6-foot-3, 230 pound forward did not produce immediate results, recording 10 points in 39 games before sustaining a knee injury that cost him most of his rookie season.

It was more of the same to begin 2023-24 as Slafkovsky recorded just seven points in his first 28 games. However, he has flourished since being moved to the top line alongside captain Nick Suzuki and sniper Cole Caufield.

Over his past 24 games, the 19-year-old winger has recorded nine goals and 20 points, capped off by three points in the Habs‘ 5-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday.

General manager Kent Hughes said the team is happy with Slafkovsky’s development, due in part to his confidence coming through on the ice. 

“We expected him to be a big part of the future of our team. The timing of it is something that’s always somewhat uncertain when drafting an 18-year-old. At points last year and even this year, there was still some uncertainty about when that was going to happen,” Hughes said Wednesday on the Got Yer Back podcast with TSN's Ryan Rishaug and TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun. 

“But what we’ve seen from him, for the most part this year, but mostly over the past 20, 25 games, is just an understanding of what works for his game and where he can impact the game most significantly. He’s playing to his strengths more than anything else.

“When you start to get results, the confidence comes with it, and you can see that in his game and his energy and demeanor around the rink.”

The Canadiens are attempting to navigate a full rebuild just two seasons removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and currently sit 25th in the league with a 22-23-8 record. While the Habs remain far from playoff contention, there have been clear steps forward with the development of Slafkovsky and the continued emergence of Suzuki as a top-line-calibre centre.

Despite the individual progression of the young roster, Hughes says the team still has work to do, both in terms of accumulating assets and building a roster that can compete for a playoff berth.

“It’s hard to say how [the rebuild] is going. We’re sitting in the bottom 10 of the league still. Ultimately, the mission is to sit top 10 in the league. Until we see that it’s hard to say we’ve accomplished much of anything,” Hughes said. “From an asset accumulation standpoint, we’re happy where we are. We’ve been able to do that to a certain degree and we’ve accumulated assets, mostly in the form of draft picks.

“As far as constructing a team, I think we have a long way to go. A long way in terms of things that need to be accomplished. I’m hoping the timeline is shorter, rather than longer.”

Hughes is known to be active at the draft, having traded first-round picks for young centres Kirby Dach and Alex Newhook at the 2022 and 2023 events, respectively. With 23 draft picks, including four first-round selections, in the next two drafts. Hughes hinted at making another move to once again acquire a young player that fits the Canadiens’ rebuilding timeline to supplement their stable of developing young players.

“We’ve certainly acquired some players and used those draft picks. I think we need to continue down that path and continue to add to our group of established NHL players that can help take us to the next step that are in a certain age range,” Hughes said. “Big picture, those guys have to be younger players. Where we’re at is a combination of looking to add those players and looking to see where our guys go.”

Hughes could be busy leading into the trade deadline on March 8 as goaltender Jake Allen ranks No. 8 on the latest TSN Trade Bait list, in addition to veteran defenceman David Savard.

Ahead of the deadline, the third-year general manager discussed the team’s desire to continually acquire assets while balancing the need for veteran leadership.

“One consideration is how quickly we’ll be ready to compete for a playoff spot. It’s also how quickly our guys will be ready to assume more responsibility on the back end and how his leadership brings those players along,” Hughes said about the possibility of moving Savard. “It’s a complicated situation. We didn’t come into the season with the expectation of making the playoffs, but we weren’t going to roll over.

“We made the decision to trade Sean [Monahan] to Winnipeg, which we knew would weaken our team in the short term, but we thought it was the right thing. Whether it’s David Savard or other players and other decisions, it’s a very fluid, dynamic situation.”

Hughes also discussed the team’s ongoing roster crunch, as the Canadiens continue to hold three goaltenders in Sam Montembeault, Jake Allen, and Cayden Primeau.

The 54-year-old said that since signing Montembeault to a three-year contract, the team has shifted focus to moving either Allen or Primeau. However, he adds the goaltender market has been slow as teams need to maneuver the salary cap while finding the right fit. While he did not promise he would move a goaltender before the deadline, Hughes does not anticipate going into next season with three on the roster.

“Between now and the start of next season we plan to resolve that situation. When that happens, to a certain degree, it depends on the teams in the market for a goalie and whether they can make that happen,” said Hughes.

“I know it’s not ideal, particularly for Jake and [Primeau], but they’ve been incredibly professional about it. People want the issue resolved and I think, in this market, people want it resolved by the trade deadline. If it’s there we’ll do it, if it’s not, I’m confident it’ll be resolved before the start of next season.”