This was supposed to be the year the Sabres finally contended for a playoff spot, but Buffalo has been a disappointment well under .500 on the season. Montreal was supposed to be contending for a top-five pick, but is contending for a playoff spot nearing the quarter point of the season.
Everything seemed upside down, until they met at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night with Buffalo cruising to a 7-2 win.
A highlight of every game for those thinking about how to rebuild the Canadiens for sustainable excellence is when a player who could be traded at the deadline adds to his strong season.
Sean Monahan has been the best Canadiens player who fits that scenario.
Monahan came for a first-round draft pick from Calgary, and there’s a chance that he leaves for a second first-round draft pick, if he continues to play strong hockey for Montreal. The top three scorers on the club are all from the same line, but after Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach comes Monahan.
Monahan is averaging about a half point-per-game while playing intelligent two-way hockey. He would be a strong addition for any team looking to strengthen their middle. He scored in the second period on a terrific play taking the first shot, then splitting the defence to jump on the rebound to get a second shot for the goal.
There’s been quite a lot of well-deserved ink used extolling the talents of Kaiden Guhle’s hockey, but there’s another side to his game that looks ready to explode. Guhle has a mean streak in him, and when he develops it more, he’s going to leave a lot of players afraid of coming to the blue line with their head down.
Guhle is happy to stop an opponent with a smart poke check, but the more games that pass, the more it is apparent that he’s just as happy to cave in a chest or two. Guhle had a bone-crusher in the second period against Dylan Cozens, and when Guhle got challenged to fight because of the hit, Guhle put the fear of God into JJ Peterka as well.
Peterka doesn’t know the rookie and must have thought he was taking on someone who would shy away. Instead, he found a Canadiens player who had rage in his eyes. Guhle reminds one of Shea Weber in this way.
He’s going to gain a lot of respect when he becomes a veteran in this league. He has the potential to make outstanding plays, level big hits, and stand up for himself as well. He doesn’t have Weber’s shot, but the ceiling is high for Guhle.
He doesn’t lack much in his game. All he needs is to gain the experience that leads to slightly better body positioning and decision making in defensive zone coverage.
It was a quiet night for the top line, but Cole Caufield did score his 12th goal of the season to take over the team lead from Nick Suzuki’s 11. Caufield is on pace for 52 goals this season. Caufield will go into a lull at some point this season, but if that lull isn’t too severe, he should become the first 40-goal scorer for Montreal this century.
Another highlight for the Canadiens on a lousy night was the play of Juraj Slafkovsky elevated to the second line because of Mike Hoffman’s lower-body injury. Slafkovsky did have a first-period moment where he was unable to clear the puck which caused 40 seconds of Buffalo pressure, but that was the only sour moment.
As a positive, in the third period, Slafkovsky split the Sabres defence to create a Montreal power play. The Sabres could not handle his power. It’s a terrific development for Slafkovsky to see what he can bring with his strength and how difficult he is to handle.
Slafkovsky is also getting better along the boards, winning more battles and protecting the puck better. Slafkovsky is only 18, so what he is learning at the NHL level this quickly is encouraging.
The Canadiens are having difficulty with the start of their games recently. They allowed a goal in the first minute on Saturday night against Philadelphia, and two in the first three minutes, but that was nothing compared to the events of Tuesday.
The Sabres set a franchise record for fastest three goals at the start of the game in their history. Rasmus Dahlin, JJ Peterka, and Alex Tuch all scored by the two minute and 13 seconds mark.
Two different Montreal lines were scored on and a penalty-killing unit as Jake Allen was getting no help at all. Montreal is doing a great job of coming back into games, and showing a never-say-die attitude, but an even easier way to win a game is to not get down three goals before all your players have even seen the ice.
The Sabres headed into the contest on an eight game losing skid, so they were hungry right off the opening face-off. The Canadiens will have to make sure their first shifts match that intensity.
It was another night when the power play struggled going zero for six in the game. There’s only one thing to repeat here and that’s the lack of a quarterback causing much of the trouble.
Lane Hutson has the skill set to turn that around as he’s the first player in the organization who resembles the departed Andrei Markov. Hutson has the vision and intelligence with the extra-man to take the power play off life support.
This Montreal power play will not be top 10 in the league until they get a Markov type. It may well be Logan Mailloux as well, but Hutson is more likely. Whoever it is, before the Canadiens rise to the top of the league, they’ll have to find someone on the blue line to change what has been a five-year issue since Markov left.
The 2023 Entry Draft may just be the strongest one in the history of the NHL. We won’t know until 2028 when the players mature, but the early thoughts are that this draft could have as many as four generational players and ten elite players.
1. Connor Bedard Centre
2. Adam Fantilli Centre
3. Leo Carlsson Centre
4. Matvei Michkov Winger
5. Brayden Yager Centre
6. Will Smith Centre
7. Dalibor Dvorsky Centre
8. Zach Benson Winger
9. Eduard Sale Winger
10. Calum Ritchie Centre
This list will change through the season as players games’ mature, but on Nov. 22nd, this is the list for the Call of the Wilde.
The sleeper here is Will Smith who has been in the 20s on some lists, but his stock is rising quickly with stunningly good statistics for the United States Development Program. Smith’s numbers rival some of the best in USDP history early in the season. He’s in the category of Jack Hughes, Cole Caufield, and Logan Cooley at two points-per-game.
Other players are more well known like Connor Bedard who, in his draft season, is putting up Connor McDavid-style numbers in the Western Hockey League. Adam Fantilli at Michigan is also putting up numbers rivalling the best in NCAA history like Jack Eichel, Paul Kariya and Craig Simpson.
Leo Carlsson is another putting up numbers rivalling some of the best draft year numbers in his respective league. Carlsson plays in the Swedish Hockey League and his numbers are like Peter Forsberg’s early in his campaign.
Matvei Michkov is another who could just as easily be slotted in the number one spot if he weren’t Russian. It’s not only that he is Russian from the political perspective that they are in a war and have conscripted a Philadelphia Flyers goalie when he went back home to be with his family for the summer. It’s also that Michkov has signed a long-term contract to stay in the Kontinental Hockey League.
The club who drafts Michkov must have a strong constitution to wait for all of the Russian issues to resolve, or not resolve — who knows?
The list has as many as seven centres with the Canadiens in the hunt for a top-six centre depending on what they do with Kirby Dach in the long run. Wherever they put Dach in the end, the club needs a top-six forward, and if they draft top-10, they are practically guaranteed an elite one.
So far, the Canadiens have their own first-round pick and the Florida Panthers first-round pick. Montreal has a lot of expendable players to trade should they desire a third first-round pick, but it will be quite interesting to see how willing teams with Stanley Cup aspirations will be to deal their first-rounder considering the draft talent they’d be giving up.
This could be a year no one wants to give up their first-rounder. It will be interesting and entertaining this winter around the trading deadline, and draft day in 2023.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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