Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fall 4-3 in shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes – Montreal |

The Montreal Canadiens finally returned home, but had to face the Carolina Hurricanes right away as the schedule gave Montreal no respite.

Montreal has the most difficult strength of schedule in the NHL in the last quarter of the season, but they’re fine with it. The Canadiens took the top-ranked Hurricanes to overtime before falling 4-3 in a shootout.

Wilde Horses 

It’s enjoyable to figure out the Canadiens these days. They have about a dozen players from the Montreal roster replaced by players from the Laval roster, yet these Rocket players are so hungry and energetic, they’re actually adding to the club many nights; instead of causing a talent vacuum.

On the first tally, it was Michael Pezzetta with a gorgeous pass to Alex Belzile who finished it for his third NHL goal. Chris Tierney got the other assist as the all-AHL trio scored on the mighty Hurricanes. Their goal celebration said everything about what energy and excitement means in comparison to talent. It’s the great leveller of the playing field.

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Second period, they hooked up again. It was Tierney this time with the gorgeous pass to a streaking Pezzetta. He fought off his check to count from one foot out. Amazing outcomes for the fourth line on the team playing like they’re the top line.

Knowing that there are many prospects coming, and the ability of the Laval players to compete, it’s a serious question to ask how many of the aging underachieving NHL regulars are actually required in Montreal next season.

Perhaps it is time for the prospects waiting in the wings next season to get ice time, and if players like Roy, Beck, Kidney, and Mesar are injured, the Laval players can step in for them. Perhaps it is time to forget what veteran has a big contract for a lot of seasons, and award the jobs entirely on merit instead of money in.

It might be surprising who actually wins the work in 2023-24 on merit alone. Take the numbers off everyone’s jersey in September and decide it without dollar signs.  That would be a revealing exercise.

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Some veterans, it is expected, will be gone next season, like Jonathan Drouin. It is worth wondering though whether Drouin might be interested in a one year contract in Montreal where he can continue to find his better game as he has in the last half of the season.

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Drouin has moved to the middle with all of the injuries. He is more implicated in the play at centre, and is a better version of himself. It’s hard to believe with all the negative copy written about him, but Drouin is actually third on the team in assists this season.  He’s one of the best on the team.

Drouin pulled off a sublime assist as the Canadiens made it 2-0 against the Hurricanes. He pushed toward goal, then got to the crease, where he brought the goalie with him to the other side of the net, but he deftly left the puck behind.

That’s where Mike Hoffman showed up to tap it home with absolutely no one with knowledge of where the puck was, except him. Antti Raanta was tracking Drouin. The defender was tracking Drouin.  Drouin was playing some chess on the way to the other side. Hoffman with an easy one.

Bizarre these days how much the Canadiens are competing with this roster. It is true they are not winning many, but they are also not getting ripped with a lineup that no one would blame them if they were losing badly.

It’s all guts until the end of the season for this group. Credit to them. Credit to the head coach.

Wilde Goats 

Criticize this band of plucky overachievers? No, Sir. No, Ma’am.

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It’s fascinating to see the predictions change for the amateur draft throughout the hockey year. Everyone always feels as if there is a set order to it in February, but by June it has changed significantly. It happens every single year.

Last season, the moves were so drastic that they even hit the top of the draft as Shane Wright lost his standing to Juraj Slafkovsky. In fact, Wright fell all the way to four taken by the Seattle Kraken while Slafkovsky rose from underdog to number one.

This season, surely, the top of the draft stays the same with Connor Bedard having one of the best junior seasons in history, and Adam Fantilli having one of the best college draft seasons in history. They are set at one and two, but after that, all bets are off.

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The spot where the Canadiens are likely to draft is changing rapidly as March begins. It was thought that the Canadiens would choose Zach Benson at five overall, if they had the opportunity.

However, it has become apparent that the list is changing. Benson is falling out of the top 10 simply because he is a small player, even though he is putting up impressive point totals.

The head scout for the Canadiens, Nick Bobrov, favours bigger players, so if fans are expecting that Benson will be the Canadiens’ choice, they are going to be disappointed. However, it’s not just Bobrov dropping Benson down the list. It’s a growing sentiment.

It is vital to reiterate here that it is only March and the list will change many times until draft day. It will especially be altered according to who shines or does not shine at the U18 tournament in April. There can be a player who is excelling now but does not do well against his peers at the U18, and his expected spot could change massively.

Right now, there are players who are leaping up the charts considering how they are handling their season. One such player is David Reinbacher who was moved to number seven overall by The Athletic. Reinbacher is a right-handed defenceman who will be coveted by the Canadiens.

Montreal has a lot of volume on the blue line with about seven young players set to fight for jobs, but they are short on the right side a first pair defender. Reinbacher could be that blue liner. He is moving up many lists. Reinbacher with Mike Matheson allows Kaiden Guhle to be a top-four on his preferred left side. That would make the Canadiens a much stronger team.

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Will Smith is another player that has been speculated at number five or six to put him right in Canadiens territory. On this player, it could be interesting how the discussions go within the organization. General Manager Kent Hughes has coached Smith at the Boston Junior Eagles, so he knows him well.

Montreal has two picks likely in the top 15, and so much can happen between now and June, but if Smith puts up a big number at the U18s, he would be a favourite in that spot. Watch closely to see who excels at the U18s.

There are many forwards who have amazing talent in this draft. The Canadiens are going to get an outstanding one. If you want to speculate who that might be, guess someone bigger over someone smaller. They are not going to take Andrew Cristall, for example, who is on many top-10 lists.

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Montreal Canadiens fall to the Anaheim Ducks (March 3, 2023)

What is important is to remember that it is March. Reinbacher wasn’t even in the top-20 that long ago, but he was so strong at the World Juniors and has been so solid in the top men’s league in Switzerland that he has moved up the charts. That Swiss league is very competitive. That’s where Auston Matthews played his draft year and it worked out extremely well for the Maple Leafs.

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Defencemen always move up the charts late. Jake Sanderson is a perfect example. He was barely known in November and he moved to top-five overall.

Looking historically at the draft, one of the most important factors is to be continuing an upward progression as the year continues. Be a Seth Jarvis or a Moritz Seider. Don’t be a Filip Zadina or Angelo Esposito. The trajectory is vital. Be a Reinbacher.

It’s a long process. It changes often and it changes rapidly. The best news for Canadiens fans is this draft year is incredibly strong, and the Canadiens have two opportunities in the top-15. They’ll get two top-end hockey players whoever they favour.

They may even win the lottery and get Connor Bedard. However it shakes down, the Canadiens are about to get a lot stronger with two elite players coming into the organization whoever they take and wherever they pick.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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