The Montreal Canadiens are in a rebuild, their record definitely shows that. This means the pressure to win is off, but the pressure to focus on player development is on. This is where general manager (GM) Kent Hughes can use his position as a seller to take on salary cap and even players who are considered projects.
This is where Hughes can take some chances at the trade deadline while also remaining focused on adding picks and prospects to his asset list. With so many teams needing to create cap space to make other deals, he could step in and take on a contract for a pick, as he did in the Sean Monahan deal, but in this case, also take a chance on a young player who has fallen out of favor with his club. Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers fits that description.
Canadiens Get Bold
Frank Seravalli mentioned Montreal as a potential destination for Puljujarvi who has been on the block, seemingly for several years, as the Oilers navigate their salary cap issues and could provide the struggling former first-round pick a fresh start. For the Canadiens to take on his full $3 million salary this season it could cost Edmonton a mid-round pick, which then provides them the opening to add what they need to compete in the playoffs.
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Puljujarvi left the NHL to play in Europe after demanding a trade from Edmonton, which may have been the best step for his development. His NHL production doesn’t stand out, especially for a former fourth-overall draft pick, but his offensive numbers in Finland (31 goals, 65 points in 72 games played for Karpat in Liiga) point to untapped offensive potential. With his size and speed, a fresh start on a roster that needs his style of play could be what he needs to finally become more than a third-liner.
For Hughes and the Canadiens, Puljujarvi becomes a low-risk, potentially high-reward reclamation project for the Canadiens. This is the type of move that the Habs can pull off because as an organization, the focus is on developing players and allowing them to work more on pushing themselves to improve, but doing so in a controlled environment. So far this season, several rookies, even Kirby Dach, have seen themselves make great strides under head coach Martin St. Louis and for a young player like Puljujarvi, who has clearly not reached his potential, the revamped player development group could help him get much closer to that goal.
Dach’s Explosion in Montreal
As mentioned above, St. Louis has had positive results with players who were drafted high needing a change of scenery. Dach (third-overall pick in 2019) is one that has been the beneficiary of Hughes taking a risk on just that type of player. Maybe because the Chicago Blackhawks wanted to go all-in on the Connor Bedard tank, they were not the most conducive environment for a talented but raw young forward to improve.
His arrival in Montreal may have given him a wake-up call as well because this version of Dach looks very different from the one seen in previous seasons. He always had mobility, skill, vision, reach, and size. However, now, he seems to be able to use them more effectively, and that could have a lot to do with his growing confidence, an attribute that according to St. Louis, is now returned to his game, making him ready to produce results and return to playing center.
“I think his game’s in a good place, I think he’s confident. So, I think that alone he’s able to go help another line.”
– Martin St. Louis (from ‘Canadiens moving Kirby Dach back to center against Kings,’ Montreal Gazette, 10 Dec 2022)
Confidence is one of those intangibles and it is something that requires a coach to have the trust and respect of a player before he can instill that confidence in the player. An environment that allows a player to focus on their own game, with positive incentives from a coach can allow a player to grow. It’s an environment that has been beneficial to Dach, who is having a career season so far, and could be to Puljujarvi.
Canadiens Ideal Landing Spot
With the Canadiens’ player-centered approach with individually tailored development plans, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound winger could find some form of success. The development department under Adam Nicholas has the skill, approach, and resources that could become essential in his integration into the Canadiens, and could add another layer for Hughes to sell the city of Montreal as a desirable location for free agents by showing they cater to their players.
Puljujarvi is an NHL player and would be an upgrade in the Habs’ lineup. He’s a good skater who can forecheck and use his size along the boards and in front of the net. The issue for him in Edmonton is expectations. Because he was a high pick for them, he will never be seen as an asset because he can’t reach that level. However, in a new environment, he has a clean slate and he could prove of value.
He has the skill to be a 20-goal, 40-point player that can fill a top-six role. He has proven to be reliable defensively and has strong possession stats. If placed on a team that doesn’t rely on him to be a playmaker, but instead a puck retrieval player, or shooter, there is value in his overall game. He won’t be a power forward in a Josh Anderson style or score goals like a Brady Tkachuk, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be of value, especially at a lower cap hit.
With Puljujarvi, the focus is more on what he isn’t. Instead, the focus should be on what he can still become so as to salvage as much of his original potential as possible. A fresh start is needed and the Canadiens’ ability to take on salary makes them ideally suited to provide that new beginning. At worst, the team ends up with a pick and allows him to walk away as a free agent at the season’s end. At best, the Habs get a draft pick to take on the contract, but also gain a player that could be a positive impact on their rebuild. Essentially, the Canadiens would be able to make an outside-of-the-box move that is low-risk but high-reward.