Cole Caufield, David Reinbacher, Key Post, Lane Hutson, Montreal Canadiens, Nick Suzuki

Identifying the Canadiens’ Core 4, Now & in the Future

With all the talk of teams’ core four players now that the Pittsburgh Penguins have assembled theirs, I thought it was an interesting topic to discuss with the Montreal Canadiens. They are a young team and although they look like they will be much more balanced throughout the lineup than that of the two most notable teams with a core four (Toronto Maple Leafs and Penguins), there will still be certain go-to players that stick around and lead the Canadiens to future success.

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We’ll first look at who potentially makes up the core four of the Canadiens right now and who could enter that conversation in the long run. They don’t necessarily have any superstars making ridiculous money, but they do have a lot of youngsters with that potential.

Core 4 of the Canadiens Right Now

Two of the Canadiens’ core four are easy to determine. Just look at the two highest-paid first-line players who also led their team in offensive categories last season. Despite only playing in 46 games, Cole Caufield, one of the aforementioned core four, tied for the team lead in goals with 26. He completely turned his season around in 2021-22 when Martin St. Louis became the head coach and could relate to him as a small winger. Caufield recently got a long-term extension through 2031, so he’s here to stay and it looks like it is going to be a steal of a contract all the way through.

Nick Suzuki is the other first-line player on the Canadiens that I can without a doubt say that he’s a member of the core four. He’s not only the captain of the team and signed through 2030 on a very similar deal to Caufield, but Suzuki also tied for the team lead in goals, led the team in points, and logged a ton of minutes in all situations. He is an integral piece of the Canadiens and is steadily getting better as each season passes. These two are also only 22 and 24 years old respectively, so they aren’t nearly in the prime of their careers yet and are already carrying the team.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This is where things get tricky with the third and fourth members. If Carey Price was still playing, he would without a doubt be one of the core four. Since he isn’t and the goaltending situation is anyone’s best guess, we move up the lineup a little bit. In terms of production, role on the team, and contract, two players stand out, and no I’m not talking about Josh Anderson or Brandan Gallagher, despite both being signed through 2027. I don’t believe their overall impact on the ice is big enough compared to Kirby Dach and Michael Matheson.

Dach was drafted third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks and with an accelerated development and injury issues, didn’t fit the plans of the team at that time. The Canadiens gladly took him on and even though he only played in 58 games last season, he showed a ton of great stuff and the ability to perform with Suzuki and Caufield or center his own line. Dach was used in multiple even strength situations as well as the power-play unit. He is signed to a bridge deal, but as he’s only 22 as well, he will only grow quickly with a great opportunity in the Canadiens’ top-six.

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Matheson spent a fair amount of time on the injured reserve like most of the rest of the team last season. He only got into 48 games, but in surprising fashion, scored eight goals, and 34 points, and logged 24:27 of ice time per game. This was unexpected because it was not only his first season in Montreal after being traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he also hadn’t logged over 19 minutes of average time on ice per game (ATOI) in a season since 2018-19 (from “Basu and Godin: Mike Matheson’s ambition to become a top-pair defender for the Canadiens”, The Athletic, Apr. 17, 2023). The Canadiens are filled with young defencemen (and David Savard), so nobody looks to be overtaking Matheson for his top duties just yet, which makes him a safe pick for the current core four.

Future Canadiens Core 4

In terms of looking towards the future, the Canadiens not only have highly skilled players drafted very high recently but other top prospects as well. There are three names I didn’t include in the current core four because they have either yet to play a game in the NHL or they haven’t broken out just yet.

Juraj Slafkovsky was the 2022 first-overall pick and while he didn’t get a great shot in the Canadiens’ lineup due to the number of average NHL players taking up spots, he also got injured and didn’t play a full season. Nowadays, it seems like it’s more likely that certain first-overall picks need a bit of time to develop like Alexis Lafreniere, Jack Hughes, and Owen Power. While some can do that at the NHL level, others benefit from spending a year or two outside of the NHL before making their debuts. Slafkovsky has the size and skill to be a future top-six winger who can make a big impact.

The other two who are on the right track to become very important pieces on the Canadiens are David Reinbacher and Lane Hutson. While Reinbacher was just drafted fifth overall in 2023 and a lot is expected of him, Hutson was drafted at the end of the second round in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and took a massive step forward last season, getting on everybody’s radar. Reinbacher looks to be a stud defensively with some offensive capabilities while Hutson appears to be an offensive dynamo who is working on his defensive game. Both should very likely be impact players in a couple of seasons and their ceilings are very high.

David Reinbacher Montreal Canadiens
David Reinbacher, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since I’m choosing the future core four here, I believe that Reinbacher and Hutson will be the ones that join Suzuki and Caufield, not Slafkovsky, Dach, Matheson, Alex Newhook, or Kaiden Guhle. I believe most of them, if not all will still be around in 4-5 years, but they won’t be making the same impact as the others. But if I had to choose one, Dach could very well be in that conversation still. The Canadiens have struggled, despite a Stanley Cup run in 2021, but they are building up for something special that could last for a very long time.

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