Stu Cowan: Canadiens GM Kent Hughes pins team's future on patience

Habs will move forward with Sam Montembeault and Cayden Primeau as their goalies, while David Savard continues to mentor young defencemen.

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General manager Kent Hughes is hoping his patience will eventually pay off as he continues to rebuild the Canadiens.

Hughes remained patient this season with a three-goalie system that wasn’t good for Samuel Montembeault, Jake Allen or Cayden Primeau. The GM finally fixed that situation Friday when he traded Allen to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick in 2025 that will become a second-round pick if Allen plays at least 40 games next season and his team qualifies for the playoffs.

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It was a decent return considering the 33-year-old Allen’s statistics with limited playing time this season: a 6-12-3 record with a 3.65 goals-against average and a .892 save percentage. Hughes had to retain 50 per cent of Allen’s salary, which has a US$3.85-million cap hit next season in the final year of his contract.

When he met with the media in Brossard after Friday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline had passed, Hughes explained why he decided to keep three goalies. Montembeault was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and the GM learned through his sources another NHL team would claim Primeau off waivers if he tried to send him down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

Montembeault played well enough to convince Hughes he could be the team’s No. 1 goalie and the GM rewarded the 27-year-old on Dec. 1 with a three-year, US$9.45-million contract extension that runs through the 2026-27 season. Primeau played well enough to convince Hughes he could be Montembeault’s backup. Hughes said after signing Montembeault, the pressure was on him to trade a goalie.

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“Given where we are and the age difference of the three goalies, Jake became the more likely candidate to be traded,” Hughes said.

Of course, Hughes had to find a trading partner and he finally did on Friday.

The Allen trade was the only one Hughes made Friday as he displayed more patience by keeping veteran defenceman David Savard. Hughes said he wasn’t looking to trade Savard, but added the 33-year-old wasn’t untouchable and he listened to offers. In the end, Hughes decided there was more value in keeping Savard as he heads into the final season of his contract with a salary-cap hit of US$3.5 million.

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“I think if we’re efficient in terms of how we manage our assets we put ourselves in a better position to build a hockey team,” Hughes said. “But, ultimately, we’re trying to build a hockey team. And if a player has value to us in terms of what we’re trying to build by being physically present and part of our organization, then that’s going to trump trading that player at a later point for something a little bit inferior because there’s value in his time with us that we’re going to carry beyond his time with us — and that’s certainly something that we were considering in the case of David.”

The fact Arber Xhekaj has played his best hockey over the last eight games since being paired with Savard probably factored into Hughes’s decision to keep the veteran, who will continue to be a mentor to the team’s young defencemen.

The Canadiens have a 24-29-10 record heading into Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) and will miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Hughes said during his news conference Friday consistency is one of the last things to come with young players, noting there are still going to be ups and downs with the likes of Juraj Slafkovsky and Xhekaj.

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“But, I think, by and large, we’re seeing a progression and it’s starting to help us form a view of what our team could look like and what we need,” Hughes said.

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I asked Hughes why Canadiens fans should be happy he is remaining patient.

“I can’t answer for Habs fans,” he said with a smile.

“I don’t know if patient is the word, but we’re trying to make decisions for the right reasons,” Hughes added. “In order to do that, if that requires patience we’re trying to do it. Listen, I look forward to the day that we’re buying, not selling. I’m as competitive as the next person. I want to feel the highs and lows of winning and losing that come when you’re expected to compete for a Stanley Cup. So the faster that it could happen, the better off it is. I’d like to be around for it. But I don’t want to do it at the expense of doing it the right way and I think that’s how we all feel as a management group and as an organization.”

So, how far are the Canadiens away from being buyers at the trade deadline?

“I guess we’ve been buyers to a certain degree at the drafts and sellers at the trade deadline,” Hughes said. “So if we see an opportunity again at the draft we’ll look to continue that path. Being a buyer at the trade deadline really depends on the performance on the ice. I don’t know if I can give you that answer right now.”

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