Let’s take advantage of this last column in 2023 to discuss the Canadian’s progress over the past year. To speak of giant steps would be a grotesque exaggeration, but not to notice improvement would constitute bad faith.

We don’t see a big difference statistically. After 32 games last year, the Canadiens were 15-15-2 for 32 points, scored 92 goals and allowed 112. Montreal is 14-13-5 this year for 33 points, scored 90 goals and allowed 110.

But things look better in December. Montreal is 4-2-3 since the start of the month, compared to 3-5-1 during the same period last year… on the eve of a seven-game losing streak.

Also, above all, the puzzle begins to take shape. We were still looking for a winger to complement Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield in December 2022. The recent emergence of Juraj Slafkovsky, at only 19 years old, gives us hope that things will be resolved.

Slafkovsky has only seven points in his last fifteen games, some will say, but his efficiency in forechecking, his speed, his aggressiveness, his desire to do well defensively, his contagious rage to win give new impetus to Suzuki and Caufield and allows to hope for a top power winger.

His imposing 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame also gives another dimension to this trio. Slafkovsky, used sparingly last year, has never played less than 17 minutes in the last eight games and has even crossed the 20-minute mark twice. He was also promoted to the first wave on the power play.

With 28 points in 32 games, Suzuki, 24, could reach the 70-point mark for the first time in his career. It’s obviously not up to par with McDavid, MacKinnon, Pettersson and Matthews, but his production is still higher than that of 14 number one centers in the NHL, two points behind Sebastian Aho and Aleksander Barkov, just one by John Tavares and Anze Kopitar.

The loss of 22-year-old Kirby Dach obviously hurts, but he showed in the second half of the season and during training camp that he has the potential to become a top center. At this time last year, he was still playing to the right of Suzuki and Caufield and we did not yet know what he could bring full-time to the center.

Obtained for late first and second round picks last summer, Alex Newhook unfortunately also fell in combat. The sample is small, but his six points, including four goals, in seven games before his injury, his speed, good vision and his aggressiveness allow us to consider an interesting offensive winger to play with Dach. Certainly better than Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman, at the end of their career in Montreal and placed on offensive trios by default.

It will therefore remain to find this winger to complete them. Josh Anderson is enjoying an offensive awakening, with six points in his last eight games, after getting just one in his first 26, but at 30 this summer, you have to wonder if he’s in the long-term plans or it will not constitute a bait to further fatten the bank of choices or hopes.

The CH is spoiled for choice to complete its two other trios, and we will gradually add young guns looking for promotion over the coming years.

Justin Barron remains without a shadow of a doubt the most improved defender. At just 22 years old, this young man obtained with a 2024 second-round pick for Artturi Lehkonen forms a stable pair with 21-year-old Kaiden Guhle.

He was still playing in the American League in December 2022 and his place in the NHL was far from certain. He has now dropped Johnathan Kovacevic, more limited offensively, in the hierarchy.

Barron is less vulnerable defensively, having played 19 minutes or more in 15 of his last 17 games, with ten games lasting 20 minutes or more, and already has six goals on the clock, a high among team defensemen .

So here is a pair tuned for the future. We will have to find replacements for Mike Matheson and David Savard in the coming years among David Reinbacher, Lane Hutson, Adam Engstrom, Jordan Harris, perhaps Logan Mailloux and Bogdan Konyushov. Let’s see if Jayden Struble, in his place in a third pair, can progress further.

But if CH aspires to become a top club, one of the defenders mentioned above will have to become transcendent. This is not yet a given.

Montreal has filled another gap in 2023: the number one goalie position. In December 2022, Jake Allen was still the default starting point guard. He started 22 of the team’s first 28 games and, after a strong start to the season, began to falter like the rest of the club in December.

Montembeault took pole in the second half of the season. He just signed a contract extension at age 27 and is 7-4-3 with a 2.86 GAA and .907 save percentage. He’s not Carey Price, obviously, but Montreal is in good hands with him over the next few years.

Against all odds, Philadelphia is 18-11-3, second in the Metropolitan Division, but only two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the last club excluded from the playoffs. Wise response from Torto…