The Montreal Canadiens had only one win in their last six as they embarked on a four game road trip Thursday. It won’t get any easier with all four dates difficult through the southeastern United States.

Challenge number one was the Florida Panthers, who are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. Montreal did an excellent job of taking the Panthers to a shootout which they lost with only Cole Caufield scoring.

Make the final 4-3 Panthers.

Wilde Horses 

It was the best month for a Canadiens goal scorer in 29 years. Nick Suzuki kept his offence rolling with his 11th goal in his last 11 games with a first-period marker. Arber Xhekaj picked up the puck beside his own net in the corner and found Suzuki about 140 feet down ice for a breakaway pass. His shot upstairs was perfect.

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Suzuki becomes the first Canadiens player to score 11 goals in a calendar month since Brian Savage did it in October of 1995. Suzuki now has 24 goals of the season. He has 59 points in 60 games and is on pace for an 81 point season.

Xhekaj continues to impress since returning from Laval. There is more maturity to his game. He has stepped up to level some tremendous hits at the blue line. He also is taking fewer penalties, and picking his spots to use his intimidation effectively.

Xhekaj presents such a unique package with his ability to fight, his 107 mile per hour slap shot, his playmaking, and his physicality that even though he is slotted to be a 5-6 defender, he might just be the most important and most talented 5-6 defender in the league in two years.

GM Kent Hughes gets a lot of phone calls on Xhekaj, but it better be a good offer to warrant trading such a unique talent. He won’t command a big salary, but he will bring a big game. Xhekaj is the perfect 5-6 in the salary cap era.

Hughes will have to choose between 12 NHL defenders next season, and pick six to stay. It is a tricky task, but expect Xhekaj  to be one of the six when all the roster moves have concluded.

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Planned plays from a faceoff almost never work, but the coaching staff sure is excited when their plans pay off.  With three seconds left in the middle frame, Suzuki positioned Juraj Slafkovsky behind him to shoot as soon as the faceoff win went back to him. Suzuki won the draw, and Slafkovsky immediately shot. A terrific goal for Slafkovsky with officially 0.07 left in the period.

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In the third period, the Canadiens’ suddenly strong power play, with a lot of efficient puck movement, connected. It was Suzuki again leading the charge by winning the zone, and then feeding Cole Caufield who immediately fed Alex Newhook. He ripped a perfect shot upstairs.

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Wilde Goats 

It was a strong night for the Canadiens as they competed hard against a high-flying team. They battled well, and never handed the night to Florida. Montreal came back from deficits twice, before finally succumbing in a skills competition. Montreal was the better club in the overtime which is extremely encouraging against such a talented Florida top-tier.

It’s important to note night after night as these games get assessed that the important factor is the players of the future are showing that they have one, and they are improving. When they do, the final score is secondary.

This was another game where the future looked good.

Wilde Cards

The trading deadline is March 8, but it does not appear that this year will be an exciting one for sellers. Each year, it’s a bit of a mystery who will have the advantage in accumulating assets.

There are years when the sellers have returns that are strong. For example, Ben Chiarot fetched a first-round draft choice in a year that the sellers dominated in 2022. Occasionally, general managers are so excited that they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup that they can overpay.

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Other years, the marketplace is strangely muted. This could be a poor year for sellers as the best right-handed defenceman on the market, Chris Tanev, fetched a second-round pick, essentially. It is a shock that Calgary did not get a first-rounder for Tanev. Dallas won the trade easily as the rich get richer and the poor probably added nothing to their lineup.

Dallas gave up only about the 57th pick overall to acquire Tanev. That means, historically, Calgary has only a five-per cent chance of acquiring an NHL player at that draft location and only a one-per cent chance of that player being a star.

Montreal GM Kent Hughes is hoping that his counterpart Craig Conroy just didn’t do a good job, and that this trade is an outlier because Hughes hopes there is a market for his players.

There was a time when Tampa Bay paid a first-rounder for David Savard in 2021. He helped them to win a cup. It’s not looking like a first-rounder is possible now, but Hughes can also wait for a better market on his signed player next season.

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Hughes has a habit of holding for his price, and if his price is not met, then he will hold his asset. This has to be the way to behave with the return of only a second-rounder for such a coveted defender like Savard, or the marketplace will become so skewed that the poor will stay poor.

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If Hughes acquires only around a 55th pick for Savard this year, he might as well wait until next season. Same concept for Mike Matheson, Joel Armia, or anyone else that may be on offer.

There will be a lot more clarity after the next trades, but the Tanev deal was a massive downer for the trading deadline this year. It was certainly a bad day for rebuilding teams who should be wise to hedge and hold with strength, or they will inadvertently hurt their own future.

It can feel like holding on one expiring contract is the wrong action, but by holding, it means the next 10 expiring contracts have a chance to have some real value. If a GM holds out for a late first-rounder, the math says his trade has a 50-per cent chance of being an NHL player. If he loses his resolve, he’ll have a harder time the next trade convincing his peers that he won’t back down again.

It’s easy to see why holding for a brighter future would be smart in the long run for general managers in a rebuilding mode. They can’t allow their own marketplace to be destroyed so significantly that they have only a very slight chance of getting an NHLer for their best expiring assets.

To be continued.

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

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