by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

Vegas Golden Knights name in lights. (Photo by NHL.com)

Let me first offer a hearty congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins for being the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.

The Montreal Canadiens are coming off an Atlantic Division title and a disappointing playoff exit. It is no secret that Marc Bergevin has his work cut out for him this summer. However, unlike the off-seasons since 2000, this summer has an extra hurdle. The expansion draft will occur from June 18th to 21st for the Vegas Golden Knights.

The NHL Expansion Draft rules allow for general managers one of two scenarios. The first, is they can choose to protect seven forwards, three defencemen, and one goaltender. The second choice they face is to protect eight skaters and one goaltender.

Regardless of which scenario they decide upon, each team must leave, at minimum, one defenceman and two forwards exposed. The obvious choices to be left exposed would include Thomas Plekanec and Alexei Emelin.

While some may see this as an unwanted distraction, this draft can provide Marc Bergevin with a golden opportunity to retool. It is no secret the Canadiens are in need of an upgrade at center who can also provide added scoring.

Yet, as with any opportunity that involves Las Vegas, you have to buy in. In this case, to get Vegas to select either Plekanec or Emelin, Bergevin will need to pay a hefty fee.

To gain the cap space needed to sign or trade for a top center, the Habs will need to belly-up to the high rollers table and take a gamble. This gamble may may involve offering a second round pick, and Charles Hudon to make it palatable for George McPhee to select Plekanec.

In this draft, McPhee is playing with house money. In this scenario, bringing in Plekanec provides him the necessary cap hit to get to the cap floor, as well as adding a serviceable veteran center on the last year of his contract. This means he will be collecting less in salary than his cap hit number.

Add in a young, NHL-ready winger, and top 60 pick in what is turning out to be a better draft than many would lead us to believe, this draft has lots of potential in the top 60 selections.

The expansion draft is also the reason why so many players are becoming available, as many teams have to make difficult decisions, including moving out players they would normally not imagine moving otherwise.

If Bergevin is able to get Vegas to take on Plekanec’s $6 million average annual value (AAV) cap hit, he will then need to double down on his bet and find a top six center to use that cap space on, as cap space has never been able to put up points on the power-play or help with the transition game.

Looking at social media provides dozens of possible names. However, to keep this from becoming a novel, I will focus on three centers that have been in the rumor mill and also have cap hits similar to that of Plekanec.

Derek Stepan

Stepan holds a cap hit of $6.5M AAV until 2021 with a no trade clause (NTC) beginning on July 1, 2017. The 6-foot, 198-pound, right-handed centerman has been a mainstay with the New York Rangers. He has steadily been a 50-plus point center known for his two-way play, solid positioning at both ends of the ice, and excellent play-making skills.

Stepan’s name is in the rumor mill as the Rangers are in search of cap space to re-sign their young restricted free agents (RFA). While he is not a clear-cut top centerman, he is capable of producing points playing in all situations against the opposition’s top players. Adding to the Canadiens roster would not come cheap, yet the gamble Bergevin faces on this bet is that whatever return he provides doesn’t come back to haunt him in the playoffs.

Matt Duchene

He is the proud owner of a $6M AAV cap hit until 2019 and no clauses attached to his contract. The 5-foot-11-inch, 196-pound, left-handed centerman is coming off a down year. His club team struggled and fell to the NHL cellar. His one goal in 10 games for the 2017 World Championship Silver Medalist Team Canada didn’t raise his trade value.

There is no doubt Duchene is in need of a change of scenery, and judging by his name being in the rumor mill all season long, it is a likely outcome that he will be wearing a different uniform next season. His all-out hustle, faceoff prowess, and speed would make him a good fit under Claude Julien. The gamble faced by Bergevin is if the drop in play Duchene suffered from continues if he arrives in Montreal.

Artem Anisimov

The holder of a $4.55M AAV cap hit under contract until 2021 with a no move clause (NMC). He is a 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound, left-handed, two-way center. Anisimov has many of the qualities many coaches would love to have. Claude Julien is no exception. His offensive output is not much beyond that of current Canadien, Phillip Danault’s, however adding a quality veteran two way center would go a long way in helping the Canadiens center depth. The gamble with this addition would be if Bergevin were unable to be creative in adding more offence elsewhere.

Bergevin is notorious for keeping his hand close to his vest. While the rest of the league is distracted by the Gold, Bergevin will need to go all in for Silver.

  • billybt

    What does ” 15 top 2 centers ” mean….Abysmal !