This season, Habs fans played witness to a train of dumpsters lit on fire and crashing into a recycled tire yard. To say that the team performed poorly this season is an understatement.
Yet, as painful as it may be, sometimes taking a step back can be beneficial for a franchise. Last summer’s inability to keep a 38-year-old defenceman and a 31-year-old winger may prove to have been needed. Without their presence to help prop up the team for the short term, the issues that kept the roster from being a contender have been laid bare.
Simply treading water by plugging lesser holes, year after year, has not helped move the team any closer to the ultimate goal. This summer, a small and controlled cleansing fire will be necessary to clear away the older overgrowth allowing for a younger, healthier and more robust crop.
For those who desire a complete fire sale and rebuild, this article isn’t for you. In my opinion, there will be no full rebuild for two reasons, Firstly, the core of talented forwards under the age of 25, a top-pair all-star defender and a top-tier starting goaltender are components of a winning team. Secondly, Montreal fans do not have the patience for a rebuild, especially when they can stretch out over a decade.
It’s no secret. The team lacks two key elements, a top-six centre and a top-pair defenceman to play with Shea Weber. For now, I will focus on the centre position.
Marc Bergevin has received support from ownership and will have an opportunity this summer to guide the franchise in a retool. The good news for Habs fans is that Bergevin has all of the tools needed to make a quick turnaround a reality if he is willing to make a bold move.
What about the prospect pool?
Bergevin has seen enough to know the Canadiens’ prospect pool at the centre position is less of a pool and more of a puddle. With that in mind, he set out to add several young faces in the hopes that one or two can develop into NHL quality centres.
The general manager has signed Lukas Vejdemo, Jake Evans, Will Bitten and Michael Pezzetta to entry level contracts. He also dipped into the UFA pool and signed undrafted CHL over-agers Hayden Verbeek and Alexandre Alain. These players add depth and youthful exuberance to Laval for next season. His near singular focus on centres shows a commitment to depth at the position.
What about the NHL level?
The Canadiens were one of two teams to move up in the draft lottery and ended up with the third overall selection. While the consensus pick is Filip Zadina, it could become a bargaining chip in a bold move to trade for a top line centreman.
If the NHL salary cap rises to $80 million, Bergevin could have almost $19 million at his disposal. A portion of that total must be used to re-sign some of the 11 pending restricted free agents including Phillip Danault. He has multiple picks and prospects on hand as well as a proven 30-goal man in captain Max Pacioretty who can become a trade chip.
Without a support cast such as Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov, Pacioretty’s production was an issue this season, which hurt a team desperate for scoring. Despite his dip in producing goals, there would be no shortage of suitors by draft day. His lack of any movement clause and his team-friendly contract makes it much easier to make a deal as well. A Pacioretty deal has the possibility to be a franchise altering one especially if the return was a proven, young NHL capable top six centre.
Is trading for a centre really that hard to do?
It’s possible that teams looking to add proven scoring on the wings may be willing to move a centreman that fits the Canadiens needs.
In Buffalo, Ryan O’Reilly may be available. He is a big bodied, physical two-way centre capable of playing in all situations while putting up a 60-point season. O’Reilly is a skilled faceoff man with a 60 percent success rate this past season.
Florida has several centres who need support on the wings. Vincent Trochek is a centre who could be seen as expendable by Dale Tallon due to the organization’s success at developing young centres. The right-handed, smooth skating 24-year-old had a career season in 2017-’18 with 31 goals and 75 points. Trochek is undersized, yet his speed would be ideal for a Canadiens squad.
The Kings are another team looking for a shakeup with an opportunity for one more playoff run before major changes are necessary. With centres such as Adrian Kempe and Gabriel Vilardi on the rise, they may be willing to move Jeff Carter to add scoring on the wing. Pacioretty’s salary would provide cap flexibility to extend Drew Doughty.
Can a centre be found using free agency?
There are several centres projected to be unrestricted free agents that could help Montreal. John Tavares is the obvious choice. I have identified the considerable obstacles to completing this trade here. That said, expect Bergevin to do everything possible to sign the highly-coveted centre if he hits the open market.
At the next tier, Paul Stastny is an ideal two-way, second line centre with excellent playmaking skills capable of a 50-point season. Stastny had a 56.3 percent success rate at the faceoff dot during in his time in St-Louis.
Tyler Bozak is another player who may come available. Bozak is a very good skater who can play a 200-foot game. He is capable of 50 points generating scoring opportunities via effective puck retrieval. Defensively he can be sound, but is inconsistent.
Joe Thornton suffered another serious knee injury at the mid-way point this season and did not dress for any of the first round series versus Anaheim. Expecting him to play a full schedule next season could be unrealistic. That said, Thornton scored 36 points in 47 games, which would be 62 points over a full schedule. Thornton is still a talented centre who can play a leadership role on a short one or two-year deal. He isn’t an ideal fit for Montreal but he could be a plan C option if nothing else works out.
There are several options and paths available to Bergevin to immediately improve the Habs centre depth. It is clear that Molson supports Bergevin’s plan for now. Yet for that plan to work the general manager must accomplish something he hasn’t been able to during his tenure, that is to land a quality proven top six centre. If his summer is fruitless once again, the fans demanding change may finally get their wish.