It is no secret. Habs fans are bitterly disappointed after an early exit in this year’s playoffs. Moving forward, adjustments will need to be made. Key players must be re-signed and extended. Improvements to the current roster are also a must. In other words, Marc Bergevin will be a very busy man this summer.
After a season spent improving on the Canadiens’ issues with lack of size and grit, one deficiency on the roster remains: a top six center who can put up points. The Canadiens can be lauded for holding the Rangers to 12 goals in their six game series, in doing so proved their defensive worth. However, only scoring 11 goals, is unacceptable.
Fans had hoped for Bergevin to make a deal at the NHL trade deadline to address the scoring issue, but instead, the largest move was the hiring of Claude Julien as Head Coach. However, this may be a better deal in the long term than the addition of a rental player.
Julien has coached teams that employed a strong defensive system. They also relied on two-way centers with smooth skating to help launch the transition game. This reliance on a strong game up the middle should force Bergevin’s hand to act this summer.
Cup contenders have both solid defence and scoring. The current model used by Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston (Julien’s former team), and Pittsburgh have all used three lines that can boast multiple 20 goal scoring threats.
The Habs have several wingers capable of this feat. There is also an all-star goaltender, and an elite-level, top pair set of defenceman. Yet, the Canadiens are still lacking a key piece to feed the wingers, a true top six centerman.
As good as Phillip Danault was this season, he is better suited in a third line role, and is simply not a top line center.
Bergevin seemed to attempt to temper expectations on a big trade or signing by saying,
“IT’S NOT EVERY TEAM THAT HAVE A NUMBER ONE CENTER, AND THEY WON’T GIVE THEM UP. WE MUST FIND A WAY TO GET THERE, WE HAVE TO BE CREATIVE” – MARC BERGEVIN (TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH)
My unscientific poll appears to show that this is common knowledge. It also asks what route many feel Bergevin will take to fill this glaring need.
— Blain (@Potsy_70) April 29, 2017
The KHL unrestricted free agent (UFA) route was taken recently by the Vegas Golden Knights in signing Vadim Shipachyov, a center many Habs fans had hoped to see in a Canadiens uniform. Fans must temper their expectations and remember that players have different needs. The difficult task faced in recruiting free agents cannot be overstated. Some, as Brian Wilde stated, may be put off by the Montreal market.
I know you're gonna find this crazy but not all players want the highest taxes, brutal winters & a fish bowl of rabid fans & invasive media.
— BrianWilde (@BWildeCTV) May 5, 2017
One way to be creative is to generate more offence on the wings, and pursue a less expensive option. Another KHL UFA, a winger.
Yevgeni Dadonov, the former 2007 third round pick of the Florida Panthers, has had some excellent seasons playing in the KHL, and despite being an undersized winger, can provide some scoring punch on either wing in the top nine. He has put up numbers similar to Shipachyov in the KHL.
Dadonov is rumored to be interested by the Canadiens and would project as a 50-point player in the NHL. That doesn’t make him the top line center fans are desperate for, but he would be a more than welcome addition to a team that was 15th in the NHL in scoring at 223 goals for.
There are options at center this summer, and none will be seen as major home runs if they were to happen. That said, they are still proven and reliable options that would improve the Canadiens up the middle.
Nick Bonino is a defensively responsible two-way center capable of playing in all situations. His faceoff percentage hovers around the 50 percent mark. He is also a capable playmaker that can put up points while lining up against top opposition.
Bonino can also boast the experience and character that is a highly sought after commodity. Having said that, he is not a number one center. Although he would be a solid second line center on most NHL teams, he would become the defacto top line center in Montreal.
Another free agent option that may be available is Joe Thornton. This option is scoffed at by many on social media, as Thornton is now 38-years-old and his scoring touch is on the decline. However, his 43 assists this season would have placed him as the team leader with the Canadiens in assists, and his 53 points would have placed him third in total points.
Thornton is recovering from a serious knee injury, but he was still able to play 18 or more minutes per game, and provide 0.5 points per game in the playoffs. There is no reason to think he couldn’t recover and provide another solid 50 to 55 points while being over 50 percent on faceoffs. There is every reason to believe a veteran center such as Thornton would fit in well with the current core group in the Canadiens locker room.
It becomes a very thin crop of unrestricted free agency beyond those two names. This leaves Bergevin with the trade route to fill the void. If he were to go that route, it cannot be expected he will sacrifice key pieces of the team’s future, such as Mikhail Sergachev.
Sergachev is seen as the heir apparent to Andrei Markov, and a player who will have a major impact for ten to fifteen years. As much as Bergevin’s position may be on the line, it goes against his character to move those types of players. If a trade is to happen, it will be with other pieces.
A popular name mentioned for a trade is Matt Duchene, who had a down season, but so did his entire team. His speed, his faceoff, and two-way abilities would make him an excellent fit in a typical Julien coached team. Yet, the cost to land him would be high.
The pieces to trade for Duchene could include a solid young defenceman, a top prospect, and first round pick. These are all in Montreal’s system and could be offered if Bergevin is able to convince Joe Sakic to not demand Sergachyev.
Another center that could be a target is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (RNH). RNH is an excellent playmaker with a good shot. He has the ability to play well defensively, yet has had consistency issues on that front. His ability in the faceoff circle requires work as well. However, he has excellent skating ability and can play at top speed which helps the transition game.
Edmonton will face a difficult task this summer of extending both Leon Draisaitl and Kris Russell. RNH and his $6M average annual value (AAV) is expendable when Jesse Puljujarvi is waiting in the minors to fill a top six role.
The cost for RNH will be similar to that of Matt Duchene’s. That said, Peter Chiarelli will not be as reliant on getting a specific type of player and would take the best value return.
After five years following a patient and methodical approach at retooling the Canadiens’ entire system, Bergevin is now facing the difficult choice of using some of the foundation he has built to add scoring and a center to the core players.
It is likely that if Bergevin fails in his task to add that needed scoring and centerman, the Habs will face another early exit from the playoffs. If that were to happen, his position as the General Manager could very well be in jeopardy. Despite his refusal in acknowledging windows of opportunity to win, his is now open, but for how long?
Edited by Donna Sim