by Gregorio Lentini, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
Many fans can agree that this season has been a disappointment. Even with the Montreal Canadiens’ recent, impressive wins against Tampa Bay and Vancouver, the Habs still sit in the bottom-third of the NHL. However, there are two ways that this season can become beneficial. The two, ideal scenarios are actually polar opposites, but each one would help improve the Canadiens’ chances at winning a Stanley Cup in the near future.
1. Making the playoffs and signing Tavares
This is the less likely of the two cases; however, it is still entertaining to postulate. In addition, since it is an actual possibility, it must not be dismissed until the possibility no longer exists.
The Habs are seven points out of a playoff spot and would have to win roughly three of every four remaining games to have a shot at making the playoffs. Considering the quality of play the Canadiens have exhibited throughout the first half of the season, it is very unlikely that the Habs will be able to win at that rate.
Nonetheless, there is still a chance, no matter how slim, that Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin all hit their stride and end the season with approximately thirty goals each. Shea Weber and Victor Mete, once they return to the lineup, would then have to solidify the defence to the point where it is no longer a serious liability. Carey Price would also have to remain his usual, superhuman self to make up for the remaining defensive errors.
If these aspects come to fruition and the Canadiens miraculously make the playoffs, the team would be filled with confidence. They would be peaking at the perfect time. They could then use their newfound vigour, chemistry and energy to win a round or two. With luck, timely goals and otherworldly goaltending, they could theoretically repeat their performance of 2010 and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
If the Habs somehow push themselves through a couple rounds, they would become more attractive to pending free agents. This is where the Canadiens’ chances at a Stanley Cup actually increase. This year’s playoffs would therefore simply be a way to entice unrestricted free agents to sign with the Canadiens.
The Habs could have more than ten million dollars in cap space this off-season. With John Tavares potentially heading for free agency, the Canadiens could use this cap space to shore up their center position.
In this best-case-scenario, the Habs could tempt Tavares to sign with the Habs with a hefty contract, the promise of a claiming the No. 1 Center role and being surrounded by a team that went further than the Islanders.
Montreal would then have a very dangerous top-six with Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Drouin, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen all in or entering their prime. The Canadiens would still have an underperforming defence to worry about, but as Pittsburgh proved last year, a team simply needs a potent offence and a good goaltender to win.
I will stress that this scenario is very unlikely, but it remains an actual option for the Habs, one that could help them contend as early as next year.
2. Ending in the bottom five and trading veterans
This is the most likely scenario, and it too would be very fruitful.
At the trade deadline, Marc Bergevin, if he is still the general manager of the Canadiens, would have to trade veterans on expiring contracts to contenders. This would allow the team to stock up on draft picks and refill their prospect pool. The list would include players such as Tomas Plekanec, Joe Morrow and maybe even Antti Niemi.
The Canadiens already have four draft picks in the first two rounds, and potentially seven picks in the first four rounds. Falling in the bottom five would allow the Habs to have higher-placed picks. Collecting many draft picks would also mean the Habs have higher chances of finding a diamond in the rough (like a Brendan Gallagher or Jamie Benn) and bouncing back quickly.
Then comes the draft.
It looks as if Arizona and Buffalo will finish in the last two spots of the league, giving them the best chances of claiming the first overall draft pick. Though the Habs will most likely miss out on star-defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, if the Habs finish in the bottom five, they have a would have a great chance at getting Brady Tkachuk.
At 6-foot-3-inches, Tkachuk is a strong center who can also score. He is projected to be a top left winger. He was impressive in the recent World Junior Championship by scoring nine points in seven games.
Some may then suggest trading the team’s most important veterans at the draft (Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty) to commence a rebuild. However, I do not think such a drastic step is necessary.
Trading the world’s best goaltender and one of the best defenders in the game in the hopes that the Canadiens will find them again in a few years is too risky for my liking. Unlike forwards, defencemen and goaltenders tend to peak at different times. Therefore, the only person I would be willing to trade is Pacioretty.
As much as I would like to keep him, Pacioretty will command a significant raise for his next contract at the end of next season. He is about to turn thirty and he is a left-winger. This team already has two young, strong left-wingers in Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin. Sacrificing Pacioretty would therefore be necessary to shore up the defence and center positions.
Considering Pacioretty has been a consistent 30-goal scorer, he would fit perfectly on contenders such as Nashville or St. Louis. For example, if he went to Nashville, Montreal could get the talented winger Eeli Tolvanen and defensive prospect Dante Fabbro. If he went to St. Louis, the Habs could get a package involving a promising center prospect such as Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas along with a defensive prospect like Vince Dunn.
Either way, Pacioretty’s deal would be one to fix the defence and center positions. Along with Tkachuk and the players obtained in Pacioretty’s deal, the Habs can become a force to be reckoned with in a short time span.
In order for this season to be useful, the Habs must fall into one of these two paths. Either scenario will require luck, but each case is possible. The Canadiens simply have to avoid narrowly missing the playoffs and concluding the season with a middling draft pick. Granted, this is not an area one can fully control, but if the Habs remain at the bottom of the league by February, the General Manager should sell the necessary players to ensure the Habs are not stuck in the middle.