In any NHL market, when a team struggles there will be trade rumors about any and all players. In Montreal that aspect is intensified as it is more than just a hockey market, the Canadiens constitute a pseudo religion in the city and province.
As each loss mounts, it increasingly looks as though all playoff hopes will soon be lost. As Montreal hovers around or below the .500 mark while the teams they must catch have begun to separate themselves from the Canadiens as they are stepping up their play to a .600 winning percentage. If this trend continues, the chances of seeing the retool increase exponentially.
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 30-year-old winger may prove to be what was 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 year after year has not helped move the team any closer to the ultimate goal. A small and controlled cleansing fire is sometimes necessary to clear away the overgrowth allowing for a 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. The first is that it simply isn’t needed due to the core having much of what a team needs to win today. A stable of talented forwards under the age of 25, a top pair all-star defender who can play in all situations as well as a top tier all-star starting goaltender. The second is that as vocal as some on social media have been, Montreal fans do not have the patience for a rebuild, especially when they can stretch out over a decade as they have in other cities.
What the team truly lacks are two key elements, depth at center and someone who can reliably be paired with that top defender.
In Montreal it has been a two decade search for that center depth. Jonathan Drouin has been slowly growing into that role and may take an entire season before he can be reliably seen as a true center. Alex Galchenyuk has had a strange relationship with management where one summer they see him as a winger then later say he may be used as a center after all. After the December 27th game versus Carolina Claude Julien said, “We’ve got him on the wing but it doesn’t mean we’ll never see him at centre again if we have the need.”
“it doesn’t mean we’ll never see him at center again” – Claude Julien
So what does that leave Bergevin to do? Well, quite a lot actually. None of the moves he would make are needed to clear cap space for next season as that was already taken care of by this past summer and any expiring contracts giving the Canadiens approximately 19 million dollars depending on the actual salary cap for next season. This leaves him capable of holding onto salary to help make any deals he may see fit to pull the trigger on.
Marc Bergevin also still holds what will likely be the largest trade chip at this year’s trade deadline, Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty’s production has been an issue this season. This hurts a team desperate for a scoring upgrade, and is very much unlike him. There is no outward signs as to why this dip is occurring. Despite his recent play there would be no shortage of suitors if he were made available who believe they can be the change of scenery he would need. His lack of any movement clause and his team-friendly contract makes it much easier to make any deal as well.
I have been on record that in my opinion if he were to be traded the draft floor in June is likely the best place to do so. That being said, as the chances to make the playoffs this season quickly slip away there is no real harm in making him available to gauge his value.
This is a trade that must be handled correctly. Any Pacioretty deal has the possibility to be a franchise altering one. If the return can fill both needs for an impact center and a top four defender, even if both are unproven prospects under the age of 21, it’s a chance that can be worth taking.
Elsewhere in the Canadiens system, with players such as Will Bitten, Michael Pezzetta, possibly even Jake Evans ready to make their AHL debuts next season, it opens the door to make trades at higher levels to make room for their arrivals.
Any trades would also be used to open room for prospects ready to graduate to the NHL or take on larger roles this season. Players like Jacob De La Rose who has shown himself capable of playing well defensively and producing when lined up with players who can take advantage of his puck retrieval capabilities. The same can be said of Michael McCarron who has proven himself capable of a bottom-six center role.
Nikita Scherbak is another prospect who is close to kicking the NHL door down. In his injury shortened season it would seem he has found that missing confidence needed to complete his game. His pace of more than one point per game in the AHL seemingly points to him being ready to showcase his skills at an NHL level as the only Habs prospect that has shown himself to have top six forward talent thus far.
Noah Juulsen is an intriguing prospect. He is in his first pro season and in need of as many minutes he can play, but if there is an opportunity for him to play a handful of NHL games without the pressure of a playoff run it should be provided to speed his progression.
Without having the pressure of trying to make the playoffs or build towards a deep run in the playoffs, it allows these younger players to be added to the lineup even if it is only to assess their progression. The real problem is, how to fit all these players into the roster. That would mean tough decisions on which of the current secondary role players to move will need to be made.
Moving a player like Joe Morrow for any return is a simple one as he is easily replaced in the system or on the market in the summer. Even a trade of either David Schlemko or Jakub Jerabek is possible so as to make way for the return of Victor Mete.
One of the easier decisions at forward to make is to trade Tomas Plekanec. Despite his cap hit, which Bergevin can mitigate by retaining some of the cap, his play has been very good. He has lined up against top opposition as the top defensive center proving his worth in that role while still producing some points. All aspects that could make him worth as much as a second round pick to a contending team. That type of return can help in a draft year that is expected to be a deep one.
Yet moving a player like Paul Byron may prove to be the more painful short term but helpful in the medium term type of move. Trading someone who has given this team a consistent effort would be difficult, yet players like Byron have more value to contending teams and a retool is the time to make these tough choices. Teams such as Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis would be in search of inexpensive players that can add 20 goals on the wing. At the trade deadline a late first round pick in a bidding war could be possible, yet a mid second is much more likely. A return that would be hard to ignore for a player acquired off the waiver wire.
The most difficult choice may be what to do with Charlie Lindgren as a RFA that is still waiver exempt he holds a lot of value for a goaltending prospect. Especially as he is looking as though he has the ability to become an NHL starter. The return for goaltenders is always difficult to guess, yet if there were an offer of a top 60 pick or it’s equivalent it would be hard to imagine Bergevin not entertaining that offer.
If any of these players get moved, in a best case scenario, the Canadiens could be holding a total of as many as six top 60 picks in this year’s draft which can dramatically improve the farm system seemingly overnight. It would also open the door to larger roles for younger players and prospects to prove they belong in the NHL.
Despite any of his downfalls, Bergevin’s methodical nature has finally borne some fruit. His work in slowly rebuilding the farm system, albeit without any actual star power, can finally provide an influx of depth players. This influx helps to allow a retool on the fly to be possible as there are now prospects in the system that have developed to the point of NHL maturity that can fill in depth roles.
The much larger concern now is if the returns on any major trades, such as moving Pacioretty, can fill the two most glaring team needs at center and on defence.
If they can, the Canadiens can try to take advantage of their excessive cap space next season and a deep UFA class this year to fill any remaining need. Doing so can hit the reset button and put the franchise back on track as soon as next season, and if handled correctly, perhaps even take it closer to contention than its been in recent years.