What should the Habs do at the trade deadline?
It’s been an injury-stricken season for the Montreal Canadiens, with many of the Habs’ best players taking lengthy spells off of the ice. After 48 games played, the Canadiens sat five places and nine points behind the nearest wildcard place, with a very concerning minus-26 goal differential.
Last season, at the trade deadline, general manager Marc Bergevin made six trades to better their chances in the postseason, holding strong standing in the Atlantic Division – six points clear of second place Boston Bruins – at the time of the March 1, 2017 deadline.
This year’s February 26th deadline is fast approaching and, with the Habs lacking strong standing in the Eastern Conference, it has been rumored that Montreal is considering becoming a seller at the trade deadline. However, with pressing needs for quality at the blueline and up the middle, as well as possibly a goal-scoring winger, it’s clear that the Canadiens are in a precarious position.
Should the Habs buy or sell at the deadline?
Despite having the likes of Carey Price, Shea Weber, and Max Pacioretty on the team, the Canadiens are in poor standing in the Eastern Conference. With the Pittsburgh Penguins picking up steam again, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders looking to muscle into a wildcard place, and the Atlantic Division dominated by the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning – who have only lost 12 games of 48 – the Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs, the postseason looks out of reach.
The Bolts are at +275, Bruins are at +500, and the Maple Leafs are at +700 to win the Eastern Conference in the playoffs with bookmakers Betway Sports; the Habs are all but out of the picture. Despite this, Montreal should not go into full sell mode, as the team is full of high-quality stars that could mold into a Stanley Cup contending team with a few new additions. Unfortunately, they need a top-line center and a left-handed, puck-moving defenseman to pair with Shea Weber – neither of which will come cheaply.
Sell to make space
The rumor mill is already swirling around Habs captain Max Pacioretty according to TSN, as well as the St. Louis Blues edging ahead of the Habs to have Alex Galchenyuk in their jersey come the close of the deadline, per Eklund. Losing both of these great players would immediately hurt the Habs, but it could just as easily reap long-term gains, freeing up cap space for players that they really need.
Shifting Tomas Plekanec’s meaty $6 million contract before the deadline would be helpful for acquiring some targets before the deadline closes, but not necessary, as his deal runs out at the end of the season. As of right now, the Canadiens are set to have a cap hit of around $67.7 million with $7.2 million in projected space, per Cap Friendly. With the cap set to grow from $75 million to between $78 million and $82 million, Montreal could have a lot of space to play with in the summer, and indeed in this trade window.
Players to buy now
The utmost needs of the Montreal Canadiens are a left-handed defenseman to play with Shea Weber on the top line, a top-line center, and possibly a goal-scoring winger should Pacioretty or Galchenyuk leave before the deadline. With five picks in the first three rounds of this year’s draft (three in the second round) as well as a further three picks in the fifth round, the Habs have plenty of assets to use in this trade window.
The first, but potentially least important player who they could pick up, is super sniper Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres. With 16 goals and 36 points in 48 games for the lowly Sabres, Kane is hot property this season, but with his contract running out in the summer, Montreal will want guarantees that he’ll re-sign for them if they’re to move for him in February. If not, he’ll likely be hitting the free agency in the summer so the Habs try to sign him then.
Best to wait for the direst needs
Unfortunately, for Canadiens fans anticipating an exciting trade deadline, that may be the case for many of their targets. The summer is set to be stacked with top-line talents up the middle, including the likes of John Tavares – who could make nearly any team into an immediate postseason contender – Paul Stastny, and Mikael Backlund. Of course, with Plekanec likely gone, another center will be needed as well, so UFAs like Tyler Bozak or ex-Hab Lars Eller could be targeted.
As for left-handed defenseman, the free agency is already set to be bleak. Top targets include Dan Hamhuis, John Moore, Thomas Hickey, and Calvin de Haan. Of those three, De Haan poses the best option, being a valuable defenseman in all facets of the game while also being a good puck-mover. But, if it’s an elite, or close to elite, defenseman for the near future, Montreal will likely need to trade for the privilege – perhaps preying on Arizona’s massive downturn under their new-ish general manager by poaching Oliver Ekman-Larsson for a couple of picks and a prospect.
While the 2018 NHL trade deadline is set to be packed with great players being dealt around the league, the Montreal Canadiens should opt to contribute to the selling side, gain cap space, prospects, and some picks before greatly improving the team roster in the summer. Last season, the Habs were so closely linked to Colorado want-away Matt Duchene that it was presumed to be a done deal long before the deadline, but it never came to fruition, so perhaps don’t hold out hope for a big-name move in this trade window either.