With the Canadiens losing three straight, including another humiliating Saturday night loss, the calls for a retool or full rebuild have returned with force.
The team as constituted now, with the clear needs they have, had a terrible start to the season that they should have been able to avoid. There was a bounce back after the Canadiens went on a five game winning streak following the return of Carey Price from injury. After 31 games, the Habs have a 13-14-4 record for 30 points, which is just two points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic division, although the Bruins have four games in hand.
The disastrous off-season led directly to where the team is today. Despite adding a young, dynamic, offensive player in Jonathan Drouin, Marc Bergevin was unable to retain enough top-six forwards to make this move an upgrade.
Is the defence better than last year as Bergevin stated? The proof is in the pudding as they say, and the answer is, no. Bergevin was unable to improve the blueline in the off-season. The Canadiens struggle to clear their zone and take advantage of the team’s speed on the transition.
By design or not (in my opinion it’s accidental) Bergevin’s failure to retain valuable assets has brought the Canadiens to the doorstep of a retool on the fly. Why you might ask? It all rests with the elephant in the room, approximately seven million dollars in cap space, that leaves more than one locker stall empty.
Project that unused cap space forward to next season and with contracts coming to an end it grows to approximately $14 million even if the current team ceiling does not change.
At last week’s Board of Governor’s meeting, Gary Bettman announced that the salary cap for 2018-19 is expected to be between $78 million and $82 million. That could give Bergevin in the neighborhood of $19 million to spend in the off-season.
That is a significant amount of cap space with the majority of it to be used on two clear needs: a clear cut top-six center and top-four puck-moving defender. The current core is solid consisting of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Drouin, Shea Weber and Carey Price. Yet it is clearly not enough.
When it comes to center ice depth, the Habs are still searching for help. Regardless of his junior hockey pedigree, Drouin has been forced to learn the centre ice position on the job, something that is far from ideal. This has slowed his production and gives him one of the worst goals against per 60 minutes rates on the Canadiens. Sitting behind Drouin, the Habs have two centers better suited to a third line role in Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec.
Prospects being developed in the system may not rise to anything more than a third line center anytime soon. Michael McCarron is starting to worm his way towards an NHL job full time and he is that best hope. In my opinion, McCarron should already be playing full time with la Sainte Flannel.
The Habs have some interesting players in their prospect pool. Canadiens 2017 draft picks Ryan Poehling and Joni Ikonen are both potential top six centers, yet are several seasons away from becoming NHL regulars. Other names such as Will Bitten, Jake Evans and Lucas Vejdemo are interesting possibilities, yet are not expected to become top-six NHL centres anytime soon, if at all.
On defence, Weber is a Man Mountain, capable of playing heavy minutes in any situation. , behind him however there is no clear cut number two or even number three defender. The blue line is filled with players better suited to being bottom end second pairing or solid third pairing defenders.
The same issue seen at center is found on the blueline in the Canadiens system. Brett Lernout is nearly NHL ready, but, in my opinion, he would be a solid third-pairing defender. Jakub Jerabek may turn into a second pairing defender, and he may be joined there by Noah Juulsen in a couple seasons if all goes well. After that the 2017 draft crop of defenders are the next group of hopefuls that have the talent to one day become NHL’ers.
All of that to say, the Canadiens have enough depth players in development. Barring a surprise leap in progression for any player, they lack any possible star that can step in and dramatically improve a roster.
All this has led to the Canadiens taking that step back this year, and again, why they have backed into a retool. A full rebuild is not necessary, because there is a good core group to build on. Yet there will likely be a change to that core group before the process is complete.
The name from the core that many fans (and media) would like to see traded is sniper Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty is one of the top NHL goal scorers over the last five seasons. But the Canadiens captain is a trade candidate given that he has only one season left on his team-friendly deal and his contract lacks a no-trade clause.
Teams who have deep prospect pools such as the New York Islanders, would clamor to add a player of Pacioretty’s ilk to compliment their top center if they choose to retain John Tavares. Names such as Calvin DeHaan, Matthew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Keifer Bellows are all names that would interest a retooling team and fit with the Canadiens needs.
Perhaps a team such as the Edmonton Oilers, who are in search of a change to shake up their roster, could be a fit. They also have young pieces that could fit with the Canadiens core group such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Please note that the teams named are just teams that could be looking to add proven scoring and have pieces that would fit with the Canadiens. Also, the names mentioned would not all be used in a deal for Pacioretty, simply that those are names that could be of interest to a retooling Canadiens.
A trade as significant as moving Pacioretty cannot be mishandled. It is a trade that must land most, if not all of the two or three important pieces, necessary to fill the glaring needs in the Habs system. If that can be done, the retool would be complete.
This now leads us to those who would be charged with completing this retool, team management. Are the current leaders the right people to take this step and complete this retool?
I’ll tackle that question tomorrow in part two of the series Winds of Change.