Deadline Decisions: Canadiens selling, not rebuilding

Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher talks about the trade deadline and the potential of losing teammates and Victor Bartley talks about making the lineup.

Over the next two weeks, sportsnet.ca will be taking an in-depth look at some key teams and the decisions facing them leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29. Today: Montreal Canadiens.

General manager: Marc Bergevin

Pending UFAs: Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, Tom Gilbert, Victor Bartley, Ben Scrivens.

2016 Draft Picks: 1st (MTL), 2nd (MIN), (MTL), 3rd (MTL), 4th (MTL), 5th (VAN), 6th (MTL), 7th (NONE)

No-move/trade clauses: Tomas Plekanec (Limited NTC), Andrei Markov (Limited NTC), Alexei Emelin (Full NTC)

Cap space on deadline day: $5,111,895

Team mode: Sell, sell, sell. Get the kids up and see what they can do.

Cap, no-move and draft pick data via generalfanager.com

It wasn’t the position Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin hoped he’d be in at the trade deadline, but it’s the one he finds himself in after injuries helped dismantle what was supposed to be a season of progress for his team. It might just be a blessing in disguise.

Reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy-winner Carey Price, saddled with a nagging knee issue, has appeared in only 12 games, and the Canadiens have only won 18 of 48 games in his absence.

The situation has forced Bergevin to re-evaluate a lot of things, but not before attempting to secure as many futures as he can by exploring trades for pending unrestricted agents like forwards Weise and Fleischmann. Defenceman Tom Gilbert would’ve been a potential trade chip, too, had he not suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee last week.

Forward Devante Smith-Pelly and defenceman Mark Barberio are restricted free agents who may or may not be shopped, but they’re far from being labeled untouchable.

And certain players with term (here’s looking at you forward Lars Eller at $3.5 million per through 2018 and defencemen Andrei Markov at $5.75 million per through 2017 and Alexei Emelin at $4.1 million per through 2018) are believed to be available for the right price, too.

But these aren’t the first moves in some elaborate rebuild. Far from it.

The Canadiens have cap-friendly contracts in Price ($6.5 million per season through 2018), captain Max Pacioretty (4.5 million per through 2019) and Brendan Gallagher ($3.75 million through 2021). Former first-rounders Nathan Beaulieu and Alex Galchenyuk (combined salary of $3.8 million per season) are signed to bridge deals that expire in 2017.

And the team has a foundational piece in defenceman P.K. Subban (signed through 2022), a steady no. 2 in defenceman Jeff Petry (signed through 2021) and a versatile centre in Tomas Plekanec (signed through 2018).

Getting back to why a lost season doesn’t mean lost hope, the Canadiens keep edging closer and closer to a better draft position. It’s hard to imagine they’ll reverse a trend that’s seen them pick up just 22 of 70 available points in the standings since Dec. 1 through subtraction.

Picking in the top-5 secures a player that can help immediately—one that will be paid entry level dollars. Even a pick in the top-10, where the Canadiens haven’t drafted since 2012, is a consolation.

And using the final 22 games of the season to promote AHL prospects and give them a chance to accelerate the process that may turn them into capable NHL players has inherent value.

“We’re giving opportunities to many young players, to give them an opportunity to show what they’re capable of doing,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien in French on Feb. 23. “It’s critical that they play with enthusiasm and lots of passion, and it’s important they implicate themselves in games so that we can see how they’ll react.”

St. John’s IceCaps forwards Charles Hudon, Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak—the latter two being first-round selections in 2013 and 2014 respectively—and defencemen Morgan Ellis and Darren Dietz are likely to gain valuable experience in the NHL between now and the end of the regular season.

Forwards Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr, Jacob De La Rose and recently acquired Lucas Lessio (to a lesser degree) have already benefited from their experience and proven they have futures with the Canadiens.

And if Bergevin can find some prospects in cap-clearing moves (see players with term listed above), they’ll be put to the test as well.

That post-deadline feeling Bergevin experiences isn’t going to be one of euphoria. Sending off players he had hoped would help the Canadiens edge closer to a Stanley Cup won’t be pleasant, and contemplating more difficult decisions that lie ahead—like firing Therrien, finding his replacement, and moving on from some players currently under contract—will sting.

But Bergevin’s opportunity to add to an excellent core through the draft and put his official stamp on the Canadiens with some shrewd manoeuvers is the light at the end of the tunnel.

The moves coming between now and 3:00 p.m. ET on Feb. 29 signal the initialization of significant change for the Canadiens.