“If you can’t defend, you have no chance to win,” general manager Marc Bergevin said on May 15 after his Montreal Canadiens were dismissed in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Bergevin’s shrewd management has reaffirmed his philosophy, already securing two key members of his defence corps before the Stanley Cup has even been handed out.
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Jeff Petry’s six-year deal, signed a little over a week ago, was a consensus coup for Bergevin, and his signing of Nathan Beaulieu Saturday to entry-level money out of his entry-level contract solidifies what has to be considered one of the NHL’s deepest bluelines.
Beaulieu averaged 15:41 of ice time over 64 regular season games with the Canadiens in 2014-15, after spending more than two seasons volleying between Montreal and the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.
“It was just about maturing and focusing and understanding it’s a process,” Beaulieu said.
As his Saturday evening conference call came to a close, he made it clear he’s reaching for loftier goals now that he’s achieved his first objective.
“I want to prove that I can play big minutes; that I’m definitely a top-four guy that can help the team win.”
If the Canadiens believe he can do that, his ascent will likely render one of the veteran defencemen disposable.
Montreal has $65.3 million invested in 19 players for next season and $28.7 million of that is going towards their seven defencemen: P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Tom Gilbert, Alexei Emelin, Greg Pateryn, Petry and Beaulieu. Assuming the salary cap is set at $71 million for 2015-16, the Beaulieu signing leaves Bergevin with just $5.25 million to sign restricted free agents Brian Flynn, Alex Galchenyuk, Jarred Tinordi, Christian Thomas, Michael Bournival, and unrestricted free agent Torrey Mitchell.
That’s not enough money to go around, let alone leave a cushion for maneuverability. And considering the Canadiens have been in the NHL’s bottom third in offence over the past two seasons, it would only make sense for them to deal from their strongest position to address their weakness.
Gilbert, who’s in the final year of a contract that will pay him $2.8 million, and Emelin, who’s signed for another three seasons at $4.1 million annually are the most likely candidates to be shopped by Bergevin.
Of course, given his stated philosophy, Bergevin may prefer to have as much defensive depth as he can get. If he’d rather keep the blueline he has, the Canadiens could instead decide to move a signed forward or two off the roster.
Tomas Plekanec has one more season on his contract, which comes with a $5 million cap hit, and after a 60-point season as Montreal’s most reliable defensive forward, he’s the type of player a competitive team would offer picks and prospects to acquire.
If Bergevin isn’t interested in moving Plekanec, then David Desharnais could be the next most likely target. With a manageable $3.5 million cap hit for two more seasons, he would probably fetch more in a trade than anyone in Montreal cares to admit
And then there’s Lars Eller, who didn’t buy himself the type of security he’d like to have in Montreal after a 27-point season. He has three more years left on a deal that comes with a $3.5 million cap hit and plays a defence-heavy role with the Canadiens.
So while Bergevin has locked down a deep defence core, he still has work to do to bring depth and greater reliability throughout his roster. And with the draft just two weeks away, with free agency soon to follow, we won’t have to wait long to see what moves Bergevin has up his sleeves.