MONTREAL — What a peculiar time this is for the Montreal Canadiens.
With 32 games remaining in the NHL season, they find themselves 10 points back of third place in the Atlantic Division and nine points back of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. And yet, they just rattled off four wins in their last five games and they’re on the precipice of getting two top-six forwards and a top-niner back from long-term injury.
It sure muddies the waters a little bit. Even if they’ve conceded that Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron can’t do much to alter the math on the team’s playoff possibilities, which is as woefully ominous as it gets at this point.
But with over four weeks to go till the NHL’s trade deadline, some of Montreal’s hardest decisions can’t possibly be resolved yet — even if general manager Marc Bergevin has told those close to him that he and his group would use the bye week to sort out the team’s business.
It’s the reason why — as we run through this exercise of suggesting three deadline moves the Canadiens should explore — we can’t yet definitively pin down what the future holds for Ilya Kovalchuk, Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry.
But we can say this about the organization: The Canadiens will be one of just a few teams coming out of the bye week prepared to label themselves a conclusive seller between now and Feb. 24, and that gives them a lot of time to drum up interest in all three of those players.
All three of them are in similar positions. They are players the Canadiens would likely prefer to keep, but also ones who could bring in returns that might be too hard to say no to.
Let’s put it this way: If Kovalchuk — who has four goals (two of them game-winners) and eight points in eight games with the Canadiens — can’t fetch them at least a second-round pick, they might prefer to keep him and take a run at signing him for next season. They’ll probably hold for as long as they can just hoping that a bidding war ensues and that someone is willing to give them a first-rounder for a player who’s on a prorated $700,000 deal and is capable of top-line production.
Tatar leads the Canadiens with 43 points in 50 games and is on pace to shatter his career-high of 58 points in 80 games, which he set just last season in Montreal. He’s 29, has a $5.3-million cap hit — $500,000 being on the Vegas Golden Knights’ books — and an actual salary of $4.2 million next season. We’re talking about a player who fetched a first-, a second- and a third-round pick in the trade from the Detroit Red Wings to the Golden Knights in 2018. If he doesn’t get the Canadiens a first-rounder and then some, what incentive do they have to move him at this juncture?
Granted, his game could fall off a bit and it’s important to maximize return on assets you don’t necessarily see as long-term assets — it’s unlikely the Canadiens will sign Tatar when his deal expires a year from now because they have Max Domi, Artturi Lehkonen and Drouin to play the left side — but this team still has every intention of establishing itself as a playoff contender next season and Tatar can help in that pursuit.
Same goes for Petry, except the Canadiens would be even less inclined to move him given that they don’t have another right-shot defenceman waiting in the wings who’s ready to jump into his spot to play more than 24 minutes per game and replace his 40 points per season.
But the six-foot-three, 201-pounder is going to be in high demand.
A year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded a 2019 first-round pick, forward prospect Carl Grundstrom and the rights to defensive prospect Sean Durzi to the Los Angeles Kings for Jake Muzzin. If the Canadiens decided to move Petry, they could do it for no less than a first-rounder and an elite, right-handed defence prospect who could be ready to jump into the NHL as early as next season.
So yeah, expect Bergevin’s phone to be as busy as ever over the next few weeks. And while he’s fielding calls, he can sort out the details on the following three moves that he’ll likely make between now and the deadline.
Trade Nate Thompson
The 35-year-old is one of the most respected players in Montreal’s room, and he’s put up 10 points on its fourth line while averaging 12:58 a game. He has also won more than 54 per cent of his faceoffs and played a key role on the penalty kill.
On an expiring $1-million contract — and with his positive influence on the young, emerging players on the roster like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki — there are some who believe Thompson would be worth more to the Canadiens’ future than a fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft. But so long as he’s here, a kid like Poehling (or Jake Evans, who’s currently enjoying a strong second half to the season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket) isn’t.
Trade Nick Cousins
He’s 26 years old and on an expiring $1-million contract, too.
Cousins, who has seven goals and 16 points in 44 games, is a crafty player who has shown he can play up and down the lineup, and in all kinds of different situations. He could potentially net the Canadiens a third-round pick, and it would be wise to pull the trigger fast on this move with the lineup on the verge of becoming quite crowded.
Trade Marco Scandella
The Canadiens gave up a fourth-round pick to acquire Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres back on Jan. 2, and perhaps they can redeem at least that much if they flip him at the deadline.
The 29-year-old is in the final year of a contract that carries a $4-million cap hit. He’s been serviceable with Montreal — averaging over 19 minutes per game and proving to be a stabilizing piece in the defensive end. You have to think a team would be interested in adding him as a depth piece, and perhaps they’d part with more than what Montreal gave up if the Canadiens were willing to eat a bit of his remaining salary in the deal.
With Alexander Romanov all but guaranteed to be leaving the KHL for a spot on Montreal’s blue line next season — and with Brett Kulak signed as a depth option for two more years after this one — there isn’t much incentive to play with the idea of re-signing Scandella.