The 2019-20 campaign appears to be slipping away from the Montreal Canadiens.
After missing out on the post-season two years in a row, the Canadiens currently sit two points out of third place in their division, and five points out of a wild-card spot. They’re fresh off an eight-game losing streak that sunk them in the standings, clawing back with two wins over their past three tilts.
The problem in Montreal is clear. While the forward corps has enough talent to do some damage when healthy and Carey Price still reigns as one of the game’s top netminders when at his best, the Canadiens blue line finds itself in dire need of a boost.
It’s the left side, in particular, that is in need. Montreal has a fairly strong group on the right, three-men deep with Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and promising rookie Cale Fleury holding things down. On the left, it’s essentially an overworked Ben Chiarot and a slew of less-than-ideal options, with young gun Victor Mete currently sidelined with injury.
With GM Marc Bergevin no stranger to the trade market, let’s take a look at a few names he could target to bolster the left side of his defensive corps:
Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers
After three impressive seasons to start his big-league career — capped off by a dominant 2017-18 campaign that saw him amass 65 points through 78 games for the Flyers — Gostisbehere’s star has fallen a bit over the past two seasons.
The Pembroke Pines, Fla., native’s points-per-game pace fell to a career-low 0.47 last season — though he still finished with a respectable 37 points from the back end — and he’s off to a tough start this year with that pace dropping to 0.37 points per game.
Head coach Alain Vigneault has taken note of the slide, making Gostisbehere a healthy scratch recently to try to spur a resurgence. That being the case, the door may be open to make a deal for the smooth-skating defender, who once seemed untouchable in Philly.
While he’s not at his best at the moment, the Flyers need only look across the state at the rival Penguins, who took a flier on talented-but-beleaguered defender Justin Schultz after his time had run out in Edmonton, and watched him maximize his capabilities in Pittsburgh.
Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks
Change is coming in Anaheim, one way or another. While Fowler’s long been part of the Ducks’ cause, his club sits second-last in the West with little chance of making a dent in this season’s playoff picture. With Corey Perry, one of the club’s longest-tenured veterans, leaving Anaheim last summer, it seems clear the Ducks are ready to move on from even their established names at this point.
The 28-year-old Fowler remains one of the team’s top trade chips if they’re hoping to add pieces for the future, with the talented offensive defender having finished above the 30-point plateau five times in his career. He’s got 15 points through 30 games so far in 2019-20, putting him on pace to top 40 for the second time in his NHL tenure.
Skating just under 22 minutes per night in Anaheim this season, Fowler averaged as high as 24:51 just a couple years ago, for two straight seasons, suggesting he’d be more than capable of taking on top-pairing duties alongside Shea Weber and easing the load on Chiarot.
Or, if Mete eventually slots back into the top-pairing role, where he’s looked good thus far, upon returning from injury, Fowler could potentially join Petry for a promising second pairing.
T.J. Brodie or Oliver Kylington, Calgary Flames
Though as recently as last season the Flames seemed to be on the exact opposite trajectory of their former rivals from Anaheim, Calgary similarly finds themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at this point in the season.
The situation’s much less dire at the Scotiabank Saddledome, with the Flames right on the cusp of a trip back to the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see more changes coming than handing the reins over to interim head coach Geoff Ward.
Should the Flames look to bolster their chances via the trade market, the blue line is the most likely position pool to draw from given their strength in that area. T.J. Brodie’s certainly a talent that could help the Canadiens’ cause. While he’s long been a staple in Calgary and might not be a likely name to move out — particularly after his recent medical incident — the 29-year-old has seen his role take a tumultuous ride at times over the past few years.
Currently back on the top pairing with Mark Giordano — and on the right side — the Chatham, Ont., native was on the left side on the third pairing just last month, buried behind Giordano and Noah Hanifin on the depth chart.
Should the club elect to keep Brodie on the right and up top, another option could be young Oliver Kylington.
Though perhaps not the established name Montreal is looking for to shore up their top four, Kylington’s talent is undeniable. But while the Stockholm native has found fairly consistent success at the AHL level, he hasn’t been able to break into much of a role in the big leagues due to Calgary’s blue-line depth.
Offering the Flames some forward help could convince GM Brad Treliving to part with Kylington, a loss made easier to stomach given the presence of star defensive prospects Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki.
Juuso Riikola, Pittsburgh Penguins
Like Kylington, Juuso Riikola isn’t exactly the household name Bergevin might be seeking, nor is he necessarily a significant upgrade over the likes of Brett Kulak.
However, the 26-year-old Finn is talented enough that the Penguins opted to move him to forward for a spell during their recent rash of injuries, to try to get him into games while their blue line was fully stocked.
The KalPa Kuopio product has enough skill and tenacity to potentially thrive in Montreal, and would cost far less than the top-end names on this list.
Bergevin seems to agree there’s something worth exploring in Riikola, as the Canadiens were reportedly looking at the Penguins defender back in October, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks find themselves in a similar spot as the Ducks — once a Western Conference powerhouse, now a basement dweller.
Chicago sits just two points above Anaheim, with change on the horizon for the club once the need to tear down and rebuild becomes undeniable. If pieces for the future are what they wind up looking for, selling high on Erik Gustafsson could be an interesting route to pursue.
The 27-year-old broke out with a massive 60-point campaign last year, chipping in with 0.76 points per game while skating more than 22 minutes a night. The question is whether the Blackhawks think that effort is repeatable, or whether it should instead be used as fodder to move Gustafsson to a team in desperate need of blue-line help — like Montreal.
At 27 and perhaps too old to slot in as a core piece of a future rebuild, the best route might be moving Gustafsson for draft picks or prospects, allowing the Canadiens to gamble on him thriving in a greater role or, at the very least, remaining at the level he displayed in 2018-19.