Speculation on the polarizing defenceman spiralled out of control over the 24 hours leading up to the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. The fire was stoked Thursday by Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who admitted he was one of several GMs who made an offer for Subban, and it blazed to five-alarm level a few hours later when Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin entertained a massive gathering of reporters without once guaranteeing the player’s future in Montreal.
Two things happened Friday to smother the flames.
Commissioner Gary Bettman stepped up to the podium 10 minutes into the selection process to announce Montreal had made two trades — none of them involving Subban — and the Edmonton Oilers, presumptive favourites to land Subban via blockbuster, were gifted Finnish phenom Jesse Puljujarvi at fourth overall after the Columbus Blue Jackets passed on him in favour of Quebecer Pierre-Luc Dubois.
It was safely assumed any deal involving Edmonton and Montreal would include the fourth overall pick. But when Puljujarvi, who was seemingly a consensus top-3 pick among all prognosticators, fell into place, the Oilers couldn’t pass on the opportunity to snatch him up.
Bergevin may not have shocked the hockey world on Friday by not jettisoning Subban, whose no-movement clause for the remaining six years of his eight-year, $72-million contract kicks in on July 1, but the two trades he made turned heads.
Lars Eller, who was originally acquired by Montreal in 2010, was sent to the Washington Capitals for second-round picks in 2017 and 2018. The highlight of his time with the Canadiens was a strong showing in the 2014 playoffs, helping them make their second Conference finals appearance in 21 years.
But Eller, a natural centre, never seemed to find solid footing under head coach Michel Therrien. He had publicly lobbied for a bigger role, was awarded one last season as a second-line left winger, and fell drastically short of expectations with 13 goals and 13 assists in 79 games.
Clearing Eller’s $3.5-million salary over each of the next two seasons paved the way for Bergevin to acquire 24-year-old Andrew Shaw from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the both second round picks (39th and 45th) the Canadiens owned in 2016.
Shaw is a restricted free agent, due a significant raise on his expiring $2.5-million salary. He’s also a player Bergevin is undoubtedly familiar with, one he helped draft as a member of Chicago’s brain trust back in 2011.
Shortly after making Shaw’s acquisition, Montreal’s GM compared him to the team’s sparkplug winger, Brendan Gallagher. Both are reputed pests; diminutive, edgy players who are never far from the opposing crease.
The former may not have the same scoring potential as the latter, but he’s a two-time Stanley Cup Champion who can play centre and wing, power play and penalty kill, and he offers the Canadiens the type of grit that couldn’t be found with a microscope on the 2015-16 edition of their team.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggested mere minutes after the trade that a long-term contract extension for Shaw was imminent. Agent Pat Brisson was seen conversing with Bergevin on the draft floor.
But with no deal brokered immediately, Bergevin made his way back to Montreal’s table and resolved with Canadiens director of amateur scouting and vice-president of player personnel Trevor Timmins to select defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, with the ninth overall pick.
No defenceman in the OHL scored more goals than Sergachev’s 17, and the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder finished third among blue-liners in points with 57. His efforts were rewarded on April 29, when he was honoured as the top defenceman in the league — a remarkable feat for the rookie who had come over from Nizhnekamsk, Russia, unable to speak a word of English.
Sergachev’s selection capped Montreal’s activities Friday. The brass sat quietly and watched 21 more prospects realize lifelong dreams.
They did not recover a second-round pick after trading their two to Chicago, and as it stands they’re slated to watch 39 others get called to opposing teams before making the 70th overall pick on Saturday.
The buzz on Subban’s future with the Canadiens will naturally linger through the weekend, albeit at a less audible level after the drama fizzled Friday. It won’t die before July 1, not even after Bergevin told Sportsnet during the first round that, “the deal everyone thought would happen probably never would.”