BROSSARD, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens are facing a situation that has them rapidly approaching the crossroads of this rebuilding-while-trying-to-make-the-playoffs-this-season path they’ve embarked on.
Shea Weber has returned to the lineup and doesn’t have a viable partner to pair up with, and Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is going to have to decide just how much of the team’s future he’s willing to sacrifice — if any of it — to solve that problem now.
You have to think how things get dealt with will tell us much about how genuine Bergevin was in suggesting at the beginning of training camp that the future is much more in focus than the present is. And it shouldn’t be long before we find out which way he’s leaning.
It could be a matter of days before Canadiens coach Claude Julien burns through his options. A one-game sample of David Schlemko’s offerings next to Weber was enough for Julien to pass the job over to 24-year-old Brett Kulak, who has all of 104 games of NHL experience and was skating in the AHL up until a week ago.
“You put a player there, he does the job,” said Julien after Thursday’s practice. “After two, three games he starts to struggle, you put somebody else.”
Mike Reilly is probably next in line, but he’s got several steps to take to regain Julien’s confidence. He had a great start to the season but tapered off in November and has been scratched from five of Montreal’s last seven games.
Jordie Benn and Xavier Ouellet have already shown they’re better-suited for bottom pairing minutes. And if Victor Mete was an option the coach was considering for an audition next to Weber on Tuesday, that ship all but sailed on Thursday when the Canadiens announced they were sending the 20-year-old to the AHL’s Laval Rocket for an indeterminate amount of time.
“We’re not going to think about when to bring him back up before he’s even had a chance to go down and work on his game,” said Julien.
It was no surprise when Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported last Saturday that Bergevin had already placed some lines in the water to see if he could potentially fish out a top-pairing defenceman from another team.
If the GM can find a left shooter who’s not on the downside of his career — one who still has term left on his contract — giving up some key assets jives with the whole focusing-on-the-future-while-trying-to-remain-competitive-in-the-present line Bergevin’s trying to tow.
Jake Muzzin’s name has surfaced as a potential option. With good reason. The 29-year-old is an established top-pairing guy who’s under contract with the bottom-dwelling Los Angeles Kings through 2020 at $4 million per season, and the Canadiens have more than enough cap space to acquire him and eventually extend his contract.
Even so, if Muzzin is in fact available, the cost to acquire him could be prohibitive. Especially given the risk that he could walk as an unrestricted free agent once his contract expires.
An even riskier proposition would be Bergevin giving up a high draft pick, or prospect the team holds in high regard, for a stop-gap solution like Jay Bouwmeester. Paying a premium to acquire the 35-year-old, who’s playing out the final season of a five-year, $25-million contract with the 30th-place St. Louis Blues, would be a sign that the Canadiens’ long-term plan isn’t as high of a priority as it was made out to be in September.
You can see how making such a move right now would be tempting with the Canadiens exceeding expectations out of the gate and achieving the NHL’s eighth-best record up until its current five-game losing streak knocked them to the bubble of the playoff picture.
With their play not really dipping significantly (they had 93 shot attempts in a 2-1 loss to the NHL’s top possession team, the Carolina Hurricanes, on Tuesday), it would be reasonable to think that even a short-term fix to the Weber conundrum would be worth entertaining if it kept the team in the hunt.
You add Weber — he returned just one game ago — and another top-pairing defenceman to a team that’s near the top of the NHL in even-strength scoring but almost at the bottom in goals-against and you’re increasing your chances of a post-season berth dramatically.
What’s interesting is that even though Bergevin has put some feelers out, his decision to send Mete down to the minors at this juncture suggests he’s not yet prepared to veer off course.
“This guy here, we expect him to play big minutes for us down the road, so let’s get him the chance to do it and let’s do it properly,” said Julien, who was explaining that Mete’s demotion was purely to better develop him and not just to make roster space for forward Paul Byron’s return from injury this weekend. “Practice time and more playing time (in the AHL) will help him get to that level, which he can’t have here.”
If it takes Mete months instead of weeks to improve on his defensive play and find the confidence necessary to play a bigger role with the Canadiens, and if neither Kulak nor Reilly nor Schlemko can provide some stability in short order while the team still manages good enough results to stay in the playoff hunt, Bergevin’s resolve to hold off on mortgaging some of the future will truly be tested.
The pressure is already on.
“We understand that we don’t have the very perfect player [to play with Weber] right now,” said Julien on Tuesday.
“It’s always good when you have a top pair of D that you can rely on every game for big minutes, all situations — defensively, offensively,” he added on Thursday. “That’s ideal, but not every team has it.”