BROSSARD, Que. — With Jacob De La Rose on the verge of being cleared for game action after a cardiac episode saw him relegated to the injured-reserve list 10 days ago, the Montreal Canadiens are going to have to cut a player in short order to be compliant with the NHL’s 23-man roster limit.
Chances are that player will be De La Rose or Nikita Scherbak.
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, if they can’t swing a trade involving either one of those two, they’ll be forced to subject one of them to waivers — and no matter who they choose to do that to, it’s more likely than not that the player will get claimed by another team.
If both De La Rose and Scherbak were so essential to the mix, they’d be in the lineup instead of skating as extras in practice.
But even if they figure into the plans as depth options, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin isn’t going to want to lose either one of them for nothing. He was the man at the helm when De La Rose was selected in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft and when Scherbak was picked in the first round of the 2014 Draft. And with both players exhibiting NHL potential since, not obtaining some type of return — however marginal — would be perceived as poor asset management.
It’s a decision Canadiens coach Claude Julien classified as a "tough one."
"I’m one of those coaches that looks at what group of guys will form the best team," said Julien after Wednesday’s practice.
He’s also the type of coach who isn’t going to let on as to which way he’s leaning, and guessing seems like a fruitless endeavour considering how different De La Rose and Scherbak are from each other.
De La Rose is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound left winger who skates like the wind, can play centre, and can be a really effective penalty killer. He has 119 games of NHL experience and is further along the developmental path than Scherbak is.
But De La Rose can’t score the way the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Moscow native can, and he doesn’t have as much untapped potential, either.
Scherbak has produced 94 points in 140 AHL games and has managed five goals in 29 games with the Canadiens. He has the skills to potentially replace a top-six winger if the Canadiens lose one to injury over the coming months.
It’s hard to say which of De La Rose or Scherbak the Canadiens could use more of down the line. They ranked 29th out of 31 teams on the penalty kill and in goals per game last season, and they rank 12th in both categories through their first two games this year.
The decision isn’t going to come down to health, either.
De La Rose has practised for three straight days, exhibiting no signs of distress, and he says he’s ready to go whenever the medical staff is willing to clear him to play in games. And Scherbak, who dealt with a slew of different injuries over the last three seasons, said early on in training camp that he’s feeling the best he has in a long time.
"I’m just trying to work hard and work on the things I need to work on and keep my pace up," Scherbak said on Wednesday. "Just give everything, give a full effort."
"I’m only focused on getting better every day," said De La Rose.
Neither player wants to think about the proverbial axe that’s dangling above their heads, but they both acknowledge it’s a subject they can’t distance themselves from.
And there won’t be much of a relief for whichever one of them does get to stick once De La Rose is cleared, because both of them might be gone once Nicolas Deslauriers returns from the facial fracture he suffered in a fight with New Jersey Devils forward Brandon Baddock on Sept. 18.
Julien said on Wednesday he expects the 6-foot-1, 215-pound, rough-and-tumble Deslauriers will be back in action within the next two weeks, and it’s hard to imagine the Canadiens parting ways with him considering they rank as the shortest and lightest team in the NHL.
Deslauriers’ 10 goals last year—and his willingness to fight for his teammates—earned him a two-year, $1.9 million contract, and Bergevin recently referred to trading for him as one of the best moves he’s made in six years as Canadiens GM. He’s a virtual lock to stick around when all is said and done.
In light of that, it’ll be interesting to see how the roster gets sorted out in the coming days.
"We’ve got some options," said Julien. "But at one point we’re going to have to face the music here and make those decisions. It’s coming, it’s coming pretty soon."