Canadiens have decisions to make ahead of deadline


Lars Eller. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The Canadiens will host the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday before flying out to San Jose Sunday ahead of their matchup with the Sharks Monday night.

With the trade deadline looming, here are five things to look out for between now and then that will shape the Canadiens for the playoffs.

Timing is everything

When you think about the decision GM Marc Bergevin made to trade for Devante Smith-Pelly, timing is the one thing you should be focused on.

Why now?

There’s only one answer to that question: the Canadiens are going to the playoffs.

Smith-Pelly fills a need and Michel Therrien’s reluctance to play Jiri Sekac made this deal easier to consummate for Bergevin, but all of that is secondary to the fact that the former has a track record in the playoffs — albeit, a short one — and the latter doesn’t.

With five goals in 12 playoff games, Smith-Pelly represents a surer bet to the Canadiens in the post-season than Sekac did. The grit and physicality he brings to their lineup is likely to pay dividends in a gruelling playoff series.

All eyes on Eller

This brings us to Lars Eller, who also has a track record. In 25 playoff games, he’s got five goals, 10 assists and a plus-7 rating.

Though Eller’s recently found himself playing out of position — on the left wing, where he’s admittedly out of his comfort zone — while a 19-year-old Swede in Jacob De La Rose shines as the team’s third line centre, his situation is markedly different from Sekac’s.

Eller’s not on the verge of being scratched from the lineup, let alone being scratched for a 10th time this season like Sekac was about to be before being traded to Anaheim. His ice-time might have dipped to 12:33 against Columbus Thursday, but he’s played over 16:00 in eight of his last 10 games and averaged 15:23 per game since the beginning of the season. And though he goes through production droughts that are unbecoming of a player with talents he possesses, it’s as plain to see to the coaching staff as it is to the fan base that Eller’s offensive contribution is limited by his defensive role.

For Bergevin to trade Eller, he needs to be guaranteed an upgrade on his services.

Antoine Vermette’s nine goals, nine assists and minus-10 rating in 58 playoff games don’t scream upgrade. They barely even whisper it. And Vermette’s status as a rental doesn’t wash with Bergevin’s stated strategy to potentially improve the team through a traditional player-for-player swap.

The advent of De La Rose is compelling, but it’s doubtful Bergevin looks at his bottom six forwards and thinks De La Rose and Manny Malhotra up the middle give the Canadiens a better chance of winning than Eller and De La Rose do.

If there were one player on the market Bergevin might consider trading Eller for it’s Ryan O’Reilly, who’s managed three goals, four assists and a plus-3 rating in 13 playoff contests.

Obviously, O’Reilly’s $6-million cap hit through 2015-16 and his pending status as an unrestricted free agent thereafter are obstacles, especially when weighed against the value Eller offers the Canadiens at $3.5 million for the next three seasons. And Eller alone is not likely to fetch O’Reilly.

Bottom line, Eller’s more likely to resume his role as the team’s third line centre than he is to be traded. You can bank on that.

What will Bergevin do with the blueline?

Jarred Tinordi was sent down to Hamilton after Thursday’s game in Columbus.

Greg Pateryn’s proven to be the more serviceable player at this point, and he’s played well enough to keep Mike Weaver relegated to the sidelines.

The question is: Has Pateryn played well enough to keep Bergevin from adding defensive depth to the roster between now and Monday?

Jeff Petry and Zbynek Michalek continue to be names being linked to the Canadiens, but as to the rumour that Bergevin offered 2013 first-rounder Mike McCarron to Don Maloney for Michalek’s services, if that were true, Michalek would be in Montreal by now.

As it stands, Michalek’s sidelined by a concussion, which puts his value somewhere between a conditional second-round pick and a conditional third — at best –contingent on how many games he can play and/or how far a team acquiring his services will go.

As for Petry, the price is significantly higher when you consider what puck-moving defencemen Cody Franson and Andrej Sekara were traded for recently.

The other question is: Are the Canadiens going to be patient enough with Tinordi to allow him to continue his development with their farm team, or could they be willing to float him on the market for a significant return to bolster their forward group?

Canadiens looking to upgrade top six

There is a sense around Montreal that Tinordi and prospect goaltender Zachary Fucale could be integral pieces of a package to bring a prolific scorer to town.

P.A. Parenteau is expected to return to the lineup for Saturday’s game against Toronto.

Does Bergevin believe Parenteau can provide top six-level scoring from here to the end of the playoffs?

Consensus would be no, though he may not have a choice.

Bergevin’s scouring the market to upgrade on Parenteau’s services, and you have to think that’s priority No. 1 for a team that ranks second to last in goals for amongst the 16 teams currently holding down playoff positions.

If he deems the price to be too high to make such an acquisition, he’ll have to hope Parenteau can get closer to his career shooting percentage of 12 percent, as opposed to the 8.3 percent he’s been clicking at this season.

Beaulieu’s progress a blessing for Canadiens

Right now, the biggest reason for Bergevin to feel comfortable with his current defence corps is Nathan Beaulieu.

Over the Canadiens’ last five games, Beaulieu’s played between 20-25 minutes. He’s collected a goal and an assist in that time, and aside from stepping up his own game, he’s bringing Tom Gilbert up to a level he hasn’t been at all season.

“I wasn’t worried about my numbers earlier in the season,” Beaulieu told Sportsnet earlier this week. “It’s such a process to become a regular point-producer in this league, but now I’m feeling more comfortable. Now I feel like the game’s slowing down for me a little bit and I’m seeing more options on the ice.”

With Beaulieu and Gilbert up a level, with Sergei Gonchar set to return, with Alexei Emelin recovered and rested for the playoffs and Pateryn coming into his own, the Canadiens will be just fine standing pat on the blueline should Bergevin opt for that direction.

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