Canadiens should start having the ‘tank’ conversation

Zack Kassian had no regrets and no resentments during his short stint with the Montreal Canadiens, adding that the car crash may have even saved his career. It was a big wake-up call, and it started the changes he needed.

You don’t have to work closely with language to know certain terms are loaded.

Take the four-letter bomb ‘tank,’ for instance. The implication, in a sports context, is that a team will check its integrity at the door and intentionally lose games in the hopes of long-term gain.

So, in the case of the Montreal Canadiens, maybe the term doesn’t actually apply.

The Habs — who, with each passing day, are being told by more and more people that they should take a nosedive — have actually been doing their damndest to win hockey games during their two-plus months of misery. At this point, whether Montreal tanks or tries, the outcome seems predestined to be a loss.

The numbers chronicling Montreal’s descent could challenge the idea of infinite space on the Internet. Since early December, the Habs are basically winning at a .220 clip. As they embark on their annual pair of Super Bowl weekend afternoon home games, the Canadiens sit six points out of a playoff spot and seven above the Columbus Blue Jackets, who occupy the bottom rung of the NHL standings.

It’s no stretch to suggest Montreal could finish last overall, not when it has been averaging about one win every two weeks since before the most over-prepared member of your family began Christmas shopping.

Jokes and jabs aside, the Canadiens — with star goalie Carey Price on the shelf and a shocking inability to score goals — have crumbled to such a degree that GM Marc Bergevin would be a fool to do anything other than lay the groundwork for a bounce back next year.

We’re not talking about a full-scale rebuild like the ones division rivals Toronto and Buffalo are undertaking. (Trade P.K. Subban before his no-movement clause kicks in this summer? Now that’s how you ensure losses for your team.) But there are all kinds of reasons why Montreal must make shrewd moves before the trade deadline, teeing up larger shifts in the summer.

Step one is putting Price in park for the remainder of the season. It sounds strange, but not having last year’s MVP in the lineup offers a rare opportunity for the Habs to truly bottom out. With Price in the crease, it’s as if the Canadiens have a protective coating that prevents hard crashes from occurring. As long as he’s their goalie, it’s hard to imagine they’ll have many cracks at the draft’s premiere talent. Montreal’s only top-of-the-board selections in the past decade were Alex Galchenyuk at third overall in 2012 — even the goalie couldn’t save that awful team — and Price himself, fifth overall, in 2005. The window is now open to gain another tasty pick, so limp through it.

Embracing two additional months of losing may sicken Bergevin, but it should not make him fear for his job. The man took the Canadiens’ corner office in 2012 and Montreal has made the playoffs in three consecutive years under his watch, winning three series the past two postseasons. Whether he is or isn’t the man to ultimately lead the Habs back to glory, Bergevin won’t be axed any time soon, even over a mess this big.

The aforementioned moderate success seen in Montreal the past couple springs has cost the team some draft picks at previous trade deadlines. Bergevin can recoup some of those by dealing UFAs-to-be Dale Weise, Paul Byron and Tom Gilbert, each of whom can help a good club in a depth role. (Of the trio, Byron — out with a lower-body injury at present, but expected back well before the playoffs — is the guy Bergevin should think hardest about keeping around.)

There’s also nothing that says Bergevin can’t be a stealthy buyer before the deadline, provided it fits with the theme of improving for next season. Scott Hartnell, who turns 34 in April, can still help your team for a couple years. Go get him for pennies on the dollar during the Columbus fire sale.

Assuming roster spots do open up later this month, it offers a terrific opportunity to play youngsters. From forwards Sven Andrighetto, Charles Hudon and Mike McCarron to defencemen Greg Pateryn and Mark Barberio, the Canadiens have a glut of prospects who would benefit from eight weeks of constant NHL action. (It also goes without saying that Galchenyuk should immediately be moved back to centre so he can resume developing at the most critical forward position.)

Partially because the team has been competitive the past few years and partially because coach Michel Therrien is stubborn about giving ice time to greenies, some of those players haven’t seen as much of The Show as they should have by now. With nothing on the line, the Habs are free to let them loose and, in turn, get a better handle on what they have.

If Bergevin is in the camp that believes Montreal can’t wait for prospects — even a high-end one drafted in June — to develop with the clock ticking on team-friendly contracts for Price and captain Max Pacioretty, he has chips to play. What would, say, the fourth overall selection, coupled with one or two existing pipeline players land you? Let’s just say, whatever it was, there would be no shortage of buzz at training camp.

As for the awful vibes that have engulfed the club, those dark clouds will dissipate a bit once it becomes clear Montreal’s mandate has changed. In a way, the Canadiens have already endured the hard part. Setbacks night after night when there’s something on the line, slowly watching what once seemed like a promising season turn to sewage? That’s awful. But while we know players themselves never throw in the towel or accept defeat, the tone around the team will change once the Habs stop being characterized as a failed contender and start being viewed as a re-tooling club that will add, in Price, a top-three player in the world before next fall and, who knows, maybe a top-three draft selection, too.

This spell has demonstrated beyond doubt that Montreal has holes, but with Price, Subban and Pacioretty, there’s still a great spine. And if management shows some fortitude down the stretch and into the summer, the Canadiens don’t have to have the tank conversation again any time soon.

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