MONTREAL—It’s a situation you can only hope to be in when you have a major need to address.
With 23 players already on the active roster, close to $12 million to spend before reaching the projected upper limit of the National Hockey League’s salary cap ($83 million), several premium prospects already in the system, and 10 picks to make at the 2019 Draft, the Montreal Canadiens have the flexibility to turn their biggest weakness—the left side of their defence—into a strength. They have the pieces to swing trades, the positioning in the draft to obtain at least one of the best left-handed defencemen available this year, and plenty of money to play with in free agency.
They’d be wise to use every tool at their disposal because this isn’t just a short-term need. As it stands, the Canadiens currently have 21-year-old Victor Mete penciled into a top-pairing role with Shea Weber and 25-year-old Brett Kulak slated to pair up with Jeff Petry. Mete and Kulak have only 278 games of NHL experience between them, and behind them on the left side is a clutter of marginal players in Karl Alzner, Xavier Ouellet and David Sklenicka.
Either one (or both?) of Otto Leskinen and Gustav Olofsson could emerge as viable options on the left side, but they’re both unproven commodities at this stage. Leskinen, 22, is converting to North American ice after a lifetime skating on the European surface, though he’s coming off an impressive 31-point season for KalPa in Finland’s top league. And the 24-year-old Olofsson, who was acquired in an October trade that sent Will Bitten to the Minnesota Wild, has 56 NHL games under his belt and missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
Beyond them, there’s Alexander Romanov—the 38th pick in the 2018 Draft who still has one year remaining on his contract with the Kontinental Hockey League’s CSKA Moscow. And then there’s… no one. So this isn’t so much an examination of what would make for an ideal weekend for the Canadiens; it’s more a look at what would be imperative for general manager Marc Bergevin to accomplish between now and the second week of July.
Trade possibilities are abundant with names like Shayne Gostisbehere, Nick Leddy and T.J. Brodie among several rolling through the rumour mill. The Canadiens have some forward depth to part with, they have draft picks to deal, and they have a deep prospect pool to dig into to make something happen should they so choose. There’s a strong chance they’ll go down this road for some immediate help at left defence.
And then there’s the open market, where Jake Gardiner and Alex Edler top the list of lefties who could be available as unrestricted free agents. Either one would fit well with Montreal.
Stanley Cup winner Carl Gunnarsson could also be a reliable option, if he makes it to market. Ditto for 28-year-old Ben Chariot, if the Winnipeg Jets aren’t able to come to terms with him on a new contract.
But you have to think Montreal’s best opportunity to fill this hole in their depth chart, at least over the long term, lies in drafting several players who play the position.
With the 15th overall pick, the Canadiens should have an excellent opportunity to net at least one premiere option. After the Western Hockey League’s Bowen Byram goes likely in the top-five but certainly at least in the top-10, any one of the best defencemen in this draft class could fall into Montreal’s lap.
It’s doubtful Philip Broberg, the smooth-skating, 6-foot-3 Swede, will be available by the time the Canadiens step to the podium, but if he is he’d be the type of player they’re looking for.
Thomas Harley had 58 points in 68 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads this season and is considered to be among the best skating defencemen available. He’s also 6-foot-3, 192 pounds and still growing. He’d be an excellent choice at 15 if he’s still around.
Then there’s cerebral defenceman Cam York, who was lights out with the United States National Development Team this past season before torching the U-18 World Championship with four goals and 11 points in seven games for Team USA. It’s not much of a stretch to picture him in bleu, blanc et rouge.
Ville Heinola, who had an excellent season with Luukko in Finland’s Liiga, ranked fourth among European skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings and could prove very appealing to the Canadiens. He’s projected by most to be a late first-rounder and, if that proves to be true, perhaps Montreal could get its hands on him—on top of whomever they select 15th overall—by trading its two second-round picks to move up.
Then the Canadiens would own a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, three fifth-round picks, a sixth-round pick and a seventh-round pick to continue to fill this need and some others they have.
With all the options available to him, Bergevin should be able to fix his team’s most pressing issue over the next two weeks. At the very least, he can get the ball rolling in the right direction at the draft.