We’re still figuring out what this year’s Montreal Canadiens are and how they stack up against the East’s playoff hopefuls.
An eight-game losing streak wrapped up their November and started their December, but since ending that the Canadiens have won three of four, which included a win over the New York Islanders and Tuesday’s win against Pittsburgh, in which they brought an end to Tristan Jarry’s franchise-record shutout streak.
The Canadiens have been hit by the injury bug and have clear needs. We recently touched on their lack of left-shot blueliners and explored some potential options if GM Marc Bergevin decides to hit the trade market.
But it remains to be seen if Montreal will play the role of buyer at all.
First, we don’t really know if this year’s team demands making a substantial move to upgrade it. They’re currently four points back of the Penguins for a wild card spot, but just one point behind Florida for third in the Atlantic. The Maple Leafs are right behind (with one more game played) and Tampa Bay is chasing, too (with two games in hand). It would be quite a shock if either of those teams, let alone both, ended up on the outside come April.
After favourable home matchups Wednesday against Ottawa and Saturday against Detroit, the Canadiens will set out on a seven-game road trip through the holiday season and how they fare over that time could determine their place on the buyer-seller scale. But even if they come out of it looking golden, there’s still another reason why any hopes of a big trade should be cooled.
Bergevin, historically, just doesn’t operate that way.
In his time as Montreal GM, Bergevin has made 27 in-season trades between puck drop and trade deadline, but the vast majority of those are very small scale. We’re talking Adam Cracknell (who never played a game for the Canadiens) for Peter Holland in 2017, or Robert Czarnik (who also never played) for Steve Quailer in 2014.
So while there may be visions out there that Bergevin takes a big swing for Taylor Hall to help scoring, or Cam Fowler to shore up the defence, a move like that during the season would run counter to how Bergevin has traditionally approached these things.
Still — he has made some notable moves in-season. Here’s a look at his top four, in reverse chronological order:
Feb. 27, 2017: Acquired Jordie Benn from Dallas for Greg Pateryn, 2017 4th rounder
Pateryn, 29, hasn’t played an NHL game yet this season because of a groin injury and has since moved on to the Minnesota Wild since this trade. Benn, too, has moved on and is now a member of the Vancouver Canucks. But you could say he’s the sort of left shot blue liner Montreal could use right now. Last season Benn averaged the second-most shorthanded ice time among Habs blueliners and he finished with five goals and 22 points. This season in Vancouver he’s again playing a pivotal penalty-kill role. That we had to go back two-plus years to get our first of five notable trades shows how out of character a mid-season splash move is for Bergevin.
Feb. 26, 2016: Acquired Philip Danault, 2018 second-rounder from Chicago for Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann
When Bergevin does make a splash between October and the trade deadline, he has a pretty good track record of coming out on top. This one with Chicago turned out especially well. Neither Weise nor Fleishmann stayed with the Hawks past the remainder of the 2015-16 season and the team’s deadline push to make a dent in the playoffs failed — they were knocked out by St. Louis in the first round in seven games, and that still stands as the last time Chicago won a playoff game.
Danault, on the other hand, has gotten better with each passing year. His first full season in Montreal finished with 13 goals and 40 points and his per-game scoring rate has improved ever since. Just last season Danault had a career-high 53 points and his two-way game started to get some attention — he finished seventh in Selke Trophy voting. Danault is again off towards a career year now at age 26 with 24 points in 31 games and his 2:30 of average shorthanded ice time per game is 20th among all NHL forwards. His Selke calls will only get louder, though that will be a tough top three to crack.
March 2, 2015: Acquired Jeff Petry from Edmonton for 2015 second-round pick, 2015 conditional fifth-round pick
If the Danault deal isn’t Bergevin’s best in his time as Canadiens GM, this one is. Petry was pulling in big minutes with the Oilers, though he had gone from their No. 1 to No. 3 by the end. And he never really broke on to Edmonton’s power play with a meaningful role, which helped contribute to his point totals never going above 17 there.
But in Montreal, Petry has become a top-pair, all-around beast. In fact, he’s easily surpassed his highest point totals from his time in Edmonton for three seasons in a row, finishing with 42 and 46 the past two years. He has 16 in 31 games so far this year. With a $5.5 million cap hit through next season, you could even say Petry is still somewhat of a bargain at that cost, considering what he provides the Habs. He’s physical, he’s offensive and he’s no liability on defence. There’s not much weakness here. And Bergevin was able to acquire Petry for peanuts.
March 5, 2014: Acquired Thomas Vanek, conditional fifth-rounder from NY Islanders for Sebastian Collberg, 2014 conditional second-rounder
A year after winning the regular season division title, Bergevin was trying to make another push with the Canadiens and made a move for Vanek who, at the time of his trade, was the biggest “name” player of any listed here. It was the second time that season Vanek was moved (from Buffalo to the Islanders and then to Montreal) and he was a near point-per-game player. Vanek scored six goals and 15 points in 18 regular season games for Montreal, and then had five goals and 10 points in 17 playoff games as Montreal went all the way to the conference final.
Montreal wasn’t one of the stronger offensive teams that year, so Vanek gave them a boost at both 5-on-5 and on the power play and wound up on the top line. He was always going to be a straight up rental, and Collberg never played an NHL game, so this was another easy win for Bergevin in a playoff push kind of move.