If the Islanders don’t extend John Tavares, Canadiens must pounce

The Hockey Central panel talks about how and why the Canadiens couldn’t beat the Rangers- and don’t look to the Subban/Weber trade as an explanation.

MONTREAL — Marc Bergevin should do whatever it takes to acquire John Tavares.

If the New York Islanders centre doesn’t come to terms on a long-term extension when he becomes eligible to sign one as of July 1, 2017, if he becomes a piece that Islanders GM Garth Snow has no choice but to dangle on the market because he doesn’t want to face the possibility of losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent on July 1 of 2018, then the Montreal Canadiens GM has to do everything in his power to get him.

If it means trading the ninth-overall pick in 2016 — an uber-talented defenceman in Mikhail Sergachev — and a couple of key roster pieces, Bergevin has to do it. If it means trading off multiple first-round picks and the third-overall selection in 2012 in Alex Galchenyuk — a player Bergevin said on Monday is best suited to help his team as a winger — he has to do it. If it means putting together a package that includes virtually any Canadiens player not named Carey Price or Shea Weber… well, you get the point.

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It was on Monday, after another Canadiens season had finished well before anyone in Montreal hoped it would, that Bergevin sat in front of the media and predictably said — in both of Quebec’s official languages — the same thing he has over and over again since taking over the team’s hockey operations in 2012: “There’s 30 teams in the league [and] in our view there’s not every team that has a No. 1 centre. There’s teams that don’t have them, and the teams who do have them they’re not going to give them away. We could all be looking for one, so it’s not going to happen.”

But Bergevin also acknowledged that his team is among the ones which don’t have a No. 1, and he made it clear they don’t have one in development in the lower ranks of their system. And though he said a team can win without a true No. 1, he contradicted that statement when he cited Los Angeles Kings centres Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews as Stanley Cup-winning examples.

“You don’t have to have 80 points to be a no. 1 centre but you can have 80 points and not be a no. 1 centre,” Bergevin explained. “That’s what I see. A guy that can play on both sides of the puck, reliable, play 20 strong minutes… like [Canadiens coach] Claude [Julien] mentioned today when we were talking: How long a player has the puck on his stick during a game? It’s not that long. So if you play 20 minutes, you might have it for three minutes, a minute and a half, four minutes; it depends.

“There’s 15 minutes you don’t have the puck and you have to work very hard.”

At this point, a centre who fits the classic definition (one who can put up a point per game) or a centre who doesn’t put up 80 but fits Bergevin’s definition is still better than any of the ones the Canadiens currently have in place. And if Bergevin is going to build a winner around Price and Weber, who are both going to take up a major chunk of the team’s salary cap space for the foreseeable future, he can’t go any longer without addressing this need.

Tavares, who has 235 goals and 537 points in 587 NHL games and is one of the best defensive players in hockey, is the dream acquisition. It goes without saying he’d cost an arm and a leg to acquire and the decision to meet that cost would be entirely contingent on making sure he’s willing to sign with the acquiring team. But no team should be more intrigued by the possibility — and none should be more willing to sacrifice to make it happen — than Bergevin’s Canadiens.

If Tavares commits to the Islanders, there are other possibilities to consider.

Colorado’s Matt Duchene comes to mind.

You can’t completely ignore Duchene’s minus-34 status this season, but you can take it with a grain of salt when you consider how putrid the Avalanche were. The 26-year-old’s 41 points in 77 games put him well below his previous career average of .76 points per game, but you couldn’t expect much more with his team recording 21 fewer points than the next worst team in the standings and with trade rumours swirling all around him and serving as a major distraction for three-quarters of the season.

Duchene, who’s under contract for two more years at $6 million per, could prove to be a lower-cost acquisition with a very high ceiling, and he’s undoubtedly better than any of the players locking down a role at centre on the Canadiens.

If Bergevin doesn’t want to go down that road, he might have to explore the KHL’s free agent market. He had shown interest in St. Petersburg’s Vadim Shipachyov last summer before it turned out that an option clause in the centre’s contract kept him grounded in Russia through this season.

A source reached out on Monday to tell Sportsnet that Shipachyov is free and clear of his KHL contract and is looking to come to the NHL on a multi-year deal. The 30-year-old had 76 points in 50 games after putting up 60 in 54 last season. He also scored 19 points in 17 playoff games.

There will be other names that surface over the summer; centres who could be appealing to Bergevin.

“We’re looking at all the options,” he said.

Not landing an upgrade at the position before the start of next season can’t be one of them.

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