How Marc Bergevin can address Canadiens’ pressing need at centre

Marc Bergevin talks about how the Montreal Canadiens will approach the off-season and how the team will need an attitude change.

Marc Bergevin is being given another chance. A second lease on life as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. A golden opportunity to do the one thing he hasn’t been able to do since being appointed to his role in 2012.

Okay, there have been a couple of things Bergevin hasn’t been able to accomplish over his tenure. Winning a Stanley Cup is one of them, but that ultimate goal can’t be realized without taking care of that pressing issue we’re referring to—the need to acquire a bona fide No. 1 centre.

Bergevin has certainly tried. He walked away from the draft table in 2012 thinking he had gotten the job done after selecting Alex Galchenyuk third overall. He made inquiries and offers all over the league in the years that followed, but ultimately failed to fill the position while Galchenyuk was being seasoned. And when it was clear—at least in his mind—that Galchenyuk was better suited for the wing, he traded 19-year-old defenceman Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning for 22-year-old Jonathan Drouin in June of 2017.

Drouin may develop into a quality NHL centre after putting up 46 points in his first 77 games at the position, but it’s clear that his ability to do so in the short term hinges on having another centre ahead of—or at least on par with—him on the depth chart. So the search continues.

In an ideal world, Bergevin would be able to save the team’s money and its assets and land a franchise centreman with what’s guaranteed to be a top-7 pick in this year’s draft. But none are seemingly available, and defencemen and wingers are dominating the projections.

However, there are a few options to consider to obtain a No. 1, and there are also some opportunities to at least bolster the depth of Montreal’s roster at the position.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENCY

With just over $61.5 million already committed to two goalies, eight defencemen and 10 forwards, according to capfriendly.com, the Canadiens could have as much as $20.5 million to spend to round out their roster (provided the salary cap increases to the projected upper limit of $82 million).

Here are some centres Bergevin could sign off the free agent market.

John Tavares

The 27-year-old New York Islanders captain is the top pending free agent available.

If he so chooses to field offers ahead of July 1, there’s zero doubt the Canadiens will be tabling one. In fact, we can’t think of a single team in the league that would outbid them for Tavares’s services.

But the question is: Is Tavares willing to come to Montreal?

Star goaltender Carey Price and No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber, Tavares’s Olympic teammates, will have to take on an active role in persuading him that he can win in short order with the Canadiens. Owner Geoff Molson and Bergevin will have to go the distance to show him what kind of life he can have in the city and what kind of legacy he can build with the most storied franchise in the NHL. And you have to think coach Claude Julien will have to show him a blueprint of how he’ll be employed.

But all of that—and a boatload of money—might not be enough to lure Tavares away from the only NHL team he’s ever played for. It might not be enticing enough to keep him from going to another team, like the San Jose Sharks for instance.

Paul Stastny

Winnipeg Jets centre Paul Stastny is the only other viable free agent option for Montreal. And "viable" is a strong word here.

At 32-years-old, Stastny’s days as a top centre are numbered. But he’s a serviceable No. 2, and that will force Bergevin to look his way in short order if Tavares lands elsewhere.

Other Free Agent Options

Out of the "we couldn’t land the big one but still need someone" pile are Boston Bruins centre Riley Nash (28), Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tyler Bozak (32), San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton (38) and Carolina Hurricanes centre Derek Ryan (31).

Out of the "we got absolutely nothing, and absolutely nothing won’t do" pile are Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tomas Plekanec (35), Philadelphia Flyers centre Valtteri Filppula (34) and St. Louis Blues centre Kyle Brodziak (33). You can also refer to this as the "don’t offer more than a one-year deal" pile.

TRADE

If this is the door the Canadiens need to go through in order to land a true No. 1 centre, you have to consider what they have to offer.

It might be easier to look at what they don’t have to offer, which one would think is a list that starts with Price and ends with Weber, Drouin, 19-year-old defenceman Victor Mete and 2017 first-round pick (and 200-foot centre) Ryan Poehling.

A trade could cost the Canadiens any combination of the roster players not named above, including 21-year-old defenceman Noah Juulsen, captain Max Pacioretty and Galchenyuk, any of their 10 picks in the upcoming draft, and even some of the picks they have in next year’s draft.

Here are some centres the Canadiens could look to acquire via trade.

Ryan O’Reilly

You have to think a deal for the Buffalo Sabres centre is a possibility.

The 27-year-old O’Reilly wasn’t exactly too shy to share his feelings on how three years of losing hockey in Buffalo has affected him, and change could be a necessity for both him and the team.

O’Reilly’s a 55-to-65 point player who excels at both ends of the rink. Absorbing the remainder of his contract, which pays him $7.5 million per season over the next five, shouldn’t be too big of a concern for a team with deep pockets like the Canadiens. And acquiring him—and that big contract—won’t cost quite as much as the next guy on this list.

Nicklas Backstrom

The 30-year-old Washington Capitals pivot has a choice of seven teams he cannot be traded to. Provided the Canadiens aren’t one of them, they should be first in line to acquire his services.

General manager Brian McLellan made a bold decision last summer to keep the core of his perennially playoff-challenged Capitals intact for the 2017-18 season. We can’t picture him doing the same thing this coming summer if the Capitals were to lose their first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Heck, we could still see him detonating the roster in a couple of months even if the Capitals squeak by the Blue Jackets. If they were to fall once again in the second round—once more to the Pittsburgh Penguins (who are up 3-1 over the Philadelphia Flyers in their first-round series) that would do it. There’s only so many times you can watch that tape before taking it out of the VCR and bashing it to smithereens.

Backstrom is one of the best players in the game. A consistent point-per-game producer who eats up only $6.7 million of the cap per season through 2020. A player most teams would never rid themselves of.

But we can’t envision any scenario where owner Ted Leonsis greenlights an Alex Ovechkin trade, and in the immortal words of Sam Cooke, "A change is gonna come, yes it is."

If it comes in the form of Backstrom changing teams, he might be one of the only players the Canadiens would consider trading their 2018 first-round pick for.

That would probably have to be a part of the package from Washington’s perspective.

But you can scrap this whole scenario if the Canadiens cash in on their 9.5 per cent chance of winning the draft lottery on April 28. They wouldn’t move Rasmus Dahlin, the can’t-miss defenceman who fills the other big hole on their roster.

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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

The 25-year-old counts for $6 million against the cap for each of the next three seasons and could find himself on the outs in Edmonton with new, mega contracts for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl kicking in next fall.

That the Oilers moved Nugent-Hopkins to McDavid’s wing down the stretch of the season tells you everything you need to know about their need at that position. He did well there, but they could use a natural option, and that makes Montreal an ideal trade partner.

We believe the Canadiens would be most interested in Draisaitl if they were dealing with Edmonton, but we suspect there would be negligible appetite to move him if Peter Chiarelli remains as general manager.

RFA OFFER SHEET

There is a list of players Bergevin could pursue this avenue with, but it wouldn’t be at the very bottom of this piece if we didn’t think it was unrealistic.

For whatever reason(s)—draft compensation is too much to part with, relationships with rival executives could be fractured by such a hostile move—general managers have avoided exercising this option at all costs. But, we thought we’d include it because desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are certainly desperate times for the Canadiens.

So, in no particular order, some offer-sheet eligible centres include:

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

J.T. Miller, Tampa Bay Lightning

Elias Lindholm, Carolina Hurricanes

Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

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