MONTREAL— This season has been a disaster for the Montreal Canadiens, but suffering through it could prove to be the most important step in the team’s eventual climb back to prominence.
The cupboard needs to be restocked, draft picks must be accumulated, and falling out of contention as early as the Canadiens have enables general manager Marc Bergevin to address some needs that have been ignored in previous years of mostly successful hockey under his watch. He’s not going to have a better chance to turn the Canadiens around quickly than the one that’s currently in front of him, and if he plays his cards right, he’ll do exactly that.
When you consider the parity of the NHL nowadays, the road to redemption has seemingly become a lot less hard to travel than it was in the past. Six teams that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season are currently locking down spots. Two of them (Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets) are among the league’s three best teams.
And then there’s the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have won 29 of their first 41 games and accumulated the second-most points in the NHL. If they can become great as quickly as they have, there’s no reason the Canadiens — or anyone else having a tough season — can’t do the same.
That Montreal has superstar goaltender Carey Price and franchise defenceman Shea Weber locked into long-term deals gives them a head start. Bergevin can retool the roster around them, promising young defenceman Victor Mete, and young forwards Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Alex Galchenyuk, Artturi Lehkonen and Phillip Danault.
Though the GM said this past Sunday at his press conference that he’s not yet ready to throw in the towel on this season, there’s little doubt that day is on the horizon. By the time the Canadiens resume play — they’re currently idle until Saturday night —
they could be as many as 10 points out of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. They’re already 13 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division. It would take a miracle for them to close the gap considerably between now and the Feb. 26 trade deadline, and this team hasn’t come close to showing it can perform a miracle through its first 42 games.
No saviour is coming, either.
“In the perfect world, would I love to add a piece to help them? Of course,” Bergevin said. “But to sacrifice the future and be taking a major risk to hurt the organization for the long term? I’m not ready to do that. And to be honest with you, the short-term solution, there’s nobody out there that I’m aware of that’s going to come and turn this thing around.”
But there’s plenty of opportunity for Bergevin to pursue in order to get things back on the rails before the puck drops next season.
One of the best assets Bergevin has at his disposal is $7.5 million in cap space. Had he spent more than a million of the $8.5M the Canadiens entered this season with, they may not be in such a precarious position in the standings. But because he didn’t, he now has the ability to take on more salary at the deadline than almost any other GM in the league, and that could prove beneficial in the pursuit of picks and young players.
Doing his rivals a favour, by taking on expiring contracts, could net Bergevin more picks and prospects — or higher quality assets — in such deals than he would get by just selling players off his roster. The ability to retain salary in trades offers him the same opportunity.
“I’m going to look at all our options,” Bergevin said.
Trading Max Pacioretty is another he simply can’t ignore.
The 29-year-old captain of the Canadiens has scored at least 30 goals in five of his last six seasons and is on steal of a deal at $4.5 million through 2019. As a result, he presents Bergevin with his best opportunity to add a top centreman.
And Bergevin already has Pacioretty’s replacement on his roster.
“In an ideal world, he’s a winger,” said Bergevin of Drouin, who’s currently playing out of position as Montreal top centre.
Bergevin also has a player (Danault) to replace veteran centre Tomas Plekanec—should he choose to trade him.
The 35-year-old is in his final year of making $6 million, and he should prove attractive to a contending team looking for an experienced player who can still skate with the game’s best — and check them, too — on a nightly basis.
Plekanec, who gets next to no power-play time, has 16 points in 42 games this season. He has the heaviest defensive responsibilities, but he’s plus-3 on a Canadiens team that ranks 26th in the NHL in five-on-five scoring. He’s also an excellent penalty killer. There’s no question he has value on the trade market.
As does defenceman Jordie Benn, who carries a $1.1 million cap hit through 2019 and has shown he can play above his paygrade.
Benn has 10 points, a plus-3 rating and has averaged 19:21 per game in 40 games this season.
Every pick counts. As it stands, the Canadiens are looking at a good position to choose from in the first round of the 2018 draft, they have three second-round picks, a third rounder, and three fifth-round picks (two of which are likely to become fourth-round picks thanks to conditions agreed to in trades made with the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers earlier this year). Obtaining a few more by shedding some of the players on the current roster will also free up significant space for a shopping spree in unrestricted free agency this summer.
This isn’t the path Bergevin and his team set out on at the start of this year, but it might be the one that gets them to a better place when all is said and done.