LAVAL-SUR-LE-LAC, Que.— “We’re pretty happy with our summer,” said Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
But we doubt he and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson were altogether enthralled with it. Staring down the prospect of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season, which is something that’s happened only twice in their history, Montreal tried to make big changes but only managed minor tweaks between April and September.
Now you have to wonder what they’ll do next. It’s a pertinent question to ask because the club is better positioned to improve its roster through trade than it has been at any other time over Bergevin’s seven years as GM.
The Canadiens are, by consensus, in possession of one of the best and deepest prospect pools in the National Hockey League. They also have 12 picks in the upcoming draft, and they’ll have upwards of $7 million of cap space to play with once players who don’t make their 23-man roster are sent to the American Hockey League, or waived, or traded. That’s a good hand to be playing.
Knowing that, isn’t it time Bergevin pulled the trigger on the kind of deal that not only significantly boosts Montreal’s chances of making the playoffs but puts them in contention for the Stanley Cup?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a priority,” Bergevin said from the Canadiens annual golf tournament on Monday. “I would say it’s an option that, if it’s available, we’ll surely look into it.”
It’s hard to imagine he’s fully satisfied with what he’s got after he made a play for top unrestricted free agent Matt Duchene, who preferred to sign with the Nashville Predators.
If Bergevin was so pleased with what the team possessed upfront, we doubt he’d have signed Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho to a five-year, $42.5-million offer sheet on July 1. And if he loved what he had on defence, he wouldn’t have bothered submitting an offer to puck-moving defenceman Jake Gardiner.
“We tried pretty hard to do a lot of things and we did some of the things that we wanted to accomplish. Not all, but that’s normal for every team,” said Molson. “Every opportunity is a two-way street. The desire on our part to do something has to be a desire on the other party’s part as well and we’ll continue to try to make the team better.”
It’s not like the Canadiens completely failed at that task over the summer months. In signing 28-year-old Ben Chiarot to a three-year contract Bergevin may have found a stabilizing force for the left side of the Canadiens’ defence. Adding a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who can complement an offensive-minded partner like Jeff Petry can’t hurt.
In signing goaltender Keith Kinkaid to a one-year, $1.75-million contract Bergevin probably opened up the possibility for starter Carey Price to get a bit more rest this season. Knowing how crucial Price is to the team’s success that has to help. And there’s a chance incoming forward Nick Cousins can do his part to at least partially supplant some of the grit and scoring lost in the cap-clearing June trade that sent forward Andrew Shaw back to the Chicago Blackhawks.
But to rest on all of that seems like a riskier gamble than sacrificing a bit of the future for the present.
On Monday, Bergevin and Molson talked about the chemistry and stability of their roster, and they spoke enthusiastically about the growth of their young players who gained valuable experience down the stretch last season as the team fought to the bitter end before falling just two points shy of a playoff berth. They expressed that those elements should allow the team to continue progressing.
They also assured that the coaches did an autopsy on the 30th-ranked power play and came away with ideas that should lead to considerable improvements. And they spoke glowingly about the prospects who appear poised to earn positions with the team.
“We have some kids pushing,” Bergevin said before adding, “I want to give them a chance.”
Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling, 20-year-olds respectively chosen 13th and 25th in the 2017 draft, had better seize it. If either player is prepared to make an impact immediately, it will alleviate much of the pressure Bergevin’s under to improve his roster before the season gets underway.
But even if both players are ready to join the Canadiens this fall, Bergevin still has an opportunity—and the incentive—to make a move that can push his team over the top.
Molson clearly sees it.
“Marc and I are on the phone every day and you never know what can happen moving forward,” the owner said. “The general managers across this league never stop talking to each other about opportunities and if there’s a good one for us to make our team better then we would do it.”
A few opportunities might come about over the next few days as teams scramble to get the remaining restricted free agents in the market signed to new contracts. Bank-breaking deals for some of these elite players— think Toronto’s Mitch Marner, or Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, or Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine—could force teams to make cap room in a hurry by dealing other players. And if some of these stalemates extend beyond the start of training camp, it could push a team or two into exploring what they could get for their player in a trade.
Bergevin will have to wait to see what develops. But whether it’s a few days from now, or a few weeks from now, or halfway through the season, or right at the trade deadline, he has to have his eye on the type of move that can get the Canadiens to the next level.