Move for Scandella says Canadiens still believe in playoff hopes

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella celebrates his goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

MONTREAL— If trading Mike Reilly to the Ottawa Senators and acquiring Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres is indicative of anything, it’s that the Montreal Canadiens aren’t close to throwing in the towel on their playoff hopes.

A little under an hour before a pivotal game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who rest in third place in the Atlantic Division (four points up on a Canadiens team they have two games in-hand on), Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin announced that he had shipped Reilly to the Senators for a 2021 fifth-round pick and 25-year-old forward Andrew Sturtz.

Moments later, the Canadiens traded a 2020 fourth-rounder to Buffalo for Scandella, who is on expiring contract that carries a prorated $4-million salary through the end of this season.

In Scandella, a 29-year-old Montrealer who has three goals and nine points through 31 games this season, the Canadiens get an upgrade on the left side of their defence; a 6-foot-3, 212-pounder who skates well, moves the puck decently, plays physical and has 549 games of NHL experience. He’s the kind of player they’ve been looking for, a player they were interested in before he was traded from the Minnesota Wild to the Sabres in the summer of 2017, and a player who will likely serve as an anchor to 20-year-old rookie Cale Fleury on their third defence pairing.

Brett Kulak, who occupied that spot next to Fleury on Thursday against the Lightning, has been inconsistent at best after an impressive first season with Montreal in 2018-19. And Reilly, who originally came to the Canadiens from the Wild at the 2018 trade deadline in exchange for a 2019 fifth-rounder, dressed for just 14 games this season and was rendered a healthy scratch for the other 26 games.

The deals have short and long-term implications.

On the long end, in clearing out the 26-year-old Reilly’s $1.5-million salary through 2021, Bergevin made room for the arrival of prospect Alexander Romanov, the 2018 second-round pick who’s expected to leave the KHL for Montreal after this season.

But it’s the short-term windfall of the Scandella move that speaks volumes about how Bergevin and the Canadiens see their current situation. Down in the playoff race, right at the halfway point of the season, he made a move for right now. It’s a move that didn’t cost much to make, but one that could help his team keep pace while it awaits healthy returns for key forwards Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia and Paul Byron, all of whom could be back in action before the end of January.

Including Thursday’s game against the Lightning, the Canadiens have 10 games to get through before taking their bye week from Jan. 18-26. Their coach, Claude Julien, spelled out earlier on Thursday how they’ll have to play in order to come out with a winning record over this stretch.

“We have to play the right way,” Julien said. “We’re going to have to play well defensively, we’re going to have to look to win more tight games because we probably don’t have the depth to score the amount of goals we have since the beginning of the season.”

A little stability on the back end, which Scandella can bring, can only help.

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His acquisition isn’t the whole solution — starting goaltender Carey Price has to play much better than what he’s offered through most of the season and the Canadiens are going to have to find some offence by committee in the absence of some of their best scorers — but it can be part of it.

And if Scandella can’t help the Canadiens stay afloat in the race, Bergevin should be able to redeem close to what he gave up for the pending unrestricted free agent before the 2020 trade deadline comes in February.

But it’s clear the Montreal GM didn’t make this move just to have another card to play on the market, and if it ends up paying dividends, it could be the first of several he makes to help the Canadiens avoid missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season and a fourth time in five years.

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