On the surface, the trade that brings defenceman Nikita Nesterov from Tampa Bay to Montreal adds some puck-moving depth on the left side of the Canadiens’ blue line.
Peel back a layer and you have to wonder if the move, which sent a 2017 sixth-round pick and AHL defenceman Jonathan Racine to the Lightning in exchange for the 23-year-old Russian, could signify that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has something else on the burner.
The depth Nesterov adds opens up an option Bergevin couldn’t have previously considered: would the Canadiens include defenceman Nathan Beaulieu in a package to obtain a top-six forward before this year’s trade deadline?
Some extra punch up front couldn’t hurt the Canadiens’ chances of contending for a Stanley Cup, and Bergevin has to be thinking about how he could acquire some without having to sacrifice the team’s most alluring prospect in 2016 first-rounder defenceman Mikhail Sergachev.
Moving pending restricted free agent Beaulieu (and some ancillary pieces) is one way he could do it, and the reality is that Bergevin might be so inclined—especially if it means he could acquire a long-term piece like Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene or his teammate, Gabriel Landeskog.
Think about where the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens are, despite dealing with injuries to key players since the onset of the season. Consider their success and the bold moves Bergevin made in the off-season to acquire defenceman Shea Weber and forwards Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov.
You have to think the GM is all-in this year.
With franchise goaltender Carey Price set for a record payday when his team-friendly $6.5-million cap hit expires in the summer of 2018, Montreal’s window to win is open from now until then.
There are other long-term salary implications that could make Beaulieu a logical trade chip.
Centre Alex Galchenyuk, who’s scored at a point-per-game pace since last February, is coming out of a two-year bridge contract at the end of this season—one that pays him only $2.8 million on the cap. He’s due a significant raise.
Radulov, who has been sensational in his first season with the Canadiens, is in the process of making himself indispensable.
And then there’s 38-year-old defenceman Andrei Markov, who’s been a fine wine for the Canadiens this season and has probably already bought himself another contract to remain with the only NHL team he’s ever played for.
Beaulieu, who collected his 17th assist in Montreal’s 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday and has 19 points in 43 games while averaging over 20 minutes per game this season, is also likely to pull in a healthy raise. The 6-foot-2 24-year-old is currently on a two-year, $2-million bridge deal that expires this summer.
But even if Beaulieu has played well, he hasn’t been able to entirely supplant Markov, who’s missed the last 19 games with a groin injury. And Nesterov—who has collected eight goals and 28 points and shown some upside in 119 NHL games—is going to be a significantly cheaper option to sign as a restricted free agent this summer.
It’s food for thought.
At the very least, trading for Nesterov allows Bergevin to obtain depth on the blue line that he’s reportedly been seeking since late October, and he did it without having to sacrifice anything significant.
Time will tell if the deal is a harbinger of others to come for the Canadiens.
But with Bergevin’s options widening as a result of it, all eyes will be on the Montreal GM from here to Feb. 28.