Top UFA targets for the Canadiens to pursue this summer

Marc Bergevin continues to stand behind his much maligned coach, telling the media to expect Michel Therrien on the Montreal Canadiens bench on opening night.

MONTREAL — This is Marc Bergevin’s chance to put his stamp on the Montreal Canadiens.

The main pieces of the team’s core — MVP goaltender Carey Price, Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, four-time 30-goal man Max Pacioretty and plucky winger Brendan Gallagher — were already in place when Bergevin took over as general manager in the summer of 2012. Most of the auxiliary pieces were there, too.

He’s made two vital additions in four years: centre Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Jeff Petry.

The incentive to be bold, to institute drastic change, wasn’t all that high after each of Bergevin’s first three seasons. The Canadiens captured two division titles over that time, won four Stanley Cup playoff series and made an appearance in the 2014 Eastern Conference final. Building slowly was a luxury he could afford.

But now, with the 2015-16 Canadiens crumbling under the weight of Price’s 70-game absence, missing the post-season by an 11-point margin, all eyes are on the GM.

Which direction Bergevin goes in will become much clearer seven days from today. The NHL’s draft lottery on April 30 gives Montreal between a five and six per cent chance of picking in the top three this summer.

But if the balls fall where they’re expected to, and the Canadiens end up selecting ninth overall, Bergevin’s most pertinent work to address the immediate needs of the team will be done via trade and free agency. The first option will be necessary to exercise in order to subtract salary and create the necessary space to make valuable additions through the second one.

If Bergevin plays his cards right, convincing some of this year’s pending unrestricted free agents to play in Montreal can have his team right back in the thick of things. And with Price just two seasons away from the biggest payout a goaltender’s ever seen in this league, the time has never been more right to go for it.

That means making the strongest pitch for marquee centre Steven Stamkos, and it also means addressing other pressing needs.

Right wing:

Bergevin took several swings at filling this hole and struck out each time. The closest he came to knocking it out of the park was when he traded for Thomas Vanek at the 2014 deadline.

Granted, Vanek had made his living as a left-winger before moving over to the right of Pacioretty and David Desharnais to form one of the deadliest lines in the NHL. But he crashed and burned in the post-season before leaving for Minnesota as an unrestricted free agent.

There was Daniel Briere, a transplanted centreman on the last leg of his career.

Then there was P.A. Parenteau, who couldn’t seem to earn coach Michel Therrien’s trust no matter how well he played. Jiri Sekac and Devante Smith-Pelly fell into the same category.

And the most recent experiments, Zack Kassian and Alexander Semin, were brought in the summer of 2015 and barely made it past fall with the Canadiens.

Top target: Kyle Okposo.
Estimated price: $6 million AAV over 4-5 seasons.
The 28-year-old righty fills every need Montreal has at the position. He’s a heavy player at 6-feet, 217 pounds, he’s a bonafide 20-goal scorer, and he can also make plays.

Okposo is coming off a 22-goal, 42-assist season, and is currently trying to help the Islanders on get past Round 1 of the playoffs for the first time 23 years.

Smart buys: David Perron, Troy Brouwer, Jiri Hudler.
None of these three players can push the Canadiens over the edge, but all of them can provide value on short-term, lower-cost deals.


If there’s one thing that’s become clear over Bergevin’s time as general manager of the Canadiens, it’s that he values depth on the blue line. Injuries forcing Montreal to use 15 different defencemen this season must have only reinforced this mentality.

The Canadiens got a glimpse of what their defensive prospects can offer. Most of them proved serviceable, but none of them possess the skill-set to adequately fill in on the top pair. And 2015 first-rounder Noah Juulsen, who does project to be a top-four defenceman, is still a couple years away from making his impact in the NHL.

Andrei Markov, 37, is a little too long in the tooth to continue logging top minutes against the opposition’s best forwards. Therrien stated mid-season that his aim was to keep the Russian rearguard to under 22 minutes of ice time per game, but injuries saw him play over 24 minutes in 41 of his 82 games.

“Markov’s no spring chicken,” said Bergevin in French at his end-of-season press conference.

And though 23-year-old Nathan Beaulieu is waiting in the wings to take on more responsibility, he hasn’t shown the offensive wherewithal to unseat Markov from his post.

If Bergevin is going to be a player on the market for a top defenceman, he’ll have to make some space for it. The Canadiens currently have over 30 per cent of their salary cap dollars tied up in Subban, Markov, Petry, Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin and Greg Pateryn.

Top target: Keith Yandle
Estimated price: $6 million AAV over 6 years.
The 29-year-old Yandle may not have the defensive chops to be a top-line defender but he can singlehandedly lead the Canadiens’ power play — which has finished in the NHL’s bottom tier for three straight seasons — back to prominence.

He had five goals and 47 points (22 on the power play) this season, and is currently trying to help the New York Rangers stave off elimination in their first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Consolation: If 36-year-old Brian Campbell makes it to free agency, he might be worth a shot on a short-term deal. There’s no doubt he’s still a serviceable player who skates well enough to fit into Montreal’s system, brings a veteran presence to a young dressing room, and can still contribute on the power play.

Smart buys: Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers.
Both Stars blue-liners are offensive-minded, and it’s likely one or both will be available this summer. The former will be more expensive than the latter but neither of them will break the bank.

X-Factor Buy:
He snubbed Nashville, and speculation is rampant he’ll end up with his hometown Boston Bruins or with the Toronto Maple Leafs who employ his father, but Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey is a player Bergevin must pursue.

The Harvard University graduate accumulated 80 goals and 144 points in 128 games in the ECAC.

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