Canadiens pluck depth from shallow trade pool as core players near return

The Hockey Central panel recaps the biggest trade on Deadline Day, the Taylor Hall trade from Buffalo to Boston, delving deep into why this move could wipe out anything that has happened to Hall so far this season.

MONTREAL — It’s hard to make a big splash in such a shallow pool.

So, if you’re wondering why the NHL’s trade deadline came and went with Marc Bergevin adding just one more depth piece to a Montreal Canadiens team he revamped with eight new players since last September, it’s at least in part because of that.

Erik Gustafsson, a power-play specialist and bottom-pair defenceman, was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2022 seventh-round pick just 15 minutes before 3 p.m. ET on Monday, and then Bergevin justifiably rested.

Taylor Hall — three years removed from a Hart Trophy win, though it feels more like six — was the biggest name to move in the lead up to Monday’s nationally televised snooze fest. That the two-goal scorer, along with centre Curtis Lazar, was shipped from Buffalo to Boston for just a second-round pick and fourth-line forward Anders Bjork spoke volumes of the quality of players available prior to 3 p.m. ET.

There was, however, one shocker that trickled in afterwards, with the Detroit Red Wings sending Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals for a 2021 first-round pick, a 2022 second-round pick, Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik. It was a deal involving considerable risk on Washington’s end, with futures added to Panik and Vrana, who has as many goals (11) and more points than Mantha (25 to 21) in three less games, and it was made on a day no one else came anywhere near as close to stepping as far out on the ledge.

Over the weekend, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a first-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for captain Nick Foligno and the Tampa Bay Lightning also gave them one for defenceman David Savard. They’re two players that will help firm up both teams as Stanley Cup contenders — even if they’re most likely to both be in secondary roles once the playoffs begin.

Those teams paid a premium for that depth, while no one else paid nearly as much for similar pieces. Time will tell if it was worth it.

Meanwhile Bergevin bargained, giving up very little for players who may or may not help the Canadiens. In bringing in Eric Staal — a Triple Gold Club member — at half his salary for 2021 third- and fifth-round picks on March 26, Bergevin felt he addressed a need for some experience up the middle. He waived small but speedy defenceman Victor Mete before trading C-prospect Hayden Verbeek and another 2021 fifth-rounder to the Red Wings for big and steady defenceman Jon Merrill on Sunday, filling a need next to Alex Romanov on the team’s third pair.

Merrill will serve a seven-day quarantine before joining the Canadiens on the ice. Gustafsson will have to do the same, though he’ll likely have to wait for an injury to obtain his chance to show he’s more like the player who scored 17 goals and 60 points with the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks than the player who’s only managed seven goals and 32 points in 90 games since.

Meanwhile, Mete, who was both literally and figuratively bodied out of Montreal’s lineup, was claimed by the Ottawa Senators.

Did the Canadiens drastically improve with any of these moves? Probably not.

But they certainly didn’t get any worse. And with several teams stuck somewhere between buying and selling — and several others happy to just sit on their hands — there wasn’t really an opportunity to get much better.

As a result, the Canadiens retained 11 picks in this year’s draft — their first, two seconds, two thirds and three fourths included — and held all their noteworthy prospects. They also kept all their roster players, which is something Bergevin said he wanted to do all along.

The GM also repeated several times prior to Monday that he was comfortable going forward with what he has — a team that’s essentially been in a playoff spot from wire to wire, one six points up and owning three games in hand on the next-best team in the North Division and one that expects to have reinforcements returning from injury/illness before the Stanley Cup tournament gets underway.

Top goaltender Carey Price is slated to return from a lower-body injury later this week. Joel Armia, a top-nine forward who was placed on the NHL’s Covid Protocol list after testing positive for a variant of the virus on March 22, could be back as early as Wednesday, when the Calgary Flames visit the Bell Centre. Top-four defenceman Ben Chiarot is on the mend from a fractured hand suffered March 10 and there’s a sense he’s not far behind. And though top-six forward Brendan Gallagher isn’t expected to return before the regular season ends, the Canadiens not using the money they banked in placing him on the long-term injured reserve list makes it possible for him to do so without creating a salary cap issue.

All those players will provide a boost. Some others might, too.

The Canadiens have already spoken at length about Staal’s addition, and though he’s been kept in check over his last three games, he already contributed a game-winning goal to their efforts.

Tomas Tatar, who knows Merrill from his brief stint alongside him with the Golden Knights in 2018, feels the defenceman Bergevin acquired from Detroit could be of service both in the room and on the ice.

“He’s a great guy, he’s very funny. I loved to be around him in Vegas when we were together,” Tatar said of the six-foot-three lefty who’s comfortable playing the right side. “And, as a player, I think he’s great defensively. He’s got a very good ability to make a good first pass on a breakout. I really think he can help us.”

Merrill’s the polar opposite of Mete — a defenceman capable of punishing players in front of the net and in the corners, one who’s much more efficient at breaking up the rush, but also one who’s nowhere near as involved in starting it.

But the team still has Brett Kulak to do that, and Bergevin’s hope is that Gustafsson can provide some insurance in that role as well.

No prolific forward was added to the mix, but Cole Caufield is with the AHL affiliate and has the potential to be one with the Canadiens in short order.

For now, they soldier on with what they’ve got, eager to break out of a three-game slump and prepared to make a push through the final 18 games of the season.

“The playoffs are when you want to be at your peak,” said assistant captain Paul Byron earlier on Monday. “I don’t think you want to be peaking too early in the year. Every team has ups and downs throughout the year. We came out of our week off break there and we were playing really well. We’ve had a little bit of a dip and now it’s time to start peaking again and start getting better. The team wants to be at our best come playoff time, and first of all you’ve gotta get there. So, this next month is going to be a big challenge for our team, and having those games of importance… every night now is going to have a playoff atmosphere, playoff implications.”

That starts with a game against the Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre. Five of the six players Bergevin added in the off-season — Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson and Corey Perry — and Staal will be dressed for it.

The others, including the pair of 29-year-old defencemen acquired, are coming soon. No one else was worth doing a cannonball for.

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