Why Canadiens' pursuit of Pierre-Luc Dubois is a complex, risky endeavour

Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston discuss all the news and rumours as the NHL drops the puck on a new season.

This feels a lot like looking for a job, where you go on endlessly chasing something with long-term potential only to find nothing. But then, out of the blue, once you finally get what you were looking for, other enticing opportunities start to land at your feet.

The Montreal Canadiens went the better part of three decades without a top-line centre and now that they have one emerging in Nick Suzuki, and another one not too far behind in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, they have a chance to trade for one who’s already established.

That Pierre-Luc Dubois is un gars de chez nous, that he reportedly wants to be here — and that his coach, John Tortorella, confirmed this week he’s looking for a way out of Columbus — has to be more than just a little bit enticing for Marc Bergevin. For a general manager who’s spent his entire nine-year tenure in Montreal talking about how players like these — 22-year-old, six-foot-three, 220-pound and 200-foot centres — are never available, you’d have to think he’s in aggressive pursuit.

As Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported, that appears to be the case. Earlier this week, Friedman wrote that Bergevin is definitely among the GMs speaking with Blue Jackets boss Jarmo Kekalainen. He also noted Winnipeg was hot after Dubois and wisely reminded that several other teams garnering less discussion in the rumour mill were in the mix.

How could they not be? We’re talking about a kid who’s already scored over 25 goals and 60 points in a season; a player who most recently put up 10 points in 10 playoff games while lining up against some of the best centres in the world in Toronto’s Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point.

Any team would be interested in that kind of player.

Dubois may not be in the superstar centre mould, but he certainly fits in the Ryan O’Reilly, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Patrice Bergeron star cast. Those guys all steered Stanley Cup-winning drives, and it’s not hard to envision Dubois potentially doing the same wherever he lands.

The thought of him cruising down Saint-Catherine Street in a convertible with said Cup en mains — perhaps as early as this July — isn’t even far-fetched.

But one of the many questions we have to answer in order for that to even be considered a possibility is if Bergevin is willing to part with the pieces Kekalainen would want.

The conversation, from Columbus’s end of it, would have to start with Suzuki. Kekalainen can’t trade Dubois without a player like Suzuki coming back the other way — a young centre with as much upside, one under team control for even longer than Dubois is.

You could also understand why Kekalainen would want another piece in the deal if it was Suzuki, because we’re talking about a 21-year-old sophomore who’s not as proven as Dubois, and the Blue Jackets aren’t throwing in the towel on this season — not with Seth Jones, Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins and several other key pieces just two years away from potentially walking out the door as unrestricted free agents. Their window to win is open right now, but it could be all but closed if Dubois goes for anything less.

But is the trade-off worth it for Bergevin?

He might consider it to be, even if it means giving up a player in Suzuki who might have a bit more offence in him than Dubois.

But Suzuki is very much trending towards becoming a Bergeron-type, and he’s further along in that process than anyone could’ve anticipated he’d be at this stage. That he makes a pittance compared to Dubois — and that’s he’s under contract for this season and next — isn’t a small consideration.

Adding something else to the deal to meet Kekalainen’s demand would make the decision that much harder for Bergevin, even if he feels Dubois gives the Canadiens a better chance to win right now.

The obvious counter for Bergevin is to offer a package that revolves around Kotkaniemi. If he’s going to compete with other offers that will come across Kekalainen’s desk, one of Montreal’s top prospects would also have to be in the deal. And in order for the Canadiens to take on Dubois’ $5-million cap hit, they’d have to send a roster player making in excess of $3 million the other way.

Would Bergevin be willing to give up Kotkaniemi — a 20-year-old, six-foot-two, 201-pound centre who could very well, within two years, become what Dubois is now — along with a top prospect?

We say it’s possible, but we’re not sure if Bergevin would give up the former third-overall pick and the best prospect in his system.

And yet, if you’re Kekalainen, and you can’t have Suzuki — and you know Montreal defenceman Alex Romanov is untouchable — are you not asking for Cole Caufield to come along with Kotkaniemi, who’s more of a wild card than Suzuki? And if you can’t get Bergevin to give up Caufield, are you not insisting on one of Mattias Norlinder or Kaiden Guhle and a draft pick?

Add in a proven 20-goal scorer in Paul Byron, who can vault up from Montreal’s fourth line to Columbus’s third or second — and for this year and two more at $3.4 million on the cap — and you might have the makings of a deal Kekalainen could digest.

Whether or not it would be the best one he could get at this point in time is another question. Think of what the Jets, or the New York Rangers, or the Ottawa Senators or Anaheim Ducks could offer.

If the Kotkaniemi package still proves to be the one Kekalainen would be most interested in, there’s still the question of whether or not Bergevin would be willing to give up that much for Dubois.

Let’s say he is, then timing becomes another key consideration.

Do Columbus and Montreal both believe they can go an extended period of time without any of the pieces we’re talking about in their respective lineups? It would be tough for either team to make a deal in the coming weeks if they felt they were putting their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

Say the Canadiens had this deal in place and wanted to pull the trigger on it right after their final game of this season-opening road trip — when they have a four-day gap between games — they would still be without Kotkaniemi, Byron and Dubois for their next six games, as Dubois would have to complete a 14-day mandatory quarantine coming from the United States to Canada.

If that’s confusing you because inbound players from the U.S. and Europe had to do just seven-day quarantines and provide four negative COVID-19 tests before being permitted to start training camp, know that the proviso there was that for the second week they were only permitted to travel between the practice facility and home.

This is different: a player being traded to Canada from the U.S. would not be permitted to appear in games after seven days and four negative tests and be exposed to his teammates or visiting teams at the Bell Centre. Remember, he wouldn’t just be in the Canadiens’ bubble, as the Canadiens now share a bubble with the other teams in Canada.

Without getting too bogged down in all of that, imagine you’re Bergevin and you’re making this deal because you believe it gives you a better chance to win this year’s Cup, but the Canadiens end up missing the playoffs because their lineup is severely handicapped for 14 per cent of the schedule.

It could be even more than that, unless you think Dubois could jump right into games before appearing in a practice with the team.

But we digress.

Sure, even if Bergevin feels that, in spite of missing the playoffs this year, Dubois still gives the Canadiens a chance for years to come, losing out on the chance this year is monumental given where the team is at — with 35-year-old Shea Weber and 33-year-old Carey Price still at the heart of why they feel they’re a contender to begin with.

And if Bergevin loses a chance this season, is it worth it for him to be giving up on a player in Kotkaniemi, who could turn into a similar one to Dubois and be paid far less over the next two-to-X years? And on top of all the other pieces we suggested would have to be in the deal?

These are complex calculations and risks to consider.

Still, we don’t expect the buzz to die down in these parts. Not so long as Dubois is playing for a team he doesn’t want to stay with.

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