Whether or not you are a fan of Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, he is not going anywhere. Habs owner Geoff Molson made that clear in his “Like a Boss” answer period on March 6th. Still, Bergevin can’t be on solid footing. After missing the playoffs for two of the last three seasons, coupled with a disastrous off-season, fans and the media are calling for his head. If he wants to keep his job for another year, Marc Bergevin needs a strong off-season.
Marc Bergevin Needs A Strong Off-Season
After the trade deadline, Marc Bergevin said he wanted to build a team based on youth, speed and character. While this is a great soundbite, his actions as the Habs general manager so far seem to show a different focus. In recent seasons, Bergevin’s focus seems to be on adding physical and gritty players, while letting skilled players leave. Assuming Bergevin is being honest about how he wants to shift his focus on team building, he has to get started as soon as possible.
Holes To Fill
With the Habs playing out the stretch, the focus has inevitably turned to the offseason. The Habs have several holes on their roster that need to be addressed. The most glaring issue for the Canadiens is at centre ice. The Canadiens have been searching for depth at centre for Marc Bergevin’s entire tenure as general manager. This issue has been exacerbated by the fact that Bergevin has made two significant trades the past two offseasons, but failed to address the issue while creating a new one in the process.
The Habs have a serious issue with their defence as well. While Shea Weber has been a solid number one, he is having major surgery that will keep him out for six months. The team is hoping Weber will return to form, but there are no guarantees. Outside of Weber, the Habs have serious questions about their defense. Prospects Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen have provided fans with some excitement this year, but neither projects as a top pair defender.
Jeff Petry has had a solid year, but again, he is a good number three or four. The rest of the players on the blue line are Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko and Mike Reilly – all bottom-pair defensemen. So there are holes on the Habs top two pairings. The Habs need to fill those holes if they hope to get back into the playoffs.
Marc Bergevin is running out of time to build this team. He can’t wait for prospects to develop to help them. So while Ryan Poehling looks like an exciting prospect, he is at least a season away from turning pro, maybe two years – so Bergevin needs more immediate help on his roster.
Nikita Scherbak has also shown that he is ready to become a full-time NHL player, but he is another winger on a team stacked with wingers. This off-season, Bergevin needs to address the holes on this team to get them back to being competitive. This off-season, he needs to use all the avenues available to him, specifically free agency or trades, or in one specific instance, the draft.
The Canadiens need to find at least one centre, but probably need two. With the Canadiens convinced that Alex Galchenyuk is not a centre and Tomas Plekanec traded, the depth chart is extremely shallow. Right now Phillip Danault (injured) and Byron Froese are the only two natural centres. The Jonathan Drouin experiment at centre was catastrophic this year. Other players that have seen time at centre are Andrew Shaw, Paul Byron and Charles Hudon. This is not a recipe for success. Marc Bergevin can’t overlook this issue any longer. It needs to be addressed this offseason.
The big “easy” answer is for the Habs to sign potential free agent John Tavares. Tavares is the big fish of NHL free agency. He will likely command big money and term in this deal. Tavares is without question the elite NHL centre that the Habs covet. He would fill a gigantic hole on the roster. The issue with free agency, however, is that Montreal will be in competition with other teams for Tavares. There is no guarantee he will sign with the Canadiens. Montreal has not been able to attract many significant free agents in recent years, so the notion that this is close to happening is misguided.
If the Habs miss out on Tavares, Bergevin needs to have a plan B. Other centres that could fill a role on the Habs would be Joe Thornton, Paul Stastny and Henrik Sedin. None of these players would serve as long-term solutions and with Thornton (38) and Sedin (37) there are no guarantees they will even be playing next year. So that leaves Stastny as the real plan B, for every team that misses out on Tavares.
An interesting centre available as a restricted free agent is Andreas Athanasiou. He is still only 23 years old and still developing. While he won’t fix all the issues at centre, he is still developing and could become a very solid number two centre in the NHL.
Trading for Offense
We all know trading is hard, especially for a top-line centre. Still, in Marc Bergevin’s tenure as Canadiens general manager, several centres have been traded. Ryan Szporer of The Hockey Writers points out some significant centres Bergevin could have traded for to help the Canadiens at their biggest position of need.
Who the Habs can move to acquire a centre is another question. Leading up to the trade deadline, Max Pacioretty was involved in several trade rumours. While he was not moved, the feeling among insiders is that Pacioretty will be moved during the off-season. While his value might not be what it was at the deadline, he is probably the Habs biggest chip to move.
Improving The Defense
When the Canadiens traded for Shea Weber in 2016, the big question was who would play with him. Two seasons later, that question still persists. Along with who will play with Weber, the Canadiens also suffer from a lack of puck moving defensemen. Jeff Petry is the only NHL calibre puck-moving defensemen on the roster. While some will point to Victor Mete, he is still relatively unproven at the NHL level. He has shown flashes, but is probably not up to being on a second pairing, just yet. Stabilizing the defense, would allow the Canadiens to put players in their proper spots.
There are a few good options for Marc Bergevin to go after in free agency. At the top of the list is John Carlson, assuming he hits the market. Another option is Jack Johnson. Both will be high on most team’s wish lists in free agency, but the Canadiens should probably take a run at one of them. Both have played in top pairing roles and are effective puck movers. If they miss out on these two, the Bergevin should look to find a solid second pair defenceman or two. Calvin de Haan, although injured is still only 26. He is a solid puck moving defencemen.
If Bergevin wants to go with more experience, there is Mike Green and Toby Enstrom. Both are excellent puck-moving defencemen, but both have issues staying healthy. Both sometimes struggle in their own zone as well.
If he decides to give it one more go at age 41, Zdeno Chara is a free agent, but I think we can all agree it would be way too strange to see Chara in a Habs uniform.
Trading for Defense
If Bergevin strikes out acquiring a defenseman in free agency, he needs to look at making a trade. Again, trades are hard and the Habs don’t have a lot to work with, but trades can be made. While finding someone to play on the top pair with Shea Weber might be too costly a trade to make, the Habs can still improve their overall defense. The Habs have been linked to Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Justin Faulk recently. Faulk would slide very nicely into the Habs top four and help keep players like Jordie Benn or David Schlemko from being overexposed playing too many minutes.
There is only one player in this draft that, according to experts (for whatever that is worth), can make a significant impact on an NHL roster in 2018: Rasmus Dahlin. The Swedish defender is considered a generational talent on the blue line and the overwhelming consensus number one pick. If the Habs can somehow land the first overall pick, then Dahlin would immediately slot into the Habs top four (probably top two).
With the unpredictable nature of the draft lottery, there is a chance, but as it stands now, the Habs only have a slight chance of jumping up to the number one pick. This would be the best but probably most unlikely scenario.
A New Era
Bergevin will need to use this offseason to correct his errors. The team is desperately weak at centre and on defense. He needs to pull out whatever stops he can to bring in some high-end talent to Montreal. The Canadiens, right now, are a team of two minds. They have several veterans signed to big-money, long-term contracts. They also have a decision to make about captain Max Pacioretty. If the Habs decide to re-sign him, he is in line for a significant raise. He would also join the list of players over 30 signed long term. Having so many veterans signed like this would suggest that Bergevin is taking a run at the cup.
The other way is a team rebuilding, resetting, retooling, or whatever anyone wants to call it. They moved veterans Tomas Plekanec and Joseph Morrow at the trade deadline and Bergevin himself expressed a desire to make the team younger. While younger doesn’t necessarily mean worse, it does mean looking to move on from some older veterans. Whatever his plan is, he can’t simultaneously look to be competitive and get younger at the same time.
The Habs need to either be all-in or all-out. Toeing the line of both means the team will continue to be mediocre to bad, as they have for the past five seasons.
Needing a Home Run
With Marc Bergevin saying he wants to build a young and fast team, he has little time to wait. While he had a ho-hum performance at the trade deadline, he did not really make any moves to address his new vision for the team. Still, teams hardly rework themselves at the deadline, so it’s not totally surprising that he didn’t make any major moves. There was a hope, however, he could acquire some assets to help the Habs moving forward.
Still, the offseason is where plans are put in motion, so this offseason is the most important of Marc Bergevin’s Canadiens career. If Marc Bergevin is serious about wanting to ice a fast, young team, he needs to make a splash to get the fans and media back on his side. He needs to address the issues at centre and/or on defense – either through trades or signings.
He cannot afford to be left empty-handed again this year. He cannot enter into the season with a significant amount of unused cap space. Bergevin must have a backup plan if his first options don’t pan out. If he misses on Tavares and Carlson and brings in Matt Cullen and Francois Beauchemin, he better start packing his boxes.
He can’t come back to the fans and media with excuses about how he tried. This cannot be another offseason of depth moves. If Marc Bergevin comes away empty-handed, we have seen what to expect from this team, even with a healthy Carey Price and Shea Weber in the lineup. If Marc Bergevin wants to continue to be the Montreal Canadiens general manager, he needs to hit a home run this offseason. Anything short of that and the Habs will be in the market for a new general manager by Christmas.