The Montreal Canadiens finished 28th overall in the NHL last season. Marc Bergevin‘s team has some glaring holes, with centre at the top of the list. They also are very weak at left defence. One advantage the team does have is a ton of cap space. They also had a solid draft last week, following up on a good draft in 2017. The Canadiens forward group is surprisingly young with Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen, Nikita Scherbak, and Charles Hudon all 23 years old or younger. Phillip Danault is 25, and Brendan Gallagher just 26.
Many thought the Canadiens would go after John Tavares in free agency. This would have been an instant fix for the Habs biggest problem. While Bergevin requested a meeting with the Tavares camp, he was frozen out. The question now becomes, what next for Bergevin? How does he solve the issues on his team?
Montreal Canadiens Off-Season
Stastny is the second most sought-after player on the market. He is 32 years old and coming off a strong finish to the regular season, and excellent playoff performance with the Winnipeg Jets. Stastny put up 53 points last season. It was his first year cracking the 50 point barrier since 2014. Given his age, and the number of teams looking for centre help, he is a prime candidate to be overpaid.
Bozak is also 32 years old. He has played well during the last two years, as the Toronto Maple Leafs third line centre. It is a role that he looks comfortable in. Prior to the Leafs drafting Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri having a breakout season in 2016-17, Bozak was the Leafs top line centre. While in the role, the Leafs were constantly looking to improve at the position and only made the playoffs once.
Nash is a 29-year-old who put up 41 points last season. However, this is the first season over 30 points in his NHL career. One has to be wary of a player who has broken out this late in his career.
It is pretty clear that while these three players could be second line centres, they are not the solution to the Habs problems. While they would improve the team, they would not make them Stanley Cup Contenders. That is the goal, to win the Stanley Cup, not just to make the playoffs. With all three players looking for big money and term, the Habs should stay out of this market. It is a road to mediocrity.
The Trade Market
Buffalo Sabres centre Ryan O’Reilly is in the middle of trade rumours, and according to a number of reports, the Canadiens are interested. On TSN’s insider trading, Pierre Lebrun speculates that the price for O’Reilly is a first round pick, a second-round pick and a top prospect. That trade price is very rich.
It should also be remembered that O’Reilly is 27-years-old and has never scored more than 64 points in a season. O’Reilly is another player that would be a very good second line centre on a contending team. However, Montreal would be asking him to be their top line centre. Like the three top free agents, it is unlikely that he is the type of solution the Habs need to become a Cup Contender.
Left Handed Defence
The best free agent on the market is Calvin de Haan. While he is a fine second pairing player, it is unlikely that he is the solution beside Shea Weber. De Haan is not going to be able to ignite the Habs transition game, while also being strong defensively and playing 25 minutes per game against the other team’s best players. He just is not a top-pairing defender, but someone better suited to play on the second pair. Sure he would improve the team, but as has already been said, the goal is not marginal improvements but becoming a cup contender.
Using Cap Space to Speed Up a Re-Tool
According to Elliotte Friedmann, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has recognized the problem. He has told management that it is okay if they do not make the playoffs in 2019 as long as they load up on picks and prospects. In this article, a plan to use the Habs available cap space to maximize the team’s prospect and draft pick capital will be laid out.
Trade Max Pacioretty
The 29-year-old captain is heading into the final year of his contract. He is going to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and is looking for a huge deal. Bergevin needs to move him in the next few weeks. As teams miss out on free agents like John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk they will begin to look for a trade as the solution. Bergevin can realistically ask for a top Centre or Left Hand Defence prospect and a first-round pick.
Sign Tomas Plekanec
Signing a 35-year-old centre might seem counter-productive to a rebuild, but it’s not. According to Bob McKenzie, there is mutual interest between the team and Plekanec. They should lock him up on a one-year deal. Plekanec can be traded at the deadline for young assets, just as he was at this year’s deadline.
Shop Shea Weber
Shea Weber is still one of the better defencemen in the NHL. He is also 32 years old. The Canadiens should ask for a king’s ransom for their top defender. With so few defencemen available in free agency, and the cost of signing free agents rising, the Habs have a valuable asset here. They also have the advantage of time, as Weber is not a pending free agent like Pacioretty. If teams are wary about paying a high price for Weber due to the foot injury that limited him to just 26 games last season, the Habs can hold him and wait for a strong offer, much like the Colorado Avalanche did with Matt Duchene.
Tear it Down
Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw, Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, Jeff Petry, can all be put on the trade market. Age, injury history, or contract status all make them expendable players who can be dealt if it adds future assets to the team and system.
Price is signed for eight years. He is also 30 years old. Traditionally, elite goalies age well and maintain that level of elite play later in their career than forwards or defencemen. Price can be part of the rebuild and the Canadiens should have no fear of a drop off in play if they keep him over the coming years. Of course, if another team makes an outrageous offer, he can be asked to waive his no-trade clause. Under this plan though, there is no need to move him.
Take Advantage of Available Cap Space
Here is the big one. There are a number of teams who are tight against the cap and would love to get some relief. The Habs can use their financial position, and cap space to their advantage here. This means taking on short-term, big money deals. Sorry Edmonton, but that does not include a player like Milan Lucic, as he simply has too much term.
The Dallas Stars are big-game hunting this summer. They are involved in the Tavares sweepstakes. Even if they miss out, Jim Nill is looking to make a big addition to the team. However, they do not have a lot of cap space. Jason Spezza has one year left on his contract that carries a cap hit of $7.5 million per season. The Stars used him as a third line winger last season, and he scored just eight goals and 26 points in 78 games. The Habs could help the Stars out of their dilemma by trading a low-level prospect like Antoine Waked for Spezza and a 1st round draft pick. For $7.5 million in cap space, the price should be high.
Once the Habs acquire Spezza, their goal would be to rejuvenate the one-time franchise centre. They can give him first line ice-time, including a very heavy percentage of offensive zone starts, and power play time. If he can put up better numbers, Spezza becomes an attractive piece at the trade deadline. Add in the Habs ability to retain salary on the contract and he could bring back more significant draft picks and prospects.
Ennis, 28, has been plagued by injury. The Minnesota Wild winger is entering the final year of his deal with a $4.6 million cap hit. He put up just eight goals and 22 points in 73 games last year. The Wild are trying to include Ennis in a deal for Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter or one of their other attractive trade assets. The Canadiens could instead offer to take on Ennis’ deal, and a second-round draft pick from the Wild, in exchange for another low-level prospect.
Steve Yzerman is looking to improve the Tampa Bay Lightning but is running out of cap space. The Habs could offer to take on the final two years of Ryan Callahan‘s contract at $5.8 million plus a first round pick or top prospect from the Bolts. Callahan had just 18 points in 67 games last year. He has not passed the 30 point plateau in any of the last three seasons and has also had injury issues.
The Pittsburgh Penguins already made a move to clear cap space yesterday, dealing away Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick. If they are interested in clearing more space, then Carl Hagelin‘s final year at $4 million becomes an obvious target. With 31 points last year, he has been better than Ennis and his contract isn’t as high as Callahan or Spezza. It is doubtful that the Penguins would include a high draft pick just to get rid of him, but they may be willing to sell him cheap. With his playoff experience, two cup rings, and speed he would be a player the Canadiens could then flip at the NHL Trade Deadline for additional assets.
The Habs would be unlikely to make the playoffs, leading to another high draft pick in 2019, a draft loaded with strong centres. Once veterans are moved on, it would make room for players like Jake Evans, Noah Juulsen, Brett Lernout, Victor Mete, Rinat Valiev, and others would get ice-time after trades are made. This NHL experience would give the team a good look at what their prospects are capable of. It is an opportunity to evaluate who is part of their future plans and what prospects they can move on from.
With a young forward group already in place. A strong pair of drafts that have added a lot of help at both centre and defence in 2017 and 2018, and a franchise goalie still in place, the Habs could turn their team into a contender quickly. Instead of going for a quick fix this summer, they could take a bit of a longer-term approach which would lead to a stronger overall team in two to three years. A team with their financial resources and cap space should seriously look at this option.
Main Photo: DALLAS, TX – NOVEMBER 10: Dallas Stars Right Wing Jason Spezza (90) handles the puck during the NHL hockey game between the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars on November 10, 2017, at American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)