With the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, all the focus now shifts. It shifts towards the NHL draft and off-season. For the Montreal Canadiens, that means the months of speculation, arguments and theories is coming to an end. The NHL draft is just over two weeks away and the Canadiens hold the third overall pick and five picks in the first two rounds. For Habs fans that suffered through the disastrous 2017-18 season, the draft has been the light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Still, there are differing opinions on how Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin should approach this off-season. Either option has its own rewards and drawbacks.
Marc Bergevin‘s Off-Season Dilemma
At the Canadiens “post-mortem” in April, there were a lot of good sound-bites coming from owner Geoff Molson. He said the were changes coming on and off the ice. The off the ice changes have started with the departures of Rick Dudley, J.J. Daigneault, Daniel Lacroix, Sylvain Lefebvre and his staff in Laval. The team has also brought in Dominique Ducharme as an assistant coach and Joel Bouchard to coach the Canadiens AHL affiliate in Laval.
Still, the Habs completely bottomed out in 2017-18. While making changes to the coaching staff and front office is a good start, there is also a major issue with the overall talent on the ice. The Canadiens struggles this year have been discussed and dissected ad nauseam, so there is no need to re-live it but when a team struggles like this, it makes those in charge reevaluate their team and direction. For a Canadiens team that hasn’t really attempted the dreaded rebuild, it seems like this might be a good time to tear it all down and start over. It is tempting, with the Habs holding so much draft collateral this year and the next two drafts are expected to be very deep. This long-term approach is in contrast to owner Geoff Molson’s desire to have a competitive team right away.
If General Manager Marc Bergevin decides to take a long-term approach, he probably won’t be around long enough to see his (new) vision through. He is on thin ice after missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. With Molson wanting the Habs back in the playoffs, Bergevin will be forced to find quick fixes to get the Habs back to being competitive. Right now, most people assume that Marc Bergevin’s margin for error is very small. Behind closed doors, the situation might be different. If Geoff Molson is on board for a re-build or Marc Bergevin has more room for error than assumed, the team can take the long-term approach to building a team.
Work the Draft
The Habs have never really gone the rebuild route, even when they have been terrible. With the draft capital this year and the next two drafts considered very deep, the Habs might be wise to take a patient approach. This year, the consensus third-ranked player is Czech winger, Filip Zadina. Zadina is a proven goal scorer, netting 44 goals with the Halifax Mooseheads last year.
Another name that has been gaining traction is Finnish winger/centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi. With the Habs depth at centre or lack thereof, the desire to, all be it slightly, reach for a position of need is tempting, for sure. While Kotkeniemi had a strong season in the Finnish elite league, as a 17-year-old, he did it as a winger. Still, he projects as a centre in the NHL. He had a strong showing at centre playing with Finland at the U18 World Hockey Championships. He scored nine points in seven games for the gold medal-winning Fins.
There could be some reticence to draft another winger/centre as Bergevin drafter Alex Galchenyuk, third overall, to be the Habs number one centre. While arguments can be made as to why he hasn’t worked out, Galchenyuk has not developed into the top centre the Habs were hoping for.
If Bergevin is feeling especially aggressive, he would try to manoeuvre back into the first round and try to get both Zadina and Kotkaniemi.
Looking forward to the next few drafts, USNTDP centre Jack Hughes seems to be the top pick in the 2019 draft. Six of the top 10 prospects in the 2019 draft, as of right now, are either centres or defencemen. The Canadiens, however, are more likely to want to target the top pick in the 2020 draft (as of right now) Alexis Lafreniere. The St. Eustache native has caught the eye of scouts everywhere with a 40 goal rookie season with Rimouski in the QMJHL. The Habs have been desperate to find a local superstar and Lafreniere looks like he could be just that.
Taking the long-term will have an effect on a roster. Veteran players might not want to put up with the growing pains of a young team. Veterans like Shea Weber and Carey Price might want to consider their options elsewhere. It’s not to say they can’t stay but they would need to be on board with the new direction of the team and decide if they want to put up with the struggles of a team building with youth. Still, this new direction will mean that several players on the roster would likely be moved to make room for the younger players to get experience.
Taking a long-term approach means the Habs will probably not be as active as some would like in free-agency. That means John Tavares is off the table, to the chagrin of many. The Habs would likely look to add some stop-gaps to fill holes on the roster for the next year or two, but nothing long term.
A short-term approach suggests the Habs will look to improve their NHL roster immediately. Which means they are likely to make some trades and sign free agents. Marc Bergevin will need to whatever he can to vault the Canadiens back into the playoffs. After the debacle that was the 2017 off-season (losing Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov in free agency), the Habs had around $8.5M in unused cap space. For a team that normally spends to the top of the salary cap, that’s a big piece or pieces missing from the lineup. Geoff Molson said as much, as he expects the Habs to spend more during the 2018 free agency period.
Short-term logic would suggest the Habs would be open to moving the third overall pick, however with the Canadiens not overflowing with talented prospects, they will likely keep the pick. If they do move the pick, expect it to be in a package that also includes a first round pick coming back to them. They could look to manoeuvre one or two of their four second-round picks to help the roster.
The Habs could be one of the more interesting teams in the draft. If a short-term approach is what the Habs are taking, then they should be one of the more active teams in the draft. The Habs are looking to improve their NHL roster and they are tied to several players, including Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Faulk to name a few. If immediate competitiveness is the goal, then the Habs should be quite busy at the draft.
The Habs have several players rumored to be on the move. The biggest name is captain Max Pacioretty. The writing seems to be on the wall for Pacioretty and he is likely to be moved this off-season. While there are reports that the Habs have opened up contract talks with their captain, the smart money is on him being moved. Pacioretty is a bonafide NHL goal scorer so he should be able to garner a good return. The issue is that his contract is expiring after the 2018-19 season, so any new team will be required to extend the winger.
Alex Galchenyuk is another name rumoured to be on the trade block. Galchenyuk has oodles of skill, but for some reason, he has struggled to find consistency in Montreal. Still only 24, Galchenyuk can still find the consistency that has eluded him so far in the NHL. Galchenyuk is probably one of the best assets the Habs have if they want to improve their NHL roster through trade.
The Habs are expected to be major players in the free agent market this year. With major holes at centre ice and defence, there are players the Habs can target that can help them get back to competitiveness. The top name on the list is John Tavares. Tavares seems to be content leaving the Islanders and testing the free agent waters. Tavares will have many suitors in free agency so if the Habs want him, they will need to offer up a significant contract. Other free agent names include Paul Stastny, John Carlson, Jack Johnson and Calvin de Haan.
If the Habs are going to spend to the max of the salary cap, then the Habs will be quite busy in free agency. Marc Bergevin does have a bit of uphill battle attracting players to Montreal as, for whatever reason, high-end free agents don’t seem interested in signing with the Canadiens.
Much of what the Canadiens do this off-season will depend on what type of leeway the general manager has. The Canadiens are in a prime position to “rebuild” right now. Obviously, Geoff Molson will have made his expectations clear to Bergevin. He will have to be on board with either vision. The issue for Marc Bergevin is that he might not be around long enough to see a long-term plan out. If the team takes a bit longer to come together, Bergevin might find himself out of a job before the team turns the corner.
If Marc Bergevin is on a tight leash, then he will take a short-term approach. His job will depend on it. He will have to improve his roster as soon as possible. The team might have to sacrifice some of its future assets to get immediate help. The Habs should also be very active in free agency. Spending money in free agency is always exciting for fans. It’s exciting to see your team bringing in some good players with a proven track record. The big issue is that teams rarely find success when they use free agency to build their team. There can be some short-term gains, but it is rare that teams splurge in free agency and then go on to win the Cup.
Unfortunately, it seems the smart money is on Bergevin taking the short-term approach. Ultimately, Bergevin’s plans are likely to be unveiled to everyone around the Draft on June 22nd.
With either approach, Marc Bergevin needs to be very careful. It’s what makes this off-season so intriguing for Habs fans. Can he be patient or will he need to save his job this year? It’s why this is such a dilemma, with either approach, Bergevin will need to manoeuvre carefully. If he has a misstep, he will likely find himself on the unemployment line.