Now that the dust has settled from the July 1st free agent frenzy, the NHL is entering its slow season. The Montreal Canadiens entered the free agent period with hopes of adding a centre or two to make the team competitive after a disastrous season. Unfortunately, Habs general manager Marc Bergevin was dealt a dose of a reality in free agency. Unable to attract any marquee free agents, the Canadiens and Marc Bergevin were forced into a rebuild.
Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin Forced Into Rebuild
Rebuilding was never the plan. The hope for some was to land the big fish, John Tavares. There were some that even hoped they could bring in Paul Stastny to bridge the gap until some of the Habs prospects are ready to make the NHL jump. Bergevin and the Canadiens found themselves on the outside looking in after Tavares and Stastny wouldn’t even negotiate with them. The Canadiens had also been linked to a Ryan O’Reilly trade. Those negotiations fell apart, and the Buffalo Sabres traded him to St. Louis. All hopes of a quick turnaround were dashed.
Bergevin then turned his attention to what he does best, acquiring depth. He signed several players on July 1st, however, most of them are bound for the AHL. Players of note brought in were Tomas Plekanec and Xavier Ouellet. The Canadiens are, as of right now, going into the 2018-19 NHL season with essentially the same roster as last year. Expectations are at an all-time low.
Embrace The Rebuild
So with Marc Bergevin striking out with the big free agents, he was almost forced to go the rebuild route. The first sign was a deal he made with the Winnipeg Jets. Bergevin used his sizable cap space to take on the contract of Steve Mason while also acquiring Joel Armia and some draft picks. This is the type of move Bergevin should be looking to make throughout the season. Looking to acquire prospects or draft picks in exchange cap relief. Its a tried and tested method of stockpiling future assets. Rebuilds can be painful and the Habs faithful will need to be patient.
The Elephant In The Room
While the Canadiens now seem to be in a rebuild (no matter what Bergevin wants to call it) there is something that can throw these plans out of whack. Carey Price and Shea Weber. These two players are good enough to cover up a lot of warts on this team. Price had a disastrous 2017-18 season. It was probably the major reason for the Canadiens struggles last year. Still, if Price regains his Vezina Trophy form, he will keep the Habs in most games. Habs fans have seen how Price can carry the Canadiens to the playoffs and even a division title. Along with a healthy Shea Weber, the Canadiens could find themselves in a middling position or even fighting for the playoffs.
A playoff push is exciting, but most will acknowledge that the Canadiens are far from being a legitimate contender. A playoff push, unfortunately, is probably the worst thing for this team in a rebuild. With Price and Weber in the fold, the Canadiens might be too competitive for their own good.
The OTHER Elephant In The Room
Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has been the subject of trade rumours for the better part of six months. Still, as of July 4th (Happy Birthday USA), he is still on the Canadiens roster. The Habs seemed resigned to trading Pacioretty, who has one year left on his current contract (and is due a healthy raise starting in 2019-20). Still, the longer this drags out, the worse it will be for the Habs. Last year was very difficult for Pacioretty. He seemed to lose his scoring touch, posting his worst season since 2010-11. On top of that, a knee injury sidelined him for the final six weeks of the season. After not being moved at the trade deadline, he admitted that all the rumours were affecting him.
The Habs need to move on if that is what they are resigned to doing. If this situation drags on into the season it will become a huge distraction. If it ends up effecting Pacioretty’s play then it will impact his value on the trade market. This is one move Marc Bergevin needs to nail.
Based on what the experts think the Canadiens have had two very good drafts. The team has stockpiled prospects to what was a very shallow prospect pool. Where the Canadiens have very little in the way of centre prospects the team now has an abundance of prospects down the middle. Last year, Ryan Poehling, and Joni Ikonen were drafted, 2014 draftee Jake Evans had another strong season at Notre Dame and was signed. The Canadiens also inked 2016 draftee Lukas Vejdemo and added undrafted free agent Alexandre Alain. At this year’s draft, the Canadiens decided to invest heavily in the position selecting six centres. Most notably third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
While things right now are looking positive, time for a small dose of reality. While the Canadiens are being applauded for their drafts the past two seasons, the reality is this. Of the 18 players selected in the past two drafts chances are the Habs should expect four or five to develop into everyday NHL players. That’s not to say some won’t develop into top-flight players, but not every player is going to reach their potential. In fact, most won’t. It’s just the harsh reality of drafting.
No Short Cuts
These two drafts are steps in the right direction for sure, but it’s not enough to be the whole process. If we look at other teams that went down the rebuild route, their core was built up over several drafts. The Pittsburgh Penguins can trace the routes of their Cup’s back to the 2000 NHL draft, where they selected Brooks Orpik in the first round. However, the real core of their team was selected between 2003 to 2006 where they took Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal in successive drafts.
The Chicago Blackhawks success can be traced back to the 2002 draft where they selected Duncan Keith in the second round. In 2003 the Blackhawks excelled with Brent Seabrook in the first, Corey Crawford in the second and Dustin Byfuglien in the eighth round. in 2004, the Hawks had 17 picks and picked Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell in the second and Troy Brouwer in the seventh. Then in 2006 and 2007, the Blackhawks picked Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
It would be foolish for the Canadiens to think that after two solid drafts that the future is set. If this rebuild is serious, then the Habs need to stockpile as many draft picks and prospects as they can. It takes several years of building to become a contender. And while by all accounts its a good start, it can’t be over.
The notion of rebuilding is hard for some to fathom. Watching your team struggle can be very difficult. If the Habs are honest about their new transparency, then they should just tell the media and fans that the pain is coming. It will be easier to take than receiving mixed messages from the team. While the team is stocked with young players, for this to be a true rebuild, they would need to move on from their cornerstones Price and Weber. Right now, that doesn’t seem to be something that’s on the table, so this might never be a ‘true’ rebuild.
The plan might have been to sign Tavares. His refusal to even consider the Habs should be taken seriously by the owner and general manager. And while it stings now, it could be a blessing in disguise. The Habs have never really gone through a rebuild. Going through this summer rejection might just be the slap in the face the franchise needs to realize the lore of the CH is not what it used to be. This organizational hubris has clouded the judgement of many general managers.
The Habs need to take advantage of this rejection and look to improve themselves. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to be hard to watch at times. But it is short-term pain for long-term gain. The only question is this: Can the people running the Habs pull this rebuild off?
Main Photo via Getty Images.