The 2019 NHL Trade Deadline is fast approaching. When the season began, most thought that the Montreal Canadiens would be well out of the playoff race at this point in the year, and would join the list of sellers. With a surprising season, the Canadiens currently sit in a wildcard spot. They are also within spitting distance of second place in the Atlantic Division. With that in mind, the Montreal Canadiens trade deadline plans need a closer look.
Planning for the Future: The 2019 Montreal Canadiens Trade Deadline
On January 7th, general manager Marc Bergevin told the media that the current cost of rentals was out of the Habs price range. He made it clear that he would not move his first round pick or one of the team’s top prospects (specifically the players who appeared in the World Juniors) in order to obtain a rental. He also mentioned that he had thought about moving out some veteran players. Bergevin also indicated that he was still open to deals that made sense for both now and the future.
Given the team’s current roster, which features a very young forward group as well as a strong group of prospects that has been built in the last two years, this is the correct approach. While the team can fight for a playoff spot, they are not yet a true Stanley Cup Contender. Now is not the time to abandon the rebuild on the fly.
How can the Habs best use their current assets to help the club both now and in the future?
Benn has been strong this season, especially when the team has used him on the third pair. Playing against easier competition, he has put up a 53.4 percent Corsi-For, with a -0.6 relative Corsi. His Fenwick-For percentage is also 53.4, with a +0.9 relative Fenwick. Benn has also put up four goals and 12 points in 47 games and plays a physical game. Benn is also playing big minutes on the Canadiens penalty kill. The 31-year-old becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. He is currently making $1.1 million against the salary cap.
At this point, the Canadiens should put Benn on the market. This would help accelerate the rebuild on the fly approach. They should not keep an ageing player who is set to be a free agent this summer. If they can turn Benn into a prospect or a second or third round draft pick, these assets can help build the team going forward. The Habs could choose to hoard these futures or use them in future trades at the deadline or the off-season. These are the type of young assets that are the currency of the NHL. In terms of filling Benn’s minutes, the Canadiens have Noah Juulsen in the AHL. While currently injured, he should be back before the deadline to move Benn.
Hudon has played in just 24 games this year and finds himself a regular healthy scratch. He also has reportedly requested more playing time or a trade to another team. After a solid AHL career and 10 goals and 30 points in his rookie season, Hudon has some offensive skill. With the Habs winger depth, he clearly is not in Claude Julien‘s plans and it is probably best that the team move him on.
Without being able to get on the ice, Hudon does not have a lot of value at this time. He is probably only worth a later round draft pick. However, there is another possible option here. The Canadiens could look for another team with a young defenceman buried on their depth chart and unable to crack that team’s top six. Moving Hudon for a defenceman with a similar profile, especially a young left-handed defenceman, could help the Canadiens now. The type of player to target would be someone similar to Mike Reilly or Brett Kulak who the Canadiens acquired in earlier trades.
The Canadiens can use their abundant cap space at the deadline. According to Cap Friendly, the team has approximately $9.3 million in unused cap space. The Canadiens can take on a bad contract in order for a team to clear space for their trade deadline moves. Much like the team’s summer move where they took on Steve Mason‘s deal from the Winnipeg Jets and acquired Joel Armia and two draft picks, the Habs can pick up some assets in making this type of deal. While they shouldn’t look at a long-term contract, picking up a player on a big-money deal that expires in July 2019 or 2020 could be worth looking at depending on the sweetener.
Team Need: Left Handed Defence
Glaring holes remain on the current squad. They must be addressed before the Canadiens can move from playoff contender to Cup contender. What are these needs and how can they be addressed.
The team clearly lacks a first pairing left-handed defender to play with Shea Weber. This has been an issue from the day Weber was acquired from the Nashville Predators. Addressing this need without giving up one of the team’s top prospects or a first-round draft pick will be nearly impossible at the trade deadline. These type of players are difficult to acquire and require a huge return in assets. Currently, Victor Mete is playing this role, but he is probably best suited to play on the second or third pair going forward.
Looking to Free Agents
Instead, the Canadiens can use their cap space to target this type of player on July 1st. Despite some recent highlight reel mistakes, Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs would fit the bill. He has a 51.3 percent Corsi-For and 1.0 relative Corsi. His relative Corsi has been positive in every season of his NHL career. The idea that he is a defensive liability is overrated. The Canadiens have the cap space to make a very attractive offer to a defender who has 24 points in 47 games this season. With the Leafs cap issues, it is likely that Gardiner makes it to market. There will be a lot of competition as he should be one of the best defensemen in free agency.
With 19 points in 34 games, Alexander Edler is also having a strong season for the Vancouver Canucks. However, he is also five years older than Gardiner. At 32, and with his injury history, there is a real chance that any team who signs him will get locked into a long-term deal for a declining player. This may be a situation the Canadiens will want to avoid and look at younger options.
No other pending unrestricted free agents come close to fitting the bill. As such, the Canadiens could be looking at a trade to fill this hole. This is likely what Bergevin was referring to when he indicated that he is still open to making a deal that would help the team now and into the future. The Canadiens are certainly open for business if players like Cam Fowler or Oscar Klefbom were to be made available by their teams.
The Power Play
The Canadiens have been amongst the league’s best teams in five-on-five play this season. However, their lack of power play production has held them back. The Habs currently have the 31st ranked power play in the NHL. This is in stark contrast to last season when despite being one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Canadiens had the 13th ranked power play. What was most surprising was that the Habs powerplay in the second half of the 2017-18 season was better than the first half of the season. This was despite missing key power play cog Shea Weber.
Addressing The Problem
What is the difference? The Canadiens lack a secondary shooting threat this year. Last year, the one-time shooting threats were Jeff Petry (right-handed shot, left side of the powerplay) and Alex Galchenyuk (left-handed shot, right face-off circle). This prevented opposing teams from overplaying one of the two shooters and taking him away. With Weber now healthy, the Canadiens have an even better shooter playing on the left point. This has not translated to success. The reason is that there is no player with a dangerous one-timer on the other side of the ice. Teams overplay Weber. They take away shooting lanes and block his shots.
The Canadiens should look for a forward with a strong left-handed shot and one-timer. If they can’t get someone like that at the trade deadline, there are some potential free agents on July 1st. Those that could fill the criteria of having a good one-timer and a left-handed shot include Jeff Skinner, Matt Duchene, Gustav Nyquist, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Eric Staal. While some of these players may be more realistic signings than others, this is a position that could also be filled via an off-season trade.
Main Photo: MONTREAL, QC – JANUARY 07: General manager of the Montreal Canadiens Marc Bergevin speaks with the media prior to the NHL game against the Minnesota Wild at the Bell Centre on January 7, 2019, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Minnesota Wild defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)