Brandon Prust plays a valuable role for the Canadiens, but when he’s your top offensive player among your third- and fourth-liners, something has to change. Marc Bergevin can either swing for the fences or tweak, but he has to improve the production of his lesser lights.
When Brandon Prust made a play (and what a play!) to score against the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night, it represented just the second time in the calendar year and the first in 12 games that a bottom-six forward for the Canadiens had found the back of the net.
Much of the hockey world is skeptical about the Canadiens this season and it has good reason to be. The Canadiens are near the top of the notoriously flawed Eastern Conference this season, but they’re also a poor possession team that often starts games badly and has an unhealthy reliance on its goaltender. Not exactly a recipe for post-season success in today’s NHL.
There has been much talk of GM Marc Bergevin swinging for the fences once again at this year’s trade deadline the way he did last when he acquired Thomas Vanek for a second-round draft pick and a middling prospect. There has been speculation that Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green could be in his sites, perhaps even Evander Kane, who always seems to be on the precipice of a divorce with the Winnipeg Jets.
And if Bergevin can swing a deal of that magnitude and give up as little as he did for Vanek last season, good on him. But some way or another, Bergevin is going to have to address the lack of production he’s getting from the lower part of his forward depth chart. These players should not be expected to score every night, but is it asking too much of Manny Malhotra to park himself in front of the net and have one go off his behind once in a while?
Bergevin freed up some cap space by trading Travis Moen and Rene Bourque earlier in the season, but neither of them is lighting up goaltenders, either. So the Canadiens would probably be in the same predicament if they had kept those players in their lineup. Lars Eller, for all the brilliance he shows on too-few occasions, is clearly never going to be that player a team can depend upon for offense. Jiri Sekac started well and plays hard, but is proving why teams generally shy away from signing 20-something Europeans as free agents. Prust is valuable in his role, but he should not be your offensive leader among your top six. The return of P.A. Parenteau from injury will help, but he had also tailed off badly after a pretty good start to the season.
What Bergevin needs to do is pull off a trade similar to the one his mentor, Stan Bowman, executed two years ago. Amidst all the deals that went down at the deadline of the truncated NHL season of 2012-13, Bowman quietly made a deal to acquire Michal Handzus from the San Jose Sharks for a fourth-round pick. Handzus stepped in as the Blackhawks third line center and turned out to be the best deal of the deadline. He took faceoffs, killed penalties and contributed 11 points in the Blackhawks run to the Stanley Cup.
And this is where things could get interesting. Even though the rival Toronto Maple Leafs would be loathe to do so, perhaps they could swing a deal with the Canadiens. It could be a smaller one where the Canadiens get either Mike Santorelli or Daniel Winnik, or it could become a bigger one where the Habs get defenseman Cody Franson in the deal along with one of the Maple Leafs depth players in return for, let’s say, goaltending prospect Zach Fucale and a second-round pick.
And make no mistake, the Leafs will be dealing their pending unrestricted free agents. GM David Nonis has made it clear to everyone around the league that he is open for business and is looking to deal the players he’d probably lose for nothing in the summer. He has no interest in paying Franson the kind of money and term that Anton Stralman and Matt Niskanen got as unrestricted free agents last summer and he knows someone will give it to Franson. The UFA defense corps is extremely thin and as a hard-hitting right-shot defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the ice, Franson is looking at a big payday July 1.
So perhaps Bergevin makes a deal like that and fills two needs on his roster. But he must bolster that bottom six. And there are players out there who fit the bill – guys such as Scottie Upshall or Sean Bergenheim in Florida or Jiri Tlusty in Carolina. Heck, they way the Los Angeles Kings are playing, perhaps will even they’ll be out of the playoff picture a month from now and be willing to trade Jarrett Stoll.
Whatever he does, Bergevin probably knows his team can’t seriously compete for the Stanley Cup with only two lines that can provide offense. When the checking gets tighter and the penalty calls come less frequently, you need lesser lights to step up and make a contribution.