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Canadiens should set sights on 2019 draft lottery with Weber out until December

The Canadiens announced Thursday that Shea Weber will be out until mid-December after undergoing surgery, and it might be time for Montreal to think about embracing the role of NHL bottom feeders next season.

As the old saying goes, no news is good news, and you can rest assured no news would’ve been a whole lot more welcome than what the Montreal Canadiens had to say Thursday concerning Shea Weber.

With the 32-year-old defenseman, who was limited to just 26 games this past season due to injury, having already gone under the knife to repair tendons in his foot back in March and in the midst of a six-month recovery timetable, the Canadiens announced that Weber won’t be back in time for training camp. In fact, he won’t be back come September, October or November, and Montreal might be lucky if he’s back in the lineup as early as December after Weber underwent another off-season surgery, this one to repair a meniscal tear in his right knee. According to the team’s release, Weber underwent the operation on June 19 and the announced five- to six-month recovery time pegs his return at mid-December.

“We were very disappointed to learn that this knee injury will extend Shea’s recovery period,” Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said in a release. “Unfortunately, this is out of our control and we have to fully trust the medical group in these situations. We are confident that his recovery will go as scheduled and that Shea will return to action as soon as possible.”

As soon as possible really isn’t all that much of a relief for the Canadiens in this scenario, though, because Weber’s best-case scenario absence into mid-December would result in an already thin Montreal blueline being without its inarguable No. 1 for nearly half the campaign. Exactly six months from the date of the surgery would put Weber’s return at Dec. 19, the same day the Canadiens are scheduled to play their 35th game of the 2018-19 campaign. And given the presumptive return date for Weber is well beyond the playoff-contention barometer generally demarcated by American Thanksgiving, Montreal’s post-season hopes are looking like the holiday turkey — absolutely cooked.

Of course, this is just the latest blow to the Canadiens this off-season, though some of those have been self-inflicted wounds. They started their summer with a highly scrutinized deal that sent Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in return for Max Domi. Meanwhile, trade talks have continued to heat up around captain and pending 2019 unrestricted free agent Max Pacioretty, even after Montreal took a deep cut and missed on landing Ryan O’Reilly, who is off to the St. Louis Blues despite being connected to the Canadiens for days, even weeks, leading up to the draft. And speaking of the draft, while the jury is still out on Montreal’s performance, the Canadiens’ decision to pass on arguably the best player available, Filip Zadina, and instead draft Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick has been met with some concern.

All of this is without mentioning that Montreal wasn’t all that active or in the mix for top talents in free agency. The Canadiens weren’t among the six franchises John Tavares considered as his top options, there was nothing more than whispers of Montreal landing any of the secondary free agents on the market and when all was said and done after the first few days of free agency, the Canadiens’ signings included Tomas Plekanec, Matthew Peca, Kenny Agostino and Michael Chaput. Quite possibly the only notable acquisition has been that of Joel Armia and two draft picks from the Winnipeg Jets, although that came at the cost of the Canadiens saddling themselves with a two-year buyout of the final season of netminder Steve Mason’s contract. It will cost Montreal nearly $1.4 million in each of the next two campaigns.

With all that in mind and looking at the sum of the off-season thus far in la belle province — from Weber’s second surgery to the failure to fill the Grand Canyon-sized chasm down the middle — it feels as though there’s only one realistic outcome for the Canadiens this coming campaign: top odds when the NHL’s 2019 draft lottery rolls around.

Chances are that’s where Montreal is headed, too, because let’s be honest about this roster. As currently constituted, the Canadiens are not even built to produce a mirage of contention this season. Their projected top-six, given we assume Pacioretty is shipped out with no readymade top-six center coming back the other way, will likely feature some mix of Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danault, Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. Not exactly Murderers’ Row. Count Weber out of the blueline for 30-plus games and Montreal stands to ice Karl Alzner, Jeff Petry, Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen as their top-four on the back end.

Realistically, the only thing that’s going to prevent this team from all-out tanking — though, falling to the bottom of the standings would be far from intentional as the directive seems to be to ice a competitive team — is goaltender Carey Price. On top of his game, Price is a game-changer. And good goaltending can go a long way. If Price pieces together the type of season of which he’s capable, one that makes last season’s substandard performance look like nothing more than a blip on the radar, the Canadiens could very well flirt with the idea of a wild-card berth. Even with Price functioning at his best, though, Montreal projects to be no more than a bottom-10 team. And to that we say, embrace it.

Look, Montreal has to know by now that this roster is at best two-plus seasons away from being able to consistently contend as anything more than first-round fodder. It will be another two years before their prospects — who, prior to the draft, were collectively ranked 28th of the 31 teams by a panel of scouts in THN’s Future Watch 2018 — start to crack the big-league lineup and produce as more than middle-of-the-road contributors. And if over that time the Canadiens can add a top selection, maybe projected 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes or a projected 2020 stud such as Quinton Byfield or Alexis Lafreniere, Montreal will likely be further along than they would be if they kidded themselves into believing now is their chance to truly compete.

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