When Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin met with media in early January, his message was clear: he was not interested in making a splash at the deadline, he was not going to mortgage the future and he wasn’t going to chase after players on expiring contracts.
Said Bergevin: “I’m always going to be listening to options, but the goal is to build for the future Just to give up assets for the short term, I’m not going to do it. It would have to be very appealing. If there’s a young player available and there’s assets that have to go, I get that. But I don’t think I’m in the rental business.”
And at the time, there was no reason not to believe Bergevin’s message. The Canadiens had started the retooling process earlier that summer, and it was clear Montreal wanted to stick to the plan that had seemingly been kicked into high gear when Max Pacioretty was shipped to the Vegas Golden Knights for a package that included a second-round pick, Tomas Tatar and top prospect Nick Suzuki.
It’s funny, though, how a month might be able to change a team’s thinking. At the time Bergevin delivered his message, the Canadiens were sitting in the Eastern Conference wild card and pushing for a divisional playoff spot, a bubble team that had shown some promise over the past several weeks. But in the month since, Montreal has taken it one step further, and as they look at the standings Wednesday, the Canadiens sit fourth in the conference, third in the Atlantic Division and boast the NHL’s second-best record since Bergevin met with the media.
And with that in mind, one can’t help but wonder if the recent success might have at all changed Bergevin’s tune. Will the GM, who was once adamant about focusing on the future, not the present, have to alter his course with the deadline less than three weeks away? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no.
Bergevin was adamant that he wasn’t interested in rentals, particularly those that would require some mortgaging of the future, and there’s no reason to believe he was bluffing. He has said, repeatedly, that he wants to focus on bettering the franchise in the future. All indications are he’s dedicated to that cause. That means top prospects such as Suzuki and Ryan Poehling are going to be non-starters in any trade discussion, and the same likely goes for any prospect with significant upside, including World Junior Championship notables Jacob Olofsson, Josh Brook, Alexander Romanov and Jesse Ylonen. In that sense, Bergevin’s plans will not change one iota.
However, where he could see a slight change of heart is in moving what he deems non-essential assets. Bergevin will have some flexibility when it comes to moving draft picks given the Canadiens possess an additional second-round pick this season, two fourth-roudn and two fifth-round selections in the upcoming draft, as well as an additional fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft. And while that might not seem like enough to land any of the headline-making talents at the deadline, it doesn’t appear that’s what he’ll be after in the first place.
So, would it be beneficial to add a big-ticket item such as Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone or Matt Duchene? Absolutely, without question. But what the Canadiens lack in offensive star power, they’ve more than made up for with the kind of spread-out scoring that few teams in the NHL boast.
On Tuesday night, when Phillip Danault swept a backhand on goal that snuck between the legs of Anaheim Ducks netminder Chad Johnson, it marked the Canadiens center’s 10th goal of the campaign. With that, Montreal now has eight — count ‘em if you need proof — scorers with at least double-digit goal totals. The other teams in the same category are either divisional leaders or serious Stanley Cup contenders, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks, who are the lone team with nine 10-goal scorers.
Furthermore, it’s not as though the Canadiens are exactly goal-starved in a way that would make such an addition a necessity. Montreal has the 12th-ranked attack in the league with 162 goals scored. That’s either in line with or more than a few teams who entered the season with short Stanley Cup odds, including the Vegas Golden Knights and Boston Bruins. The Canadiens score enough to get the job done. And that’s especially true given that Montreal’s defensive play, which was all right in the early going, has been particularly brilliant since the return of Shea Weber in late-November.
Since Weber returned to action on Nov. 27, the Canadiens have allowed 75 goals against in 30 games, the fourth-fewest of any team in the league despite playing the second-most games of any club over that span. Part and parcel with Montreal’s goal total, of course, has seemingly been the effect a returning Weber has had on Carey Price, who has been lights out over the past two-plus months. Though his full-season totals put him outside the Vezina Trophy race, Price has been arguably the league’s best keeper since Weber returned to the lineup. In 23 games, he boasts a .931 save percentage and 2.04 goals-against average, both of which are top marks among the 12 netminders to appear in at least 20 games over that span. Measured against 15-game goaltenders, only the New York Islanders’ Robin Lehner (.948 SP, 1.46 GAA) has outshone Price.
None of this is to mention, either, that the Canadiens are among the best advanced statistical outfits in the league. At 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick, Montreal ranks fourth in Corsi percentage (54.1), fifth in shots percentage (52.7), fifth in scoring chance percentage (53.3) and 13th in high-danger chance percentage (51.8).
The question, then, is what exactly Bergevin would pursue if he was to give up some assets at the deadline to tweak and tune his roster. And the answer is one or two specialists or role players. Reason being is that for all the success Montreal has had this season, one area of significant concern is special teams.
All season long, the Canadiens have barely been able to connect on the power play, owning an ugly 12.9 success rate with the man advantage, and their play on the penalty kill hasn’t been much to write home about, either. At 78.7 percent, only nine teams have been worse when down a skater. And it’s not as if the return of Weber, which has seemingly had such a great impact elsewhere, has really helped provide either unit with a spark. The power play has operated at a second-worst 10.7 percent since Nov. 27, the penalty kill is the ninth-worst at 78.5 percent. Neither rate is anywhere near good enough for the Canadiens to hang with the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and failing to improve on the kill, particularly, might mean an awfully short playoff trip if Montreal draws the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round.
There are players the Canadiens can target to fill those roles without giving up all that much, too. Thomas Vanek, who had a decent post-deadline run in Montreal back in 2013-14, has made a living over the past several seasons signing one-year deals that make him deadline fodder, and his recent trade history would suggest the Detroit Red Wings aren’t going to be attaching an exorbitant price tag. Other players who’ve produced decent numbers and can play a role, such as the Edmonton Oilers’ Alex Chiasson, Arizona Coyotes’ Richard Panik, St. Louis Blues’ Patrick Maroon or even New Jersey Devils’ Marcus Johnasson — though he might be too costly to land — could fit the bill.
No one is about to suggest Bergevin should sell the farm and swing for the fences with some sort of blockbuster deadline buy, and it seems incredibly unlikely he’d even be willing to make such a move in the first place. But with the way things have gone for Montreal lately, it might be worth it for Bergevin to start making some calls. A piece or two could make a difference, and if the Canadiens patch some holes and catch fire at the right time, they could boast some rather unexpected playoff potential.