It was an eerily familiar sight: Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, addressing a group of reporters, vehemently denying the rumor he was about to trade a prominent player.
We all know what happened following the 2016 draft, at which Bergevin insisted he wasn’t shopping P.K. Subban. Within a week, Subban was a Nashville Predator, swapped for fellow blueliner Shea Weber in one of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in NHL history.
So we had to at least keep Subban in the back of our minds this past Thursday when Bergevin, addressing reporters, denied the rumor he was trying to trade left winger Jonathan Drouin.
“I don’t know where they come from,” Bergevin told reporters. “Most of those reports are from somebody’s basement in Toronto, so I don’t pay attention to that, to be honest with you.”
Bergevin hasn’t exactly established that his word is his bond when it comes to trade rumors, and we’ve seen reports about Drouin’s name being “out there,” a.k.a. on the block.
Of course, it depends whom you talk to. When The Hockey News did a quick-poll of some team executives this week, the message was the opposite: all was quiet. There’d been no floating of Drouin’s name, no sense Bergevin was actively shopping him at all.
There’s no way of knowing which version of the story is more realistic. So instead of speculating further about whether Bergevin intends to hold a sale, it might make more sense to ask whether it actually makes sense for the Canadiens to trade Drouin. He’s 24, he equalled his career high with 53 points last season, he’s signed four more years at a $5.5-million AAV, and he’s still young enough to make good on that price tag.
We can say for certain Bergevin isn’t happy with Drouin’s pre-season. He expressed Thursday the Habs “need more” from him. But Bergevin also stressed he wasn’t picking on Drouin and that many other players have fallen short of expectations, so we can’t assume Drouin is playing his way out of town.
Yes, Montreal has some clear areas of need. It could use another mobile top-four blueliner, especially since it’s never a given Weber stays healthy. A left shot would be ideal. The New York Islanders’ Nick Leddy comes to mind. But, ideally, when you’re pursuing an area of need, you want to deal from a position of surplus. And the wings are not Montreal’s area of surplus.
We know Drouin is a winger. He experimented with a move to center while still playing in QMJHL Halifax and, when the Canadiens acquired him for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev in 2017, they gave Drouin a season at center. He took 1,051 faceoffs in 2017-18. He took 88 faceoffs last year. The center dream is done. He’s a winger.
And what else do the Habs have on the wings at the moment? Tomas Tatar has worked out great after coming over as a supposed afterthought in last year’s Max Pacioretty trade with Vegas. Brendan Gallagher is one of the sport’s most underrated shot generators and goal-scorers, the Eastern Conference equivalent of Viktor Arvidsson. If you factor out Drouin, though, you arguably have just two real top-six wingers. Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen are serviceable, established NHLers – but they are middle-six guys at best. Same goes for Jordan Weal, and Paul Byron has topped out as a 20-goal man.
Drouin has the highest offensive ceiling of any Montreal winger. Despite his heavily criticized second-half swoon, the body of work last season was respectable relative to those of his peers. Among 10 Montreal forwards who logged at least 500 minutes at all strengths last season, Drouin tied Max Domi for the team lead in first assists per 60 minutes. Drouin averaged the fourth-most points per 60, second-most among the wingers. He ranked near the bottom of the group in generating chances for himself, but that’s not Drouin’s game. He’s a playmaker, he did that job as well as any Montreal forward in 2018-19, and he’s not out of plausible upside at his age. He could ascend one more echelon.
It’s not like the Canadiens have a bushel of high-impact wingers rocketing up their farm system, either. We know there’s one doozie in Cole Caufield, but’s he one of just two wingers cracking Montreal’s top 10 prospects in The Hockey News’ current Future Watch rankings, curated by NHL scouts. Caufield is the lone winger in the top eight.
Yes, top prospect Nick Suzuki has gotten some looks on the wing this pre-season and is making a major push to make the team, but one reason the Canadiens are trying him there on occasion is that they have a logjam at center. Suzuki is one. So is fellow top-end prospect Ryan Poehling. So are the established top three pivots: Domi, Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. If we’re talking surplus, that’s where the Canadiens have it.
That doesn’t mean we should expect Bergevin to deal a center, as every team craves depth at the position. But we should at the very least pause before believing Drouin’s ticket out of Montreal is as good as punched. Dealing him would force some middle-six forwards too far up the lineup, or force some forwards to move off their natural positions, or both. At the very least, should Suzuki make the team, it would be prudent to see just how NHL-ready he turns out to be – and how well he fits into the top nine as a winger – before declaring Drouin expendable.
So maybe Bergevin really means it when he says he’s not shopping Drouin. Of course, as was the case with Subban, that won’t stop anyone from calling.