The trade deadline trap would be one easy enough for Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin to fall into.
With the second half of the season under way, the Canadiens find themselves on the cusp of a post-season berth, just one point out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and a mere three points back of the Boston Bruins for the third spot in the Atlantic Division. Montreal has been a surprise, unexpectedly consistent and an almost perfectly middle-of-the-road club in offensive and defensive aspects. Add to it the Canadiens’ solid underlying numbers and that they’ve got a goaltender with game-stealing potential when he’s at his very best and you can see why Bergevin might be at least tempted to test the trade market at or before the deadline with an eye towards helping Montreal punch its ticket to the post-season.
But speaking at a press conference Monday, Bergevin said he has no interest in making any deals with the short-term in mind. More succinctly, he is not intent on “mortgaging the future” for what might amount to a mere taste of playoff hockey.
“From Day One, I believed that if we stayed healthy our goal was to fight for a playoff spot, and so far in the first half, that’s what we’ve done and I expect the same in the second half,” Bergevin told reporters. “Again, 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.”
Nor should he be, because what would the Canadiens really stand to gain? If Montreal were to seriously consider an addition, Bergevin’s top targets would likely be a top-four defender and a top-six forward. Neither comes cheap. At last season’s deadline, players of that calibre cost picks from the top three rounds or high-quality prospects. And as Bergevin pointed out, those aren’t the pieces with which the Canadiens should be parting ways at this stage of a retooling process that began in earnest this past off-season when Max Pacioretty was shipped to the Vegas Golden Knights.
In fact, Bergevin stands to gain more from sitting on the opposite side of the buyer-seller equation and looking at his options to build the youth of his group by moving out veteran pieces in exchange for picks and prospects that can stock the cupboard.
Among those on expiring deals are defenseman Jordie Benn, winger Kenny Agostino and backup goaltender Antti Niemi. Forwards Matthew Peca and Nicolas Deslauriers see their contracts end after next season. Defenseman David Schlemko, who was waived Monday and cleared Tuesday, is another potential trade chip for teams looking to add a sixth or seventh blueliner come the deadline. And true as it may be that none of those players stand to move the needle in any major way — Benn and Niemi would likely garner the most interest — even mid-range or late draft picks would be assets worth acquiring even if all they provide the Canadiens with is more darts to throw at the draft board in June. Montreal already has a nice cache for the 2019 draft, with 10 picks through the seven rounds, including two second-round picks and two fourth-round choices. Additional picks can go a long way, though.
But what will also go a long way, and what should help Bergevin stay the course regardless of what position the Canadiens find themselves in come deadline day, is the showing Montreal's prospects had at the 2019 World Junior Championship. The Canadiens had heavy representation at the tournament, tied with the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers for most prospects at the tournament with seven, and there were a few absolutely standout performances.
Head and shoulders above the entire group was Team USA’s Ryan Poehling. Montreal’s first-rounder in 2017, the 25th-overall pick caught fire early in the tournament and paced the U.S. team with five goals and eight points in seven games en route to a silver medal. His effort, which included a natural hat trick against Sweden during round robin play, earned him top forward, all-star team and WJC MVP honors at tournament’s end. The St. Cloud State University star turned heads and saw his stock rise significantly.
He wasn’t the lone prospect to impress, however. USA’s Cayden Primeau backstopped the team to silver. Nick Suzuki, acquired in the Pacioretty trade, put up three points in five outings for Canada. Defenseman Josh Brook also notched a pair of helpers for the Canadians. Finland’s Jesse Ylonen scored three goals and six points for the gold-medal winning side, Alexander Romanov has a one-goal, eight-point showing for the bronze-medal winning Russians and Sweden’s Jacob Olofsson was steady even if he didn’t find the scoresheet.
And by not buying into the idea that all the Canadiens need to do is get into the dance, Bergevin will protect that stockpile of youth, as well as a young core that is proving to be more capable than some expected. Five of their top-10 scorers through the mid-point of the campaign are 25 or younger, including Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who’s nearly up to half a point per game as a freshman with limited ice time. Those five players, as well as a few of the prospects who are on their way, can be the start of an important youth movement in Montreal that would only be hindered by chasing rentals.