In the wake of the Canadiens’ 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, even an eternal optimist would have to admit that Montreal’s playoff prospects look bleak at best.
By failing to pick up even a single point Wednesday, the Habs exited action seven points back of the final post-season position in the Atlantic Division and eight points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. But worst of all is that the runway the Canadiens possess to make up ground is fast disappearing. Montreal’s 59 games played is tied for most in the league, and measured by points percentage the Canadiens .517 percentage makes them appear far less like a team that should be concerned with the playoff race than one that should be sending its scouts out to shadow top-five draft talent.
Truth be told, the Canadiens’ spot in the standings prior to Wednesday’s outing should have been enough for GM Marc Bergevin to realize the best course of action ahead of the trade deadline is for Montreal to eschew any idea of adding and entertain only their options to move pieces out and build for a brighter future. But if Bergevin and Co. needed further persuading that selling come deadline day is what’s necessary, they got it well before the Canadiens stepped foot on ice with news Shea Weber will be sidelined four-to-six weeks with an ankle sprain.
Losing Weber is crippling for a Canadiens club already fighting an uphill battle, and the timeline doesn’t do anything to soften the blow. At minimum, he’ll miss a dozen games. A full six-week absence from Wednesday’s announcement means he’ll miss 19 outings, returning with four games left in Montreal’s season. It’s about as close as it gets to a season-ending injury without the words “season” or “ending” being used. And that the Canadiens will be without their No. 1 defensemen at a time when they’re on the brink of missing the post-season for a third consecutive season – it would mark only the third such playoff drought in franchise history – means one thing and one thing only: it’s time to push reset on this roster.
The upcoming deadline presents an opportunity for Bergevin to begin that process, too, as a trade market thin on top-end talent could make the assets he has to move more valuable than in many other years. Bergevin isn’t without his trade options, either, and given you fall on the trade-him side of the Ilya Kovalchuk debate, the veteran winger might very well be among the Canadiens’ most attractive pieces.
Since landing in Montreal in early January, the 36-year-old winger has been among the Canadiens’ best players, averaging nearly 20 minutes per outing, posting a team-best six goals and sitting second in scoring with 12 points in 17 games. He’s showcased his scoring touch, added some power play production and proven he can still hang in the NHL. And that he is in Montreal on a paltry $700,000 cap hit makes him that much more attractive as a trade option for teams seeking cost-effective middle-six scoring. There is, as noted, a camp that believes keeping Kovalchuk is worthwhile. Bergevin would be wise to listen to all offers and consider moving the winger to the highest bidder, however. If there’s a reunion in the summer, so be it, but playing the way he has at this time of year is all the reason the Canadiens should need to maximize their return on investment for Kovalchuk.
He’s not alone on the to-move list, however. In fact, Bergevin should be fielding calls on just about every past-his-prime player who’s not bolted to the roster by way of a near-unmovable contract – and Weber and Carey Price are the only players who meet that criteria. Tomas Tatar, 29, has been an excellent hand for the Canadiens, but if there’s a good offer on the table, Montreal would be wise to consider. The same goes for Jeff Petry and Joel Armia, both of whom have years, plural, remaining on their contracts. Pending unrestricted free agents Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin might not net any truly worthwhile return, but Bergevin should do his due diligence and see what he can fetch for each of the four.
The question, then, is who shouldn’t Bergevin send packing, and the answers to that are few and far between. Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, Phillip Danault and Jonathan Drouin, who has been maligned at times but still possesses upside, are among those who should remain. The same goes for defenseman Victor Mete. And that will set the stage for the youth of the roster to push for spots and plug the holes. Nick Suzuki, who has been dynamite in his rookie campaign, can become a centerpiece, and space would open up for the likes of Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who has registered seven points in five games since his AHL demotion, to start anew on a younger, new-look roster next season.
Important to note, too, is that the time to execute such a reset isn’t just right because the Canadiens have players that can be flipped at the deadline, it’s also right because the stage has been set well for this kind of reset. Before adding a single pick to their coffers ahead of this year’s deadline, Montreal has nine draft selections in the first five rounds of the 2020 draft. The Canadiens have seven picks in the first five rounds next seasons. Included are eight selections in the first three rounds across the next two drafts. And this is coming after a 2019 draft in which the Canadiens had seven picks in the first five rounds and made four selections in the three opening rounds.
As a result, the prospect system Montreal has built is stronger than many in the league. With a base that included Suzuki, Poehling, Kotkaniemi and Mete, not to mention Alexander Romanov, Noah Juulsen and goaltender Cayden Primeau, a panel of scouts ranked the Canadiens’ prospect group the 10th-best in the NHL in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019. That was before Montreal added Cole Caufield, Jayden Struble and Mattias Norlinder. The foundation is there, and using this deadline to acquire additional picks and prospects will only serve the Canadiens well in the long run.
Right now, this is a Habs team capable of fringe-playoff status and fringe-playoff status alone. Resetting and reshaping the roster will give Montreal the opportunity to build a group that is the consistent post-season and potential Stanley Cup contender for which the Canadiens faithful have been longing.
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