The Montreal Canadiens recent plummet in the standings is generating considerable unhappiness, even some panic, among their followers. It’s prompting calls for big trades, a coaching change and even a clean sweep of management.
As a Canadiens fan, I understand. Just over two months ago, the Habs were atop the league’s overall standings and among the highest-scoring teams. General manager Marc Bergevin was being lauded for his genius in building this roster. Goaltender Carey Price, winner of the 2015 Hart and Vezina Trophies, was picking up where he left off last season. Critics of head coach Michel Therrien were all but silenced. There was talk of this season ending in a triumphant Stanley Cup run.
And now that’s all gone. Price got injured and hasn’t returned, and the Canadiens collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. The offense dried up, Therrien and Bergevin seemingly have no solutions and a once-promising season looks like it’ll end with the Habs in contention to win the draft lottery.
So yes, it’s upsetting. But I would hasten to add that it’s just one season, not the end of the world.
While it’s all very nice for sympathetic Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers fans to offer up coping tips to Canadiens fans, we must remember that the Habs aren’t in the same land of mediocrity as those clubs have been for a decade.
Since 2006, the Oilers and Leafs only made the playoffs once. The Canadiens missed the playoffs only twice (2007 and 2012), rebounding back stronger after each of those disappointments. Given the Habs core of talent (Price, defenseman P.K. Subban, forwards Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk), the odds are good they’ll quickly bounce back from this lousy season.
I’ve heard some fans and pundits wondering if team owner Geoff Molson will step in and make a clean sweep of the entire front office and coaching staff, or at least pressure Bergevin to replace Therrien. While that could happen, I doubt the Habs owner will go to those extremes.
Yes, Molson intervened during Subban’s difficult contract negotiations two years ago, but overall he’s given Bergevin a free hand in how he runs this club. While I don’t doubt Molson is displeased by how this season’s turned out, he’s unlikely to overreact, especially considering the team’s solid performance of the previous three seasons.
But will the Canadiens make any season-saving deals before the trade deadline? Probably not, because realistically there’s not much they can do.
In his three-plus seasons as Canadiens GM, Bergevin’s garnered a reputation as a master wheeler-dealer, pulling off significant moves that helped the team. Despite his previous trade wizardry, however, this is the first time he’s dealing from a position of real in-season weakness. And like every NHL GM before him, he’s discovering you can’t swing deals to your advantage when your season is imploding.
So forget about the silly rumors claiming Bergevin is poised to pull the trigger on a monster trade ridiculously in favor of the Habs. Those trades don’t exist. There’s no cavalry riding to the rescue here via the trade market.
Bergevin will instead be a trade-deadline seller, attempting to move pending unrestricted free agents like Tom Gilbert, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann and maybe even Ben Scrivens. He could attempt to free up additional cap space for next season by testing the market value on forwards David Desharnais and Lars Eller and maybe even defenseman Andrei Markov if he is willing to accept a trade.
And no, he’s not going to shop core players like Subban, Pacioretty and Gallagher. Whatever return he’d get for them won’t replace their current value to the Canadiens. That’s particularly true for Subban. Yes, he could fetch a first-line center, but that would blow a huge hole in the Habs blueline that would take years to replace. As one Canadiens blogger astutely observed, that’s akin to buying a rudder for your airplane by selling the wings.
Will Bergevin change his mind about keeping Therrien and the current coaching staff in place until the end of the season? Perhaps, but I think Bergevin is sticking by his coach no matter how this season ends. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if he refuses to replace Therrien after this season, likely by using Price’s injury as a excuse to give him another chance.
If everything goes as I envision, the Canadiens will indeed miss the playoffs this year. And yet, that could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
For the last three years, critics claimed the Canadiens were nothing without Price. This season proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. This team can’t win without Price, and that’s because it’s always lacked the offensive punch necessary to do so.
Because of limited salary-cap space, Bergevin tried to address that on the cheap last summer. He swapped a fading Brandon Prust for a troubled Zack Kassian and inked Alexander Semin to a one-year bargain contract. The moves didn’t work, but at least we know Bergevin was aware of the problem. Thankfully, those moves were affordable and didn’t saddle the Habs with crippling long-term cap debt.
Once this horrific season is over, Bergevin will undoubtedly step up efforts in the offseason to bolster the offensive depth. Doing so, however, won’t be easy. He’ll have around $55 million invested in his 2016-17 payroll. Assuming the salary cap reaches $74 million, that’ll leave approximately $19 million available.
Fortunately, Bergevin doesn’t have any core players to re-sign. Of his UFAs, Weise and Paul Byron might get re-signed, while his restricted free agents include wingers Devante Smith-Pelley and Sven Andrighetto. Assuming he re-signs those four, he’ll have around $10 million left to pursue some offensive depth this summer via free agency.
He could attempt to land a big-ticket free agent like Stamkos Stamkos or Eric Staal if they hit the market. Most likely, however, he’ll look for more affordable options like David Backes, Jiri Hudler, Kyle Okposo or Mikkel Boedker.
A trade is also possible, perhaps by dangling Galchenyuk. I realize many Habs fans are against that move, claiming the young forward isn’t be utilized properly by Therrien. Perhaps so, but Bergevin could decide he needs someone a little older and more established in the first-line center role. Galchenyuk on his own won’t attract that kind of return, so Bergevin could end up tossing in a high pick or a top prospect into the deal.
Then again, if the Canadiens tumble so low this season they end up improving their odds of winning the 2016 NHL Draft lottery, perhaps there’s no need to move Galchenyuk. If the Habs win the lottery, they’ll undoubtedly select American-born center Auston Matthews, considered the top prospect in this year’s draft.
The 18-year-old Matthews is enjoying a solid season skating for Zurich in Switzerland against professional competition. At 6’2 and 195 pounds, Matthews has the size and skill to become the elite center the Canadiens have been lacking for over two decades.
Should the Habs end up with a pick in the top five other than first overall, they could land such promising talent as left wing Matthew Tkachuk (son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk), Finnish right wings Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine, left wing Alexander Nylander (son of former NHLer Michael Nylander and younger brother of Leafs prospect William Nylander) or QMJHL right wing Julien Gauthier.
Some might suggest the Canadiens trade their first-round pick for instant help now. If they get the first-overall selection, it’ll have to be a helluva return to give up a shot at a potential franchise player like Matthews. The argument will be made that with core players like Price, Subban and Pacioretty getting older, Bergevin needs to bring in talent right away before those three reach the downside of their careers.
Price is 28, Pacioretty 27 and Subban 26. They’re not about to become fossils in a couple of years if it takes a little time for promising young talent to blossom into stars. Barring serious injuries, the three should remain among the Habs’ best players for several more seasons.
Of course, all of this is merely speculation on my part. Molson could opt for a clean sweep of the front office and coaching staff. Or he’ll pressure Bergevin to fire Therrien this month or at season’s end. Or Bergevin somehow pulls off a couple of magical deals before the trade deadline that vaults the Habs back among the playoff contenders. Or he trades Subban for, oh, I dunno, Steven Stamkos and some magic beans.
Despite all the panicky doom and gloom among Canadiens’ followers, I think cooler heads will prevail and some long-term good might actually come out of this current mess. We’ll just have to wait and see how this whole thing plays out.