Canadiens Facing a Critical Summer
Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban’s performance in the 2017 NHL playoffs is garnering attention among the NHL punditry. It’s also resurrected the debate among Montreal Canadiens followers over the merits of the blockbuster trade that shipped the popular blueliner to Nashville last summer in exchange for Shea Weber.
Subban’s critics claim he’s not even the Predators’ best defenseman in this postseason. They also point to his willingness to take on-ice risks and his out-sized personality to justify the trade.
His supporters, meanwhile, insist he’s played a far larger role in the Preds march to the Stanley Cup Final. The Canadiens’ opening-round elimination renewed fans criticism of the club’s handling of Subban during his tenure in Montreal.
The strengths and weaknesses in Subban’s game and character will be endlessly debated for the remainder of his NHL career. It’ll take years to determine whether the Predators or Canadiens got the better of the deal.
But even if the Habs hadn’t traded Subban, his presence probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of their first-round series with the the New York Rangers. Despite Subban’s skills, he wouldn’t have improved their popgun offense or overcome a lack of depth beyond their top-three defensemen.
This growing debate over Subban among Canadiens fans is pointless. It won’t change history or bring him back to Montreal. Rather than rehashing the past, Habs followers should be more concerned over what moves general manager Marc Bergevin has in store this summer to address their roster issues.
For a club that was supposedly built to win now, the Canadiens looked anything like a Cup contender this year. Despite rebounding from a horrible, injury-ravaged 2015-16 campaign to finish atop the Atlantic Division this season with 103 points, the Habs’ early playoff exit exposed their weaknesses.
With Weber, superstar goalie Carey Price and scoring forwards Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov (assuming he’s re-signed this summer), the Canadiens have a good core of talent. The youngest, however, is the 28-year-old Pacioretty, Radulov turns 31 in July while Price turns 30 and Weber 32 in August. If the Habs hope to win a championship with these four stars, they’ll have to do it within the next three years before the inevitable decline in their respective performances.
The supporting cast needs work, especially at center. Forward Alex Galchenyuk, 23, has yet to blossom into the first-line center he was projected to become. Usually reliable two-way pivot Tomas Plekanec turns 35 in October and his play has declined. Phillip Danault, 24, is coming off a 40-point season but he’s clearly not first-line material.
Agitating winger and fan favorite Brendan Gallagher has had his offensive skills hampered by injuries. Speedy left wing Paul Byron tallied a career best 22 goals and 43 points but it’s doubtful the 28-year-old can match or exceed those numbers next season.
Right wing Andrew Shaw seems more of a loose cannon than an effective physical presence. Rookie left wing Artturi Lehkonen, 21, has offensive potential but it remains to be seen if he’ll blossom into a scorer.
Beyond Weber on the blueline, Andrei Markov had a 36-point performance this season, but the 38-year-old is approaching the end of his long career. Second-pairing rearguard Jeff Petry had a decent 28-point campaign while late-season addition Jordie Benn was a welcome depth addition.
Alexei Emelin’s hard-hitting style is offset by his defensive miscues and bad penalties. Nathan Beaulieu’s frequent struggles this season suggests he’s suited up for the last time with Les Canadiens. The most notable thing about mid-season addition Nikita Nesterov was how frequently he was scratched from the lineup.
The Habs have some promising players in their pipeline. The notables include blueliners Mikhail Sergachev and Noah Juulsen and forwards Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak. Only Sergechev, however, appears to be a star in the making.
For the Canadiens to challenge for the Cup next season, GM Bergevin must find a proven first-line center and a top-four defenseman.
The pickings are very slim in this summer’s free-agent market. The top centers include San Jose’s 37-year-old Joe Thornton, Columbus’ Sam Gagner, Nashville’s Mike Fisher, Minnesota’s Martin Hanzal and Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino. Notable defensemen include Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, Calgary’s Michael Stone and Pittsburgh’s Trevor Daley.
As with last summer’s swap of Subban for Weber, Bergevin could attempt another bold move via the trade market. Doing so, however, could cost them more than just Galchenyuk or Beaulieu. Interested parties will likely want at least Sergachev or another good young prospect as part of the return.
Bergevin probably won’t have better luck seeking centers in the trade market. Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson could be available but the Lightning could seek a top-four blueliner in return. Bergevin doesn’t have enough of those to make a competitive bid.
The expansion draft provides Bergevin with a unique opportunity to perhaps land a good young defenseman for a reasonable price. Teams with blueline depth, such as the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild, each stand to lose a quality d-man for nothing to the Vegas Golden Knights. They could be agreeable to a trade if the return doesn’t screw up their expansion draft protection lists.
Of course, Bergevin wouldn’t be the only GM talking to those clubs. Some of his peers carry considerably more tempting trade bait.
While the Habs have over $49 million invested in 15 players for 2017-18, new contracts for Radulov and Galchenyuk (assuming he’s not dealt) could eat up around $10 million combined. Bergevin must also ensure any long-term addition leaves sufficient salary-cap space to re-sign Price (UFA eligible next summer) and Pacioretty (UFA eligible in 2019).
This offseason could be the most daunting of Bergevin’s tenure as Canadiens general manager. The moves he makes will establish if the Habs are contenders or pretenders next season. His actions could also determine how long he keeps his job.