It’s open season in the National Hockey League as most teams are well into the offseason schedule. The Montreal Canadiens, having missed the playoffs, have been working since late April to put the 2015-16 season behind them and focus on how to get better. Bergevin and Co. have their work cut out for them when it comes to building the roster back up to challenge in the East, and ultimately for the Stanley Cup.
Marc Bergevin can go about improving the Canadiens a few ways. There’s the Entry Draft on June 24th, the free agency window which opens July 1st, and of course trading, which already has the green light. On the roster, the Canadiens currently have three (Pacioretty, Gallagher and Galchenyuk) possibly four (Pleckanec) top-six forwards. The defense corps is in good shape, with eight capable defensemen that boast a solid top four, and goaltending being the strong point of the roster with the best one-two punch in the league featuring Carey Price and Mike Condon.
If the Habs want to be a competitive team and challenge for the Stanley Cup, it’s clear that the forward group needs to improve, as it has stood out as a sore spot on the team for years now. Their inability to score was exposed when Carey Price went down early in the 2015-16 campaign. Luckily for the Canadiens, Price has been able to mask most of their scoring problems upfront, but it’s now clear they can’t sneak by without improving their offence. The NHL Draft won’t offer immediate help, and free agency might prove too expensive to attract multiple players. The most likely way to shake up a roster is trading, but it could be the most difficult.
If the Habs do indeed dip into the trade market, which I believe they will, who could be on the move?
5. LW/C – Lars Eller
I like Eller as a player. On a good team Eller is a 3rd line center, where he should be playing and where he is most comfortable playing. Unfortunately, on Montreal he’s misused as a top six forward because of the lack of that skill on the roster. Now I wouldn’t be throwing Eller on the block for nothing, and Bergevin wouldn’t either. He’s an asset that has been valuable to the success of the Canadiens. With the right package he could be used to bring in one of those top six forwards that the Canadiens covet. If a trade such as that doesn’t materialize I believe that Eller will stay put and hopefully be used more appropriately.
This is a sore spot for Bergevin when it comes to trades. He is very reluctant to give up draft picks or prospects that could develop to be everyday NHL players. However, if the right package presented itself for immediate help upfront, he has to consider it. Prospects such as Charles Hudon and Zach Fucale come to mind as the most attractive for teams. With the depth in net in the organization it makes Fucale expendable, and with the goaltending issues around the league, if packaged properly, Fucale could yield a big return. Hudon has played multiple games while being called up from St. John’s but can’t seem to crack the lineup full-time like Sven Andrighetto has. He could have a better opportunity elsewhere and there will be a market for him.
3. C – David Desharnais
This is a tough one. The word out of Montreal around the trade deadline was that Marc Bergevin was calling teams about Desharnais. Obviously, considering he is still on the roster, there were no takers for his services. A small third-line center is hard to sell when the NHL game increasingly gets more physical every year. With Desharnais’ contract ending after this season, it could entice a team to take a chance on him, but it’s unlikely. That being said, he is one of the most expendable players on the roster as the expiring contract helps the Canadiens in trade negotiations. None of these players will be able to give the Canadiens a big enough return to make a player-for-player trade, but if packaged with a prospect or draft pick at the deadline, Desharnais could be part of a deal that would bring help for a playoff run.
2. C – Tomas Pleckanec
Tomas Pleckanec is the biggest name on the list, but hear me out. Pleckanec has two more years left on a $6 million-a-year deal. On a good team challenging for the cup, he’s a third line center. We all know what Plecknecc is capable of at the beginning of the season, but as the year winds down so does he, and it shows on the stat sheet. He has been almost invisible when it comes playoff time, and it hampers the team as they lack that effective one two punch at center that an opponent would have to game-plan for.
Overall, Pleckanec is Bergevin’s biggest bargaining chip. Of course, due to the age of the player and his salary, it would likely have to be a large deal. It’s one that Bergevin has to consider making though, especially if the return includes an upgrade at the center position. Another reason I think Pleckanec can be expendable is if the Canadiens decide to spend big in free agency.
If for example, the Canadiens want to jump in on the Stamkos sweepstakes, they need to shed salary. If Stamkos chooses to sign with the Habs (and that’s a big if, all things considered) Pleckanec would likely be the first man out the door to make it happen. At that point, the Canadiens would be paying $6 million for a third line centre, and that wouldn’t be feasible. So again, it’s a possibility and Bergevin should be keeping his ears open if the right deal should come along.
1. D – Alexei Emelin
The most expendable player on the roster is Alexei Emelin. The Canadiens currently have eight NHL-ready defensemen on the roster. With a large salary Emelin could be dumped for cap relief. I say dumped, but in no way is Bergevin just going to give him away. Emelin is a proven, rugged defenseman that teams in the league desire. His consistency and ability to stay healthy have hurt the Habs in the past seasons, but overall he’s been a good solider for the Canadiens. Looking at the depth chart, unfortunately, puts him in the five-spot behind Subban, Markov, Petry and Beaulieu. $4.1 million is too much to be paying fifth defenseman. I do think Bergevin will be making calls about letting go of a blueliner in the offseason because of cap and depth reasons, and Emelin seems to be the most likely candidate to be moved.
Nick Guido is a Montreal Canadiens Contributor for The Hockey Writers. You can Follow him on Twitter @nickguidoTHW for his articles, opinions and general Habs talk.