The Montreal Canadiens ended the first half of the 2016-17 season in first place in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the National Hockey League. The early results are impressive considering their lack of production from center ice along with a plethora of injuries that saw 10 different AHL players make appearances in the lineup.
Although the returns are positive, the Habs still have issues to work out. Three months into the season, first place is something to build on but so much can change before the calendar hits April.
As we move into the 2017 half of the season, Marc Bergevin and company have some priorities to take care of. So to make it easy for the Canadiens’ general manager, here’s a to-do list from now until the playoffs.
Some moves are bold some are common sense, however, they are all possibilities or things that should be addressed if the Canadiens want to continue to trend in the right direction.
Sign Alexander Radulov
This perhaps is the most obvious box Bergevin must check off. Although it won’t affect the result of the season considering Radulov is under his one-year contract, it should be taken care of.
Not only does Radulov bring excitement and offense to the Canadiens but he brings passion and an energy from which the rest of the team feeds.
It won’t be cheap, but this is something that needs to be done because players like Radulov are rarely available. The Habs got lucky and took a risk last offseason when no team was willing to and so far have been rewarded.
Locking up Radulov to a long-term deal is the first step in solidifying their top-six forward group.
Acquire a Number Two Center
This is something that absolutely needs to be done by the trade deadline. As of now, the Canadiens don’t have a second line center on the roster. Although Phillip Danault has played well in the absence of Alex Galchenyuk, he can’t be relied on to be the second guy when they are deep in the playoffs.
Tomas Plekanec, who by salary alone is considered the number two, has lost his scoring touch and is showing day-by-day why he needs to be a third line center.
So that leaves us with a void down the middle. There’s no way to sugar coat it, if Bergevin doesn’t address that, the Habs won’t win this year. It’s time for him to step up and provide the players for a legitimate run.
The management team needs to find a long-term fix at the position so let’s be bold for a minute here. The Canadiens have the pieces that have been linked to a possible Matt Duchene trade but that all depends on whether Bergevin wants to part with either Noah Juulsen or Mikhail Sergachev and then some.
In a perfect world, I would give up Plekanec, Juulsen, Hudon and picks to get the deal done. Adding Duchene would immediately put the Habs into legitimate Cup contention. His and Plekanec’s contracts cancel each other out in terms of dollars, which makes this a no-brainer. However, judging by Bergevin’s view on his top prospects and how much he values them, a big deal like that seems unlikely.
If Bergevin isn’t willing to move one of his top young defense prospects for a high-caliber player like Duchene, it’s likely management will look to guys like Martin Hanzel or other rental players. Regardless what the brain trust decides to do, this is the most pressing need. Again, this version of the Habs won’t make it anywhere near the Cup without some additional help down the middle.
Add Another Winger
Adding another winger to the top-six isn’t as big a need as adding a center. However, it would solidify the forward group for the first time in recent memory.
As the roster stands now, there are only four top-six forwards including Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Galchenyuk and Radulov. Even with adding a center at the deadline they’re still one winger short of a legitimate group.
As well as Paul Byron has played, he doesn’t belong on the top two lines. As I keep repeating, Plekanec is best suited on the third line as is Andrew Shaw. That’s not a knock on any of those players, it’s that they aren’t playing where they should be playing. Players are more effective in their proper roles.
The Habs are tight with cap space and would need to get creative to lure both a center and a winger to Montreal. Veterans like Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla are options but both are expensive, especially Iginla who along with the big cap number hasn’t done much this season. Younger, cheaper players would be more expensive in a trade but not necessarily on the cap which could also be an option, but those deals are much harder to come by as opposed to rentals.
The Canadiens can get by with just adding a center but adding another winger, perhaps a rental, would finally complete their roster.
Look for Defense
Probably last on Bergevin’s list would be to add to the defense. You can never have too many defencemen as the general manager likes to say, but they have decent depth at the position now.
If it comes down to either a defenseman or a center, there’s no doubt that management has to take the forward route. Bringing on another defenseman wouldn’t hurt considering Markov’s age and the team’s inexperienced third pairing. However it would hurt the cap situation and as I stated earlier, it’ll be tough to fit everything in.
One benefit and something that takes the pressure off Bergevin is players like Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin’s improved play this season. If young Nathan Beaulieu can find his game, the Habs will be much more comfortable with this group heading into the playoffs.
A dramatic top-four move looks unlikely but I wouldn’t rule out a five-six guy to provide the all-important depth to the group.
Checking the Boxes
All of these things should be on the list for Bergevin as they push toward a playoff run. As it stands now, the Habs aren’t deep enough nor skilled enough to match up in a seven game series with the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If some of these needs/issues can be addressed, with a healthy Carey Price, the Canadiens will have a strong Stanley Cup contending team that can go against the best the NHL has to offer. Bergevin must bring in certain pieces to push the Habs over the top or they’ll be on their way to another disappointing season.
I can say this, it’ll be an interesting couple months for fans waiting to see what gets checked off the list by the always unpredictable Montreal brain trust.
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.