If this were any other offseason, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin would be able to sit back and relax, relatively speaking. After all, he has no unrestricted free agents on his current roster he absolutely needs to re-sign, unless you count Ales Hemsky and/ or Antti Niemi.
Niemi undeniably performed admirably as Carey Price’s back-up, but the general feeling is Charlie Lindgren is likely to graduate from the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket. Meanwhile, you can probably place Hemsky back in the liquidation bin from where he came, with his best-before date long since passed.
That being said, following a 29-40-13 season, during which the holes in the team’s line-up were consistently exposed, it’s not about UFAs to re-sign, but UFAs he needs to sign in the first place instead. It’s ironically much the opposite situation he found himself in last summer, when both Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov left following the whole “first come, first served” fiasco.
So, in a sense, there’s not really a lesson from past experience he can apply here. Here’s hoping he can learn on the job, because his is clearly on the line, with acquiring top talent at multiple positions appearing high on this list of his top offseason priorities:
8. Re-Sign Logan Shaw
Logan Shaw is one of four restricted free agents currently on the big club (according to CapFriendly). For the sake of simplicity, this list will limit itself to players only on the Habs’ NHL roster, although you can make a definite case that re-signing the likes of former-first-round-pick Michael McCarron should be a higher priority, even if he’s hypothetically one Hab on the outside looking in.
Hell, all due respect to Shaw, pick any one of the other Rocket’s free agents, and they should place higher too. That’s not meant to imply Shaw was horrible as a Hab. The waiver pick-up scored a career-high 14 points this season, which is the exact same total as Nicolas Deslauriers, who’s received rave reviews.
That’s in part the problem for Shaw. He’s a redundancy, as there are currently 16 forwards listed on the team’s roster. There’s pretty much nothing Shaw can do that Deslauriers, who also scored 10 goals and was already re-signed as a priority in February, can’t. That’s why he places so low on the list.
7. Re-Sign Daniel Carr
In his first 9 games of the season, Daniel Carr had 10 points. If he had been able to keep it up, he’d likely already be re-signed. Unfortunately, that’s not how these things usually work and players who get less ice time per game than Shaw don’t usually score a lot. Case in point, in Carr’s last 29, he only scored six more.
One would argue that on a lesser team, Carr would get a chance to be a top-six forward and justifiably so. However, there aren’t many lesser teams in the league. So, the reason as to why Carr’s most common linemates were Deslauriers and Byron Froese is anyone’s guess, maybe even head coach Claude Julien’s.
The ugly truth of the matter is Carr just may not factor into the team’s plans. It’s time everyone finds out for sure, with Carr needing a new contract.
6. Re-Sign Jacob De La Rose
Depth-forward Jacob De La Rose actually had less ice time per game than Carr (and Shaw) this season. He still played in many more games (55 to 38 and 30, respectively).
Even if De La Rose’s offensive totals are far from impressive, the sense is the 2013 second-round pick is seen as having the defensive awareness that makes him valuable to the organization moving forward. The merit in using a (high) second-round pick on a player projected to be little more than a grinder is obviously questionable, but the RFA is still probably about where the team needs him to be right now, as far as his development is concerned.
5. Hire a New AHL Head Coach
Firing Sylvain Lefebvre as the head coach of the Rocket would have placed higher on this list had the Canadiens wasted time handing him his walking papers. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, but the problem of who to replace him with has now presented itself. Dominique Ducharme would have been a logical choice, but he was hired to fill an assistant-coach vacancy instead, which was far from a bad move in all fairness.
Obviously, the AHL team needs a head coach, but, all Lefebvre’s tenure did was confirm not just anyone can do the job. It may not be kind to say, but, if in six seasons as head coach, your team only wins one playoff game (not series, but game), it’s probably not a good fit. All that to say, the importance of finding the right guy for the job (Joel Bouchard, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada GM, is one candidate) cannot be understated as the team’s prospect pipeline has seen better days.
4. Use the Third-Overall Pick
On any other GM’s list of priorities, this may place at No. 1 or not even rank, because it goes without saying: If you have a third-overall pick in a top-heavy draft, you use it.
Still, this is Bergevin we’re talking about. Because there isn’t a clear pick at that position who fills any one of his team’s biggest holes right now, he might be tempted to trade it for immediate help. That’s in spite of how, by any measure of logic or sanity, a team that just finished in 28th position should not be going all in at this point, trading futures for a shot at winning now.
In other words, the team’s and Bergevin’s interests may no longer align. His job is at risk and the team rebounding back as contenders right away is slim. So, the question becomes, will Bergevin make a move out of desperation or go out doing the right thing?
3. Acquire a Top-Six Center
Yes, the Habs need a No. 1 center, but it’s effectively John Tavares or bust. Because the chances are slim that Tavares signs with a team that just finished 28th in pursuit of a championship, this entry clocks in lower than expected.
The free-agent market for centers comprises Tavares, Paul Stastny, Joe Thornton and maybe Tyler Bozak. Thornton should be disqualified based on his age and Bozak is an illegitimate top-six center. While Stastny has been having a great postseason with the Winnipeg Jets and luring him to Montreal would likely be less of a Herculean task than convincing Tavares, it would still take a lot of coin and term.
Stastny may make for a decent stop-gap measure down the middle, but Tavares will be 28. Stastny will be 33. Giving term to only one of these players makes sense. Bergevin probably knows it too, but logic has little bearing on actions come the start of the free-agency frenzy.
Acquiring a top-six center is undeniably a priority, but it’s about acquiring the right center. The Habs defended their position to not spend up to the cap this past season because of a lack of players worth the money. In spite of the results, that was the right decision (Bergevin letting Markov and Radulov walk is the true source of frustration for Habs fans, not the unspent money). The same argument holds true here. It’s why re-signing Tomas Plekanec doesn’t even rank.
2. Re-Sign Phillip Danault
The lack of available top-six centers makes re-signing Phillip Danault all the more important.
It’s easy to forget he was effectively the team’s No. 1 center before Jonathan Drouin entered the pictured, with 40 points in 82 games last season. This season, during which he was sidelined for a significant amount of time with a concussion, he replicated those numbers (25 points in 52 games).
Granted, he got more time per game in 2017-18 (16:29 vs. 15:35), but that only underscores how his value to the team is increasing. When all is said and done, he may end up being this team’s No. 1 center once again. The Habs may have their sights set on doing better, but they could do a lot worse too. For a good portion of last season, with Drouin as the top pivot, they did.
1. Acquire a Top-Two Defenseman
The Canadiens have been without a legitimate No. 1 center for years. They’ve made do all right. They’ve been without Andrei Markov for a handful of times this century, whether it was due to injury or him leaving for Russia. For all intents and purposes, they’ve failed to win a round without him (he briefly appeared against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010; They didn’t fare so well the next round, though).
They obviously don’t need Markov back, but they do need someone of value on the left side to complement Shea Weber on the top pairing. That much is clear, as the lack of mobility on the back-end was offensively crippling, especially for Max Pacioretty. In essence, the lack of depth on defense hurt them at both ends of the ice.
With specific regard to Pacioretty, his contract will be up. So, even though there aren’t any top left-handed defensemen available via free agency, using him as trade bait may make sense here, especially with the left side up front being the Habs’ deepest position.
Theoretically, Bergevin could use Pacioretty to acquire a top-six center, and that wouldn’t be the worst option available to him (if Pacioretty does in fact have to be traded in his mind). It’s just clear the situation down the middle isn’t quite as dire, with Danault, Alex Galchenyuk and now Drouin having played the position with varying degrees of success over the last few seasons. No one was able to step in on even a semi-permanent basis to replace Markov.
Mikhail Sergachev would have figured in to the succession plan there, but the Drouin acquisition quashed any hope of Markov helping to bring along the young Russian defenseman. It reinforces the idea that building through the draft is optimal, with both of them and Victor Mete, arguably the top option to now step in, being Habs picks. If results are what Bergevin needs right away though, all bets are off.