After a nearly perfect Cinderella story unfolding last season, despite the loss in the Stanley Cup Final, for the Montreal Canadiens, this offseason has been anything but. With the news that captain and top defender Shea Weber may have a career-ending injury, to the loss of depth at center, and now the sad news that star goaltender Carey Price is out of action indefinitely to deal with personal issues. As an aside, I applaud the courage it took for Carey to seek out help and above all else. I hope that he returns to his family in the best possible mental and physical health so that he can enjoy a long life with them; hockey comes a distant second place to that.
As for the Habs, they have an uphill battle before the first puck is even dropped on the 2021-22 NHL season. So what do the Canadiens do now?
The Canadiens had finally made center an area of strength, which helped lead them to a Stanley Cup Final last season. However, in the span of one month, they managed to lose both Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to free agency and an offer sheet. While the addition of Christian Dvorak will help fill in the two-way role in the top six, it is the bottom six center roles that will leave the Canadiens vulnerable up front, even with a very deep group of wingers.
With the loss of Weber, their top defenseman, the hopes are that Jeff Petry can continue his excellent play, that Alexander Romanov can step up into a top-four role and that free agent signing David Savard can adequately fill in the defensive role and minutes that Weber used to provide. All those may be possible, however, there are the intangibles lost, namely, his leadership. This will have a significant impact in the room and on the ice as players adjust to losing his influence, especially at the start of the season.
The hits kept coming as Carey Price will be out to start the season, and as mentioned before, his health and wellness should be the priority above hockey. However, this does impact the hockey side of the team as well, and the waiver acquisition of Samuel Montembeault will play a prominent role as Carey will be out for no less than one month.
“It’s a minimum 30 days, but it could be more.”-Marc Bergevin
Bergevin’s Next Step
The elephant in the room for all of this is, does team owner Geoff Molson trust general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin enough to make any moves that could impact the team’s future?
Related: Canadiens Need to Get Bergevin Extension Done Soon
A major piece of information was buried in the press conference addressing the news of Price’s departure from the team. Which was that the Canadiens announced Bergevin would not negotiate a contract extension during the season. There would be no updates on the general manager’s contract until the end of the season. Bergevin is entering the final season of his current deal.
This adds another layer to the degree of difficulty the Canadiens face. While Molson may trust Bergevin with the day-to-day hockey decisions, there may be some oversight on any trades to ensure it isn’t a move that can sacrifice future assets. An added layer to keep in mind is that Montreal is hosting the NHL Entry Draft this summer, and the team currently has 11 draft picks, five in the top 90, to make a splash in front of the hometown crowd and they will want to keep as many picks as possible.
Canadiens’ Option 1: Make a Deal
It will be challenging to make any trade at the start of the season. Teams have spent all the money they can under their internal budgets and there has been no accumulation of cap space for Long Term Injury Reserves yet. This means that any trade made would need nearly equal amounts of money going out as it does coming in. This complicates any trade significantly.
Another issue is which need is the one Bergevin must address the most. If it is to add a defenseman, it will need to be done keeping the eventual return of Joel Edmundson, who will miss an additional three weeks.
The expectation is that Price will return, so for now, Sam Montembeault as Jake Allen’s backup is acceptable. At center, however, the Habs are looking at a Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling tandem for their bottom six. Poehling, while his underlying numbers looked ok, lacked aggressiveness and made several costly mistakes in the preseason that didn’t solidify himself as being immediately ready for the role.
The trade options at center are difficult to find, but Nashville Predators center Colton Scissons would fit the Habs’ needs. The 27-year-old center is signed to a five-year $2.85 million deal; he has the size GMs like at center and is strong on face-offs with a 54.1% last season. No doubt, Bergevin would need to overpay for what is essentially a lower-tier third-line center. This could become an issue while the long-term GM situation in Montreal remains a question mark.
Canadiens’ Option 2: Let it Ride
The likeliest option is that the Habs do nothing to add from the outside.
The Habs are indeed in the toughest division in the NHL, and they are a team that would be battling for a wild card position. However, after all the offseason changes, new signings, and trades are already completed, it is unlikely Bergevin will add to the dressing room until a routine can settle in. As players like Brendan Gallagher adjust to their new leadership roles and new additions like Mike Hoffman adjust to their on-ice roles, team needs will become more apparent.
In the meantime, due to the injuries, young players will be allowed to step up. Poehling will be relied upon to prove he can play in at least a fourth-line role. Another, and more significant impact, will be that of Romanov and his expanded role as a top-four defenceman.
Romanov is currently paired on the top line with Petry and is also playing on the power play. However, Romanov would be better served to be insulated by a stay-at-home defender like Savard. This partnership could allow Romanov the latitude to take chances and have a veteran there to cover for any errors. If Romanov can become effective and comfortable on the second pair, his mobility and untapped offensive skills will greatly impact the team’s overall game.
The need for a more mobile defense was highlighted in the preseason. The Habs allowed far too many shots against and took too few shots for. This stemmed from the Canadiens spending long periods trapped in their defensive zone, unable to break up plays, stop the opposition cycle, or make controlled zone exits.
With all the uncertainty surrounding the Canadiens, the injuries, the GM not having a known future, it is best for the team in the long term to let the season unfold without making any reactionary moves. Even though the team made the Final this past season, the retool is far from over. This season may be the best time to allow the young players in the system to grow into their roles on the roster, allow some to gain experience as call-ups, and accept that a playoff position may not be in the cards this year. Something that could be a blessing as the 2022 draft class is seen as a very deep group. The next step for the Canadiens should be that they take no more steps and allow the players to decide how the season unfolds.