Uncertainty reigns supreme around the NHL and any possible plans to continue the season or hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This uncertainty has caused every team issues. The contenders have issues with rental players and the prices they paid to get them on the roster, including the conditions placed on some assets in those trades.
General managers (GM) that are rebuilding, such as the Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, must now alter any pre-draft plans due to the uncertainty surrounding rosters as well as next season’s salary cap.
The Start of the Offseason Plan
For several seasons, Bergevin has been preaching that he is building through the draft. No one can say he isn’t trying as the Canadiens have selected 28 players in the draft since 2017. The team holds 14 more selections entering the 2020 Draft that could add significantly more depth to the prospect pool. If Bergevin were to use all his picks, he would then have made 42 picks in a four-year span. Several of the picks have high potential but have yet to crack the NHL lineup permanently.
With several young players in the lineup, a deep prospect pool with quality prospects in each position, and multiple picks in the top-90 selections of this year’s draft, Bergevin was poised to push the retool plan into the next step, a playoff team.
Bergevin was first supposed to decide which of the draftees he was going to sign to entry-level contracts (ELC). As of May 6, 2020, the Canadiens’ have 45 of 50 total contracts filled, leaving only five available. Currently, the Canadiens have five players they must decide to sign or allow to return to the draft or free agency. This decision is made more difficult because of the limited contracts that can be signed. However, this is the one decision that is impacted the least by the NHL stoppage.
Once his decision on which prospects to sign is made, the next step will be to possibly leverage the remaining non-core assets and cap space he has built up in an attempt to make his traditional pre-draft trade, such as the ones he’s made for Jonathan Drouin in 2017 and Max Domi in 2018.
It is clear Bergevin plans to retain as much of his NHL roster as possible. He chose not to trade Tomas Tatar or Jeff Petry at the trade deadline—some could say because he didn’t get the value he desired. However, it was a seller’s market, so it is more likely that after missing the playoffs four of the last five seasons, he kept them as his own rentals to help the team finally take that next step.
The needs the Canadiens face to become a playoff team are adding right-wing depth, scoring and an upgrade on the left side of the blue line. The solution to those problems is not readily available in the system—even the highly touted Alexander Romanov will not solve the blue line problems.
With the assets on hand and teams having salary cap issues, Bergevin was poised to add pieces via trade with teams looking to shed salary for value. He was set up to make deals with teams hard against the cap next season who had to make choices to either keep high-priced players or re-sign the unrestricted or restricted free agents (UFA/RFA). Now, with the shutdown and an uncertainty on if play will resume, teams are unwilling to trade as they want to retain players in case the playoffs do occur, causing any leverage to be lost until the NHL decides how to proceed.
With 14 draft picks in this year’s draft that was supposed to be held in Montreal, Bergevin was poised to make the draft weekend entertaining for Canadiens fans that would be in attendance. Despite the unknown, picks are still a tradeable commodity.
Will teams deemed out of the playoffs for the purposes of the draft—if it were to happen in June prior to any possible playoffs—be open to making player trades? Will the NHL allow them to do so? Perhaps, but those teams tend to be young, rebuilding teams with cap space. They aren’t the ideal candidates to offer the package of picks and prospects in exchange for good, young players.
The only recourse Bergevin has now is to either use all his picks, use several to trade up if there is a prospect Trevor Timmins covets or to trade them for picks in future drafts. That isn’t the best scenario for a GM that is on the bubble of keeping his job or for one that was poised to trade for players that could help his team become a playoff contender.
The NHL is awash in uncertainty. They can’t decide when or even if the season will continue, if there will be playoffs or what the salary cap will be moving forward. The league doesn’t know if it will allow teams to trade players, their rights or even when the UFA season can begin.
In that backdrop, fans will still demand that Bergevin make the necessary deals to improve the team. However, this level of chaos may have bought him more time and patience from ownership, as Geoff Molson may find it unreasonable to hold his actions accountable in this type of unprecedented situation.