The 2019-20 NHL season remains uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing Montreal Canadiens fans can be certain of, even if the playoffs begin soon, the Habs won’t be playing for the Stanley Cup. It’s time to look ahead to the offseason.
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General manager Marc Bergevin will continue to make moves to turn his roster into a playoff contender. Case in point, instead of trading Tomas Tatar or Jeff Petry for large package deals in a seller’s market at the trade deadline, he kept them in Montreal.
The salary cap heading into next season was supposed to be on the rise, however, with the loss of revenue from this shutdown, the cap will likely remain flat-lined at, or around, $81.5 million. Another major hurdle is the upcoming expansion draft, a draft that will cause Bergevin to juggle with the lineup.
With that in mind, and if last season’s attempts are any indication, Bergevin will look to improve the backup goaltending, the left side on defence and add scoring. He will be very busy in the lead up to the 2020-21 season if he wants his reset to take the next step.
There has been a vocal minority championing the promotion of Cayden Primeau to become Carey Price’s backup, but at 21 years old heading into only his second professional season, he is not ready for full-time NHL duties. Allowing him to remain the starter for the AHL’s Laval Rocket where he will play over 40 games is best for his development. Charlie Lindgren is a legitimate choice instead; his career .907 save percentage (SV%) is strong for a backup. However, with only 24 NHL games under his belt, his lack of experience will likely be his undoing.
Bergevin will likely dip into the free-agent pool to sign a veteran goaltender who can play a tandem role with Price. Names like Tomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak are available, but so is Robin Lehner.
Lehner has been moving about recently, now with his third team in two seasons after he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights at the deadline. Lehner’s cap hit in 2019-20 was $5 million when he had a .920 SV%. That’s on the heels of his 2018-19 Vezina Trophy nomination with the New York Islanders when he posted a .930 SV%. If Bergevin can convince Lehner to join Montreal, he would instantly provide the Habs with a goaltending tandem that would improve the team’s chances of competing.
It is almost certain that Alexander Romanov will be signed by the Canadiens. So much so, that John Lu of TSN paraphrased assistant general manager Trevor Timmins comments on Romanov’s commitment to join Montreal next season and how it affected his play in the KHL.
Adding one of the best young defenders in the world outside the NHL is helpful, but the defence can’t pin its hopes of improvement on an NHL rookie.
Some would like to see the Canadiens take advantage of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s cap situation and extend an offer sheet to restricted free agent (RFA) Mikhail Sergachev, but after the Sebastian Aho situation last summer, even if Bergevin is desperate enough to try it, it’s unlikely to be a successful bid.
Others want to see Boston Bruins defender Torey Krug signed as an unrestricted free agent (UFA), and while his future is uncertain, it’s unlikely Krug would sign with the arch-rival Canadiens, even if he would be a perfect fit on the left side.
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Instead, Bergevin should focus on using his deep pool of prospects, picks and young NHL assets to trade for what is needed. One defender who would be an excellent fit with the Canadiens’ young core and be that highly mobile coveted style of defender who can generate offence in transition, is Esa Lindell of the Dallas Stars.
The 25-year-old, 6-foot-3, 214-pound left-handed Lindell is capable of logging big minutes in all situations, he has a heavy shot from the point and can start the transition with an accurate first pass out of the defensive zone. His style is much like Shea Weber’s in that he lacks the flamboyance that Habs fans love, but he is a steady, reliable player who makes high-percentage plays, which would endear him quickly to head coach Claude Julien. Acquiring Lindell would not come cheap, but the Canadiens have a plethora of assets to offer to fill the largest organizational need.
Some may feel the Canadiens’ biggest need isn’t on defence but upfront, which would be wrong. The team’s scoring in the last two seasons has hovered around the middle of the league, averaging 3.0 goals-per-game average (GPG) in 2018-19 and 2.92 GPG this season, however, their defence this season was ranked a woeful 23rd, with a 3.09 goals-against-per-game. No team that wants to make the playoffs can afford to have a negative goal differential.
To that end, both the offense and defence should be improved on, so as to help close the gap. Adding star players to either end would be helpful, but with Bergevin, it’s unlikely. One or two small additions could be the difference to help the team compete for a playoff spot and maybe win a round.
Adding a UFA like Ilya Kovalchuk would be a great first move. He was a proven fit in his short time in Montreal, earning the respect and admiration of his teammates while adding some playfulness and a veteran voice in the room. He was also an added weapon on the power play (PP) that still needs improvement. His return to the top-nine would add size and quality secondary scoring.
A smaller move for a player who fits Bergevin’s type of deal is Jesse Puljujarvi. The former fourth-overall selection by the Edmonton Oilers has demanded a trade, and the Canadiens have several young depth players, picks and prospects that could entice Edmonton. The cost wouldn’t be as high as his draft status implies, as he struggled with the Oilers. However, the cost will be high enough that acquiring Puljujarvi would be a gamble, but one the Canadiens can afford to make.
The 6-foot-3 Puljujarvi went home to Finland instead of staying in Edmonton and played extremely well in the Liiga, scoring 53 points in 56 games. He is a speedy skater and lighting quick shooter who would fit in perfectly with a Canadiens forward squad built on speed and transition, especially given their shortage of right wingers and size. With several Finnish-born and trained players on the roster, he may also feel more at home in the Canadiens’ locker room.
Bergevin has decided to take the next step in his reset, and next season the Habs should expect to compete for the playoffs. Fans are desperate for more than moral victories, they want to see springtime hockey at the Bell Center. While ownership has been patient with this plan, president and owner Geoff Molson should expect to see his team in the playoffs to increase revenue.
If the Canadiens aren’t taking a step forward to become a playoff team, Bergevin’s time in Montreal will likely come to an end. He needs to find a way to live with overpaying to make a bold deal or two to ensure he adds the pieces the team is missing to become what all Habs fans want to see, a Stanley Cup contender.