The Montreal Canadiens are coming off a significant loss and a potential watershed moment of the season. On the heels of losing to the New York Rangers on Saturday night, where they blew a four-goal lead, they were annihilated by the Boston Bruins last night 8-1. This was the Canadiens’ fifth consecutive loss, as they have yet to win a game this season without injured star Jonathan Drouin in the lineup. Paul Byron is also out for at least four weeks and the Canadiens’ depth of scoring has taken a hit as a result of these injuries.
Until now, the strength of the Canadiens this season has been that scoring depth. They rose as high as second place in the Atlantic Division (where they started last week), scoring the second-most goals in the NHL at the time, without anyone who is considered an “elite” scorer. The way they were beating teams was through a balanced four-line scoring attack and an improved power play.
Last week, both Drouin and Byron went down with significant injuries that will see them out of the lineup for 4-8 weeks in total. The Canadiens’ balanced scoring has taken a hit since then, as they’ve lost five consecutive games, where their scoring hasn’t been nearly as diversified as it was before these injuries occurred. Their power play has struggled without Drouin in the lineup as well.
The Canadiens are struggling in a key time of the season. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning struggled to start the season and it’s imperative that the Habs put as many points in between themselves and those teams as they can. The Canadiens need to support the players on their roster and it means likely going outside the organization to do so.
Even with a fully healthy roster, the Canadiens need to add size and strength to their group of players. For instance, Tom Wilson is a determent to opposition targeting the Washington Capitals’ many skilled forwards up front and he is also a contributor to the team’s high-powered offense. A similar player is Josh Anderson; he’s a big, two-way force who can contribute on the scoreboard as well. He’s already had a contract holdout with the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in his career and will be a restricted free agent next summer. This is the kind of player that the Canadiens need to add to their group.
Adding a power forward will give smaller statured skilled players more time and space to utilize their skills. These players who play “heavy” also generally do well when hockey slows down a bit and becomes more physical in the playoffs. While a lack of size and strength is a definite area of concern, it is matched by the Canadiens’ lack of an elite left-handed defender.
The Canadiens need to add an elite puck-moving defenseman on the left side of the blue line. This area of need has been discussed at length throughout the summer and early season in Montreal. There are a few good options to address this hole in the lineup, such as Jonas Brodin from the Minnesota Wild and Shayne Gostisbehere for the Philadelphia Flyers. The latter has been scratched from several games, which is interesting to note.
The Canadiens acquiring a Brodin or Gostisbehere to be paired with Shea Weber would allow head coach Claude Julien to move Victor Mete down to the second pairing with Jeff Petry. Mete has played his best hockey of the season when paired with Petry due in part to easier matchups on a nightly basis. Ben Chiarot has been paired with Weber recently and has done relatively well.
However, Chiarot is best served on the third pairing with Cale Fleury, and the Canadiens have struggled to find a consistent partner for the youngster Fleury on the back end. Acquiring a top left-handed defender will push everyone on the left side of the blue line down a notch, and the unit would be vastly improved as a result.
There are also some elite talents on expiring contracts who could be available at or nearing the trading deadline. None larger than Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. Hall possess a rare combination of speed, physicality and scoring in a package that has MVP potential when healthy. While Hall has been injury prone in recent seasons, he’s a player who Montreal should also be keeping an eye on. The Habs don’t have anyone on their roster who is on par with Hall’s talent level. The cost would be astronomical, but well worth it if they could acquire such an elite talent and lock him down to a long-term contract.
Cost of Improvement
As with any industry, there is a significant cost for improvement. The NHL is no exception. The cost of acquiring a big body upfront or a left-handed, puck-moving defenseman will be steep. The Canadiens will likely have to give up a first-round draft pick and multiple promising young prospects – and that’s fine. For the past three offseasons, the Canadiens have acquired, drafted or developed a pipeline that is as good as any in the NHL. They are actually overloaded with quality young centers, which is considered the gold standard in terms of NHL trading currency.
While Jesperi Kotkaniemi has taken a bit of a step back in his production this season, there seems little doubt he’s got a bright NHL future ahead of him. Nick Suzuki is currently tied for second in goal scoring amongst NHL rookies and he’s already endeared himself to his teammates and coaches. He is not going anywhere. Ryan Poehling started off his NHL career with a bang, scoring a hat trick in his first-ever NHL game last season. However, he suffered a concussion in the NHL preseason and struggled somewhat in an early-season call-up. Poehling possesses a rare combination of size and skill at the center position that is highly sought after by many NHL teams.
Max Domi showed why he’s a better center than winger on Saturday night. In his return to the position, Domi scored two goals and was dynamic all over the ice. Phillip Danault is one of the most underrated two-way centers in the game and is thriving under Julien. Both Domi and Danault look like they’ll be taking up spots in Montreal’s top nine at center for the foreseeable future.
Taking stock at both the present and future of the center ice position for the Canadiens, they are almost too deep at center. Furthermore, they will be hard pressed to get all their young centers the minutes they need to develop and grow at the NHL level. The time is quickly approaching when the Canadiens need to decide whether to move a promising prospect at a position of strength to address a position of need within the organization.
The Canadiens are loaded with assets, salary cap space and draft picks. Carey Price and Weber aren’t getting any younger. It’s time for the Canadiens to use their assets to improve this team. Given the timing of the injuries to Drouin and Byron, the Canadiens should be looking to make moves sooner rather than later. They missed the playoffs by two points last season, so they are well aware that every single point counts in the modern NHL. It’s time for general manager Marc Bergevin to start making some calls.