The Montreal Canadiens had a stellar start to the season with a 7-1-2 record in their first 10 games. In that time, they led the league in scoring, averaging 4.4 goals per game (GPG), and were eighth in the league defensively, allowing 2.6 goals against per game (GAG). Fans were excited to watch the traditional Canadiens firewagon brand of hockey built on speed, some finesse, and aggressive puck pursuit.
Then, the wheels fell off the wagon as they couldn’t solve the trap system employed by the Ottawa Senators in their first meeting on 4 Feb., and the league found a method to frustrate the Habs. Since then, the GPG dried up to a paltry 2.22, and the GAG rose to 3.33. Even with a week off in the schedule, head coach Claude Julien couldn’t adjust, and that led to his dismissal.
As the NHL trade deadline of 12 April approaches, with a new coach in Dominique Ducharme, the Canadiens have a chance at a new lease on the season. But are all the tools there for him to repair what has been broken?
The New System
After general manager Marc Bergevin’s offseason, the Habs were seen as a team built for the playoffs. He added experience, size, grit and defensive players to his depth forwards in Corey Perry and Micheal Frolik, as well as on the back end with Joel Edmundson. The lineup now had five players who had won the Stanley Cup.
Now with Ducharme at the helm, fans can expect to see a team playing a style similar to what they saw in the first 10 games of the season. His teams in the QMJHL, as well as both editions of Team Canada in the World Junior Championships, employed a defenceman as a fourth skater while on the rush to create confusion defensively, generating more odd-man rushes. To do this, the Canadiens would need to take advantage of any puck-moving defensemen (PMD) they have on the roster.
Currently, the Habs boast Jeff Petry as their premiere PMD but could employ Brett Kulak and rookie Alexander Romanov in those roles. This could provide three pairings for Ducharme to add to the team’s offensive attack. Doing this would mean breaking up the team’s current top pair of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, which should also help defensively, as they’ve been slow to recover at times due to fatigue and foot speed. It’s not as though the defensive defencemen on the roster are playing that poorly; it’s just that there is a lack of balance on the blue line when it comes to defencemen that can start the transition effectively for a team built to create off the transition game.
Adding that physicality and size to the blue line, when it already had that aspect available in each pairing, came at a cost. It didn’t allow the roster or cap space to pursue a puck-moving defenceman who could quarterback a power play. One solution that could help the Canadiens improve in all three zones is to make a deal with the Nashville Predators for Mattias Ekholm.
Bergevin and Predators GM David Poile have a history of making trades. Due to the Preds’ slow start and the upcoming expansion draft, there is speculation that Ekholm is available for trade.
While Ekholm isn’t an ideal PP quarterback, he is a good PMD who can play a very effective defensive game. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, the left-handed defender has the size Bergevin covets, even though he uses it more for reach and as leverage in one-on-one battles than he does for physical play or laying big hits. He is rarely found out of position, and he has a good shot, as well as good vision to get pucks through traffic to generate offence at five-on-five and on the PP.
An added bonus is the experience Ekholm has playing with Weber in Nashville. There would be much less of an adjustment period for him to integrate into the Canadiens due to that familiarity. That would be necessary as any deal bringing a player in from a team based in the United States would mean that player, according to Canadian Federal regulations, must complete a 14-day quarantine with two negative tests before they can integrate into the team or the community. This added layer would likely mean any deal would likely need to occur much sooner than the actual deadline to allow that player to play in all 13 games the Habs have after the 12 April deadline.
Any trade that brings in Ekholm’s $3.75 million contract for this season and next must have salary going back to Nashville, especially with the Canadiens only having $1.38 million in cap space available at the deadline (as of 27, Feb.).
The Predators window is closing, so they will be looking at adding picks and prospects to bolster their future. Poile likely doesn’t want to admit defeat this early into the season. But if things continue to go south, as the Predators remain at the bottom of the Central Division, a decision on a shakeup will be needed soon. The Canadiens are also in need of a shakeup and have assets to help Nashville.
Bergevin has several depth players at forward and on defence. Up front, Joel Armia and even Arturri Lehkonen could be available in a deal for Ekholm. With Perry and Frolik, the Habs have the forward depth to replace one of them in the bottom six. Ideally, Bergevin would convince Poile to take on a defenceman, clearing space on the roster for Ekholm to fill. The nearest in cap value and term is Chiarot, with his $3.5 million cap hit for this year and next. This provides Nashville a defenceman that they could leave exposed for the NHL Expansion Draft to be held this offseason and distract from some of their depth they’ve been developing.
Depth forwards, even those of Lehkonen’s value or depth defence would not be enough. Bergevin will need to add a high pick, even as high as a first-round pick, as well as a prospect. With the Habs laundry list of up-and-coming defensive prospects, not all will be able to be signed. It may be time to sacrifice one to make room for others to develop, as well as help the NHL roster now. Prospects such as Jordan Harris, Mattias Norlinder and Kayden Guhle have a head start over names like Jayden Struble and Gianni Fairbrother. Bergevin will need to make a decision early on this group of left-handed defenders; one of the second group could be enticing enough in the right package.
The cost of adding a quality defenceman on an affordable contract that can fill a top pairing role like Ekholm will be expensive. With that said, it’s a cost Bergevin must entertain if he is to fill a glaring need on his blue line to help this roster take a large step forward to making a playoff push not just for this season but also next. The Canadiens must be serious buyers if they hope to become truly competitive with the top teams of their division.