As fans prepare to settle in to enjoy a modified 24-team playoff that includes the Montreal Canadiens as part of a play-in series, team management is looking ahead at the 2020-21 Montreal roster and the holes it needs to fill.
General manager (GM) Marc Bergevin will have a very busy summer ahead as the Habs hold 14 draft picks in the 2020 draft, and still need to fill gaps on the blue line and find added scoring in the top six.
The Canadiens are not ready to go all-in on trades for rentals or free agents in their thirties. However, part of the strategy should be to use their own cap space and target teams near the salary cap limits to offer sheet talented young players.
Or they can use their stable of picks and prospects as an incentive to trade instead of an offer sheet. Bergevin has proven he is willing to make an attempt with the rarely used offer sheet after making an offer to Sebastian Aho in the summer of 2019.
One glaring need for the Canadiens is on defense. The left side of the blue line is in dire need of a puck-moving defender that can log top-pairing minutes in all situations. While the signing of Alexander Romanov is hailed as a coup to assist with the depth on the left side and a possible partner for Shea Weber, he is not prepared to become that player yet.
There has been talk of a lack of size on the roster, but that isn’t the problem on the Habs’ blue line. The nine most-played defenders average 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds. There is also more than enough physicality with the likes of Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and even rookie Cale Fleury, who was able to add 102 hits in 21 games played.
The true need is to add a defenseman capable of defending in the “modern” NHL system. That is to say, a defenseman who relies on positioning, using a stick to close off passing lanes, mobility to close gaps and recover pucks, and then move the puck up the ice quickly to generate a team’s transition game. There are no players in the Canadiens’ system ready to take on such a role.
Vince Dunn of the St-Louis Blues is a prime target for Bergevin to offer sheet or, more likely, make a trade to acquire.
The 6-foot, 203-pound Dunn is a left-handed puck mover that fits the Habs’ needs on defense. He’s ideally suited to the new style of defenseman that teams covet. He’s extremely mobile and is able to keep his speed while changing directions, which allows him to keep close to attacking forwards, pressuring them to make mistakes where he then gains control of the puck. He excels at gaining and keeping control of the puck with a career Corsi For (CF%) of 55.1.
While he has only averaged just over 17 minutes per game so far in his three-year NHL career, he has gained invaluable experience playing for a contending franchise and winning a Stanley Cup with the Blues. He is also very capable of being a power play (PP) quarterback. He has excellent vision to set up teammates in high-percentage areas and also owns a good shot that forces defenders to respect his shot. This allows him to keep the penalty killers guessing and gain enough space to generate offence.
If an offer sheet isn’t used, it is possible to attempt a trade. The Blues will need to offload cap to make room to retain their captain, Alex Pietrangelo. If Bergevin were willing to offer the 2021 first-round pick and a prospect, as well as take on Jake Allen’s contract that has one year remaining at $4.35 million, he may be able to solve two issues simultaneously — a puck-moving defender and a reliable goaltender to ease Carey Price’s workload.
The Canadiens are developing a young core of forwards. Center depth has been an issue for decades but seems to have finally been given the attention it needs. While young centers such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki are developing and still have not reached their potentials, the hope is that together they will provide that one-two punch at center that can provide quality two-way play and offence that can compete against top opposition.
The issue overall for the Canadiens hasn’t been possession as they are one of the elite teams in the NHL in those categories. At five on five (5v5), the Canadiens rank second for CF% at 54.3 and they rank second in expected goals for (xGF%) at 54.01. Despite these elite numbers, the overall offence is only 13th in the NHL with 147 goals for. Where they fall flat is on overall talent as they lack a true shooting threat, especially on the PP.
When you take into account the lack of NHL-ready, right-wing depth, one name that could be a possible offer sheet target is Detroit Red Wings’ Anthony Mantha.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound winger has the size the team lacks up front, and also has the speed to play in the Canadiens’ transition game. His play on the PP is where his true value would be felt. His excellent shot would be a much needed weapon to modernize the team’s PP system. A successful PP is no longer just the old-school method of setting up a one timer from the point. Today, it is one that uses multiple shooters set up closer to the net that can provide an effective PP. The Canadiens currently lack a right-wing shooter that can match Mantha’s career shooting percentage of 12.4%.
While there is no lack of cap space for Detroit, the 25-year-old Quebec-native may still be a good offer sheet target. As Detroit is still in full rebuilding mode, GM Stevie Yzerman may be enticed to take on a flood of picks instead of matching a long-term, expensive contract for someone that may not fit in with his long-term plans. If that is not the case, Bergevin would then be forced to attempt to make a trade that would no doubt include a first-round selection, high-end prospects and possibly a roster player. Mantha would not come cheap, either in assets or in cap space.
Whether Bergevin uses an offer sheet or a trade to fill roster needs, he has his work cut out for him. The Canadiens’ fan base is rapidly losing patience with his retooling plan and demand to see the team do more than make it into a play-in series in the 24-team playoffs. They want to see their team take the next step to becoming a true Cup contender.
I have been a writer covering the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens for over 6 years. I am also currently a 27+ year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces