After having an unexpected 96-point campaign last season, Montreal Canadiens fans were hopeful to see their team have a regular season that would earn them a ticket into the playoffs this season. However, a year filled with injuries, underperformance and a lack of depth to offset those problems left the Canadiens sitting in the bottom tier of the NHL.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has repeatedly said his goal is to make the playoffs and then see what happens, but at this point, with a team missing so many key parts to be a contender, fans aren’t happy with just making the playoffs. Many fans are also unhappy the team has only one first-round playoff exit to show for the last five years.
The fanbase is at a crossroads, and so are the Canadiens under Bergevin. He must now decide if he will continue on the path of grafting minor pieces to the current roster hoping for a healthy season, or if he will go all-in on rebuilding by moving out the unrestricted free agents and players in their 30s entering the last years of their deals.
The Ice Has Been Broken
On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 2020, six days before the trade deadline of Feb. 24, Bergevin made his first move to indicate his direction this deadline. He traded Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues indicating he will be a seller this season. The original price to bring Scandella in was a 2020 fourth-round draft pick.
Even Bergevin’s detractors, despite the Canadiens retaining 50 percent of Scandella’s $4 million salary, must admit that flipping him for a 2020 second-round selection and a conditional 2021 fourth-round pick – the conditions being if the Blues win two playoff rounds or if Scandella re-signs – was excellent asset management.
Bergevin’s first thought, however, was to try and extend Scandella. That decision does demonstrate he is still trying to hedge his bets and ice as competitive a team as he possibly can next season in the hopes to compete for a playoff position.
Who Should Move?
A case can be made to keep these players, but, now that the Canadiens are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and the deadline market is clearly a seller’s market, Ilya Kovalchuk must be moved for assets. Signing Kovalchuk was a no-risk, high-reward transaction – now that Kovalchuk’s production is starting to taper off, it may be time to flip him for the best offer they can attract.
Another player that could help the Canadiens retool take a leap forward if traded is Tomas Tatar. Originally a throw-in as part of the Max Pacioretty trade, Tatar produced a career-high of 58 points last season, and is on pace to break that career-high this season. His value is at an all-time high and could net the Habs a return of a top NHL-ready prospect. Adrian Dater, a Colorado Avalanche insider, has openly mentioned the interest in Tatar by the Avalanche.
Tatar would undoubtedly help a very good Avalanche team make a deep playoff run, also, the Avalanche have assets that would be of great help to the Canadiens in the long term. Assets like a first-round pick, in a year where Montreal is hosting the NHL Draft, along with NHL-ready prospects such as Martin Kaut, Tyson Jost and Conor Timmins, are available. In this market, a top prospect and a high pick would be needed. Colorado having over $6 million in salary-cap space means the Canadiens won’t necessarily have to retain salary on Tatar’s contract or take on a roster player to even out the cap hits.
Finally, despite not having an immediate replacement for Jeff Petry. Bergevin must make the difficult decision to get a maximum return for him now as there is no guarantee Petry would want to sign an extension in Montreal as he enters the final year of his six-year, $5.5 million AAV deal. A plan must be in place for eventually moving on from Petry – having one season without him is the price paid to take advantage of a seller’s market.
Pick a Lane
Bergevin has been straddling the fence these last two seasons on his plan. He has called it a retool, and it does look like he’s taking a slow and steady path to building up to becoming a winner again. However, as the Canadiens are on pace to miss the playoffs again for the fourth time in the last five seasons, what little patience the fan base had has worn very thin. They’re demanding a clear plan.
So far, Bergevin has sold a veteran defenceman, but only because he didn’t choose to sign an extension. That doesn’t demonstrate the GM is ready to go all-in on being a seller and acquire future assets to help the retool. If he can move a few more pieces to take advantage of the current market, he may be able to add the high-end youth needed to provide the building blocks to building a winner.