After a 4-3-2 start to the 2019-20 season, the Montreal Canadiens are basically at about where most expected them to be. Their schedule, while not being hectic, has seen them face some very good teams including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and even the Buffalo Sabres, who are off to their annual hot start.
Yet what has been most striking about these first eight games of the season, has been the Habs’ lack of legitimate star power. Sure, Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi are off to good starts, and Jeff Petry has been a stalwart on the blueline, but this team lacks a true game-breaker, a player who can single-handily take over a game.
While these players don’t grow on trees, they are out there, and can be had for the right price. The Canadiens are stocked full of prospects and draft picks, with twelve picks in the upcoming draft (eight of them in the first four rounds) which is being held in la belle province this June. Many respected analysts have hailed Montreal’s prospect pool which includes Nick Suzuki, Ryan Poehling, Alexander Romanov and Cayden Primeau as one of the best in the entire league.
General manager Marc Bergevin has always preached his “build through the draft” philosophy and has been very reluctant to part with a high-pick or “A-level” prospects in his tenure in Montreal. The last time the Habs parted with a pick and prospect to get help in the now was during the 2013 trade deadline, when Bergevin acquired Thomas Vanek for a second-round pick along with then-touted prospect Sebastian Collberg.
Though that trade was a pure rental with Vanek departing at season’s end, Bergevin may want to look at making a similar move for a player with more term, so that he can help for seasons to come. The reason for this? The Canadiens are paying a combined $18.357 million for the next seven seasons to two players: captain Shea Weber and goaltender Carey Price. While they both may still be worth these wages, if the first seven games of the season are any indication, they are both going to have to seriously step up their play.
A notorious slow-starter, Price has begun this season as he has many in the past, leaving fans clamoring for more. Though he hasn’t necessarily been bad, or the person to blame for any of the Habs losses this season, he surely hasn’t played like a $10.5 million man. Price is paid like a superstar, and therefore expectations are naturally quite high for the 32-year-old netminder.
He’s expected to steal games for this team, and so far, he hasn’t done that at all. His 2.68 goals-against average and .912 save percentage simply aren’t good enough to justify the contract. For instance, in the game against the Lightning, the Canadiens were down 2-1 in the second period after giving up the early go-ahead goal to Steven Stamkos. Tampa entered the zone and Tyler Johnson got a shot away from the slot that beat Price cleanly. This a puck that a “superstar” must stop, and it really put the game out of reach for the Habs. Thankfully for Montreal, his last two starts against Minnesota and St. Louis saw him have strong outings, and hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.
The Habs’ captain and consensus No. 1 defenceman is tasked with a lot. Shea Weber plays on the No. 1 power-play and penalty-killing units, as well as the most minutes at even-strength out of any Montreal blueliner. Now 34 years old, the Canadiens may want to pull back Weber’s minutes in order to get the very best out of the veteran. Like Price, it’s not that he’s been outwardly bad or making egregious turnovers, it’s just the fact that his contract says he should be making more of a difference.
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One area where Weber is usually dynamite is the power play with his booming slap-shot. Yet this season seemingly more than others, teams are completely taking away his big shot, and Montreal seems to be forcing the puck to him even when covered or his shooting lanes are blocked. The power-play scheme has Weber in the “Alex Ovechkin” position just off the slot, but Montreal may want to re-evaluate his positioning or stop forcing the play to him so much.
Another way to get more out of Weber would be to cut down his penalty-killing time. While he’s arguably the team’s best option on that unit, it would be another way to cut down his overall minutes. Weber’s average ice time so far this season is 22:48, which is about 1:20 less than his career average.
This is a progressive step for a player who is aging and cannot do the same things he used to. Yet, many will argue that because he makes $7.85 million, he should still be the player he was when he first arrived in Montreal three seasons ago. While he does need to improve on the sample size we’ve seen so far this season, fans need to realize this is a player with a lot of miles on him.
Possible Trade Target
Superstars are very difficult to try and pry out of an organization. It’s just that simple. Teams generally try and lock them up to long-term deals as soon as they can. No trade is impossible though, heck, Wayne Gretzky was traded. But it does take something special to see one moved in a trade.
One name that has constantly been coming up in trade rumours early into this NHL season is Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn. With high expectations for this team, the Stars have fallen flat on their faces out of the gate, going 2-7-1 in their first 10 games. Benn has just one goal and three assists in that span, leaving much more to be desired. He’s a player at somewhat of a crossroads in his career.
He’s 30 years old and is under contract for five more years after this one, with a cap hit of $9.5 million. This is a pretty steep salary for a player off to a slow start this year, and who only had 53 points last season (his lowest total in an 82-game season). This can mean one of two things, either he’s headed for more decline and his contract could suddenly become untradeable, or he’s a player starving for a change of scenery.
If it’s the latter in this case, the Habs should consider putting together an offer for the power forward. It’ll surely take a roster player, a good prospect and a first-round pick – all elements that the Canadiens can provide. It would be risky, given the trend of Benn’s play going back to last season, but the rewards for a team starving for a “game-breaker” could be monumental should he embrace the change and find his game again.