The Montreal Canadiens under general manager Marc Bergevin are on pace to miss the playoffs for the third season in a row and the fourth time in the last five seasons. In that time, Bergevin was given a second mandate by Canadiens owner Geoff Molson to reset the team and build a new core that could contend.
Since then, the Canadiens prospect pool went from being empty to becoming one of the top groups in the NHL. So, Bergevin’s stated goal of building through the draft seems to have borne some fruit.
The Next Step
Now that the prospect pool has been rebuilt, it is time for the retool to take the next step. That includes deciding which prospects the team wants to sign and retain as well as targeting veteran players to be added to the roster that will allow them to return to the playoffs and compete long term.
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It’s an opportune time for Bergevin to take a step forward in the retool plan. The team’s salary cap structure is stable with 16 players under contract and with anywhere from $20 to $24 million available in cap space. This flexibility will play a key role in how this team is able to move forward. Space must be managed properly to allow for a contender to grow into place. Bergevin must manage to identify and sign his young core.
By identifying them early, he could get them signed to long term deals for more team-friendly cap hits than if he waited for them to all reach their prime production years. Doing this, in the long term plan, will allow the necessary cap space to find, sign or trade for complementary players that can be added to the young core to complete building the team.
With the NHL Entry Draft scheduled to be held in Montreal this June, the team is poised to use this as a backdrop to take that next step and do so in a spectacular way to add to the spectacle and build up excitement for a franchise that has lost its lustre to its fanbase in recent years.
The Tools Needed
While it is time for the team to take that next step, it will need the right tools to do just that. As mentioned, Bergevin has more than enough cap space and flexibility at his disposal to make additions while retaining his entire core. That is only one tool, another is having the assets required to attract the interest of his rival GMs.
Fortunately, Bergevin has several of those types of assets as well. Mentioned already is an enviable prospect pool with players at every position that could attract interest. Teams building through the draft reach a point when they have too many picks – the Habs have reached that point as there is no possible way to sign all of their prospects no matter how they stagger the signings.
They hold 14 draft picks in 2020 and 10 more in 2021. Bergevin also has several roster players that could become expendable due to the emergence of some young players, such as Max Domi, Phillip Danault and Victor Mete, to name a few.
With the cap space and the assets mentioned above at Bergevin’s disposal, what could he target to help this team make a leap forward in this process and become a playoff team, possibly even a dark-horse Stanley Cup contender?
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Despite the Canadiens being in the top half of the NHL in scoring by rolling four lines of forwards to score by committee, there is still a need for an elite forward who can help change the game. If the standings remain unchanged, Montreal would be projected to be in the top 10 in this year’s draft. This draft class could provide the Habs an opportunity to add a young player that could grow into that need in a short time.
The larger need that can’t be found internally would be defence. Bergevin hinted at one piece in his interview with Mathias Brunet of La Presse saying (translated from French)
“If there is an opportunity this summer, we will consider sacrificing an element from our offence this summer for reinforcements on defence”Marc Bergevin
It is not hard to see that Bergevin can package together several quality assets to target that top pairing left-handed defenceman to pair with team captain Shea Weber that he has been desperately needing for several years. Using one of his prospects, a pick and choosing from a position of depth such as the center position, Bergevin can focus on teams looking for any or all of added depth, scoring or cap relief.
June is when every team will be on the lookout to make trades. Bergevin has done very well to ensure he wins nearly every trade he has made thus far. Yet, that conservative and patient approach has not translated to on-ice success as a team. He will need to be less concerned with the optics of winning a trade and focus on being willing to lose a trade if it means it eventually allows the team to be better on the ice by trading from a position of strength to fill in the holes in the lineup that complete the roster.
Two options that might be available are Dallas and Minnesota.
In Dallas, there is a team that has defensive depth but lacks scoring depth sitting in the bottom third in offence. They may be tempted to add what the Canadiens can offer. The Habs, however, would do well in targeting Esa Lindell. Lindell is a big-bodied defender who can skate well enough to handle top opposition forwards. He owns a heavy shot and can launch the transition using a good first pass in transition or carry the puck up the ice. He lacks a flamboyance that excites fans but has the skill sets that make a coach rely heavily on him to get the job done in all three zones. At 25 years of age and under contract until 2025 for a cap value of $5.8 million, it would take quite a bit to convince Jim Nill to move out a key top-four defender.
In Minnesota, under new GM Billy Guerin, the Wild are a team beginning their transition into a retooling phase. They could be motivated to move Jonas Brodin, a smooth-skating puck-moving defenceman who can log heavy minutes in all situations. His ability to defend and launch the transition game would allow the Habs, a team built on speedy forwards, to take advantage of his strengths, especially when Weber is patrolling the other side of the ice playing his more traditional shutdown role.
The 26-year-old Brodin is under contract for one more year at $4.166 million and would make an excellent addition to the Habs. His value is lower than that of Lindell’s but will still cost Bergevin significant assets to acquire.
Being given a second mandate by Molson has allowed Bergevin the job security to be methodical in his approach to this retooling plan, however, that patience can only be stretched so far. The Canadiens fan base grows more impatient and restless with every missed playoff and is second-guessing the approach their GM is taking. It is time for Bergevin to take the next step in his plan and use the assets he painstakingly added to push this team into the next phase and become relevant again.