There is no shortage of debate among the Montreal Canadiens fan base about the issues facing the center depth or the left side of the defence, but one issue the Habs may have an easier time addressing is their wing depth. Wingers tend to be less expensive when it comes to signing them or trading for them.
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With the Canadiens’ need for added scoring, adding more goals deeper into the lineup can make the difference between making the playoffs or being in the draft lottery yet again, a situation that could spell the end of the line in Montreal for general manager Marc Bergevin.
Currently, the right side of the Habs lineup is the one in most need of help. After team sparkplug and proven 30-goal scorer Brendan Gallagher, the right side is seriously lacking a top-six punch.
Gallagher is entering the final year of his six-year deal that averages $3.75 million and he is without a doubt looking at a hefty raise. Bergevin will be hard-pressed to get another team-friendly contract like that one. Beyond the production by Gallagher, his never-quit attitude and full-throttle work ethic not only have made him a fan favorite but also a key leadership piece in the Canadiens dressing room.
At 26 years old, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Joel Armia was having himself a career year in goals and points. His 16 goals in 58 games this year had him on pace for 22 goals over a full season. That level of production isn’t ideal for a top-six winger, but his puck-possession style and size make him invaluable to the Canadiens lineup. Entering the final year of his contract means it becomes imperative for Bergevin to work on retaining him as well as Gallagher.
Added Touch of Youth
Bergevin has been talking about building using the draft and relying on developing the youth, Artturi Lehkonen is most definitely one player that fits into that plan. He is a highly versatile player that head coach Claude Julien relies on heavily to provide the defensive conscious of any line he is on. He can be relied upon to play defensively and on the penalty kill.
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Despite his low offensive number, Lehkonen is an advanced stats darling as his style of play generates possession and offensive chances that should make him a perennial 20-goal scorer, however, he lacks the finish of a top-six player. Another issue is that the left-handed Lehkonen is more effective playing on his strong wing.
Jesse Ylonen has just arrived in Montreal, signing his entry-level contract (ELC) only in the last month. After spending two years since being drafted developing in Finland, the expectation is for him to play a season in Laval before being NHL ready. However, the lack of right-wing depth gives Ylonen an opening to making the NHL roster out of camp if he can prove he’s ready.
If a top-nine position is available to him, it may be a good development step, however, there can be no prediction on his offensive numbers as a rookie. That’s an issue for a team in need of goals from its depth to compete for a playoff spot.
Some fans may point to Cole Caufield as being a solution, however, with him committing to the University of Wisconsin for another season in the NCAA, he will not be able to help offensively until the 2021-22 season at the earliest.
If Bergevin wants to have a more predictable or reliable addition to the top nine, he will have to go shopping in the unrestricted free agent (UFA) pool. One trap Bergevin must avoid is overpaying for a UFA, especially on the wings. He will need to budget for re-signing key players over the next two offseasons, but also overpayment on a winger is not the best option for any team.
Trades are always one route that can help, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting loss of revenue seems to have caused the salary cap to remain flat at $81.5 million instead of the previously expected $84 million. One name that is rumored to be all but assured to join the Habs for next season is Ilya Kovalchuk. Eric Engels at Sportsnet confirms this in his last mailbag:
Based on my information, it’s all but assured Kovalchuk will be back in Montreal come 2020-21Eric Engels
Is it any wonder Bergevin is willing to bring Kovalchuk back next season? This isn’t to say he didn’t play well or can’t provide the Canadiens with solid top nine play and act as an added power-play weapon. When the depth solutions in the system are not quite ready for the NHL, it is imperative that the GM finds a UFA who he can rely on. But at 36 years old, it’s clear he is on his last NHL legs, not exactly an ideal long-term addition or a high-end free agent. That being said, he does provide an added Russian voice that can ease Alex Romanov into North America.
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One other option that could be a long term fit for the Habs, is 28-year-old Tyler Toffoli. If he decides to test the UFA market, it is almost certain Bergevin would inquire about the cost of adding him to the lineup. Toffoli checks all the boxes for the Habs – he’s experienced, having won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, and he’s fast enough to play the speed game which can help the Canadiens transition game.
He is a proven 20 to 30-goal scorer, something the Habs can definitely use in their top six. He plays well defensively which guarantees that head coach Claude Julien would rely on him in all situations. Toffoli could also help the Habs anemic PP as he could easily use his shot in the high slot, replacing the role Armia had filled last season.
Its clear Bergevin has his work cut out for him this summer. Despite his concerted efforts to build through the draft, most of his additions are still developing and aren’t ready to fill their top potentials. With this next season’s goal seeming to be making the playoffs, he will have to use his deep prospect pool and the truckload of draft picks to make trades to fill important holes in the lineup. The salary cap space he’s been careful at not spending over the last few seasons is now an important tool in adding some free agent help. With the lack of right-wing depth, the cap space is the best recourse in adding some scoring depth.