The Montreal Canadiens’ season is now done. They surprised most when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round. They then gave the Philadelphia Flyers fits in a hard-fought six-game series. The play of the young centers gave many hope for the future. Stating that there is hope isn’t celebrating yet another first-round exit (from ‘Canadiens’ first-round exit shouldn’t really be celebrated,’ Montreal Gazette, 23 August 2020); it’s acknowledging that the team as it is built is incomplete, but has many quality prospects on their way up.
The responsibility to fill those needs falls to general manager Marc Bergevin. He will need to find a way to take advantage of the window the few remaining years of high-level play that Carey Price and Shea Weber provide. What could that do for the Canadiens on the right wing?
What is Already in Place?
The Canadiens’ depth on the wings is not equal – the right side is in dire need of being addressed. Currently, the Habs boast only one true top-six winger on the right wing, Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher, a proven 30-goal player, is the engine that drives the Canadiens’ forward group. He’s not the biggest, fastest or strongest player on the ice at any time. It is his work ethic, which is second to none, that gives him an edge. He never quits on a play, and always gives his full measure.
He’s one of the few players who consistently drives to the net, gives goalies and opposing defencemen fits, digs for rebounds, works for positioning for tip-ins and generally agitates. He is entering the last year of a team-friendly six-year contract that pays $3.75 million per season on average (AAV). Bergevin will need to find a way to retain the 28-year-old Gallagher.
Armia, the former Buffalo Sabres’ first-round pick, has been a revelation for the Canadiens’ bottom-six since his arrival in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets in the summer of 2018. His ability to use his size along the boards, on the cycle and to retain possession is a rarity in the Canadiens lineup, and one that needs to be held onto.
The 27-year-old is entering the last season of a two-year deal that paid him $2.7 million AAV. His versatility is a valuable asset as Armia has been used on the power play (PP), the penalty kill (PK) as well as up and down the lineup when needed. He also provides fellow Finn Jesperi Kotkaniemi mentorship in his native language which is helpful as he eases into his role as a top-six center in the NHL.
Some may argue for Max Domi to be shifted to the wing and improve the depth on the right side. That being said, there is no guarantee he would play the right side regularly or that he would accept being moved from the center to the wing.
What Prospects are Coming?
While the Canadiens finally have some quality prospects on the way, the current problem is that none of the right wing prospects are viewed as NHL ready at this time. Patience will be an issue for those wanting the team to add now, as well, any contract terms longer than three years for anyone brought in could become a problem if management is relying on this wave of youth to fill the roster with inexpensive talent in the very near future.
The Canadiens’ 2018 second-round selection, Ylonen signed his entry-level contract (ELC) this past summer. In his draft year, he was viewed as a first-round talent that was too much of a perimeter player, relying on his shot from the boards or on the rush on the wing to beat goaltenders instead of attacking the slot in front of the net, where many NHL goals are scored.
Since then, the son of former NHLer Juha Ylonen spent two seasons in the Finnish Liiga as the youngest member of the Pelicans while being one of the offensive leaders for his team. During that time, he worked on his positioning to learn to attack the center of the larger European ice surfaces. He will now spend time adjusting to the North American style and rink size. He is expected to play an entire season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket before he can compete for an NHL roster spot.
Cole Caufield, the Habs’ top prospect, lived up to that billing in his rookie season with the Wisconsin Badgers. He won the Big Ten Conference’s scoring title as well as Rookie of the Year honors. Caufield did have some difficulties at the 2020 World Junior Championships scoring only one goal. However, Caufield will have a fresh start on that team as USA Hockey fired head coach Scott Sandelin immediately following the 2020 tournament, that is, if he were to play in the 2021 tournament. As talented as Caufield is, he will not be ready to impact the NHL roster for at least another season or two.
Trade Option – Jesse Puljujarvi
One method to improve the roster immediately is to go the trade route. The Canadiens lack size and skill on the wings and those two aspects should be a focus for management to support the young core. Bergevin is well known for making deals to take on players who need a second chance. One such player that would fit the Habs need is Jesse Puljujarvi.
Puljujarvi left the NHL to play in Europe after demanding a trade from the Edmonton Oilers, which may have been the best step for his development. His NHL production doesn’t stand out (17 goals, 20 assists in 132 games played), especially for a former fourth-overall draft pick, but his offensive numbers in Finland before and after his time with the Oilers point to untapped offensive potential (13 goals, 28 points in 53 games in 2015-16; 24 goals, 29 assists in 56 games in 2019-20). With the size and speed that the Habs need on the wing, perhaps a second chance in a new market is what Puljujarvi needs to reach his NHL potential.
The cost to bring him in would be more than most would pay for what has been a third-line NHL player thus far. It would be a gamble, but Puljujarvi would be well surrounded by a duo of young centers that could help him offensively, a quality captain in Weber and many of Puljujarvi’s fellow Finns, which could ease him back into an NHL dressing room.
Bergevin has three second-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, some young players such as Ryan Poehling, Josh Brook or Noah Juulsen that may not crack the lineup. Also, there are some veteran options on the wings such as Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen or Jordan Weal that he could use to build a deal with Edmonton that could help both teams with their roster needs.
The safer route would be to wait for unrestricted free agency to open and make shorter-term offers to established players to fill the need on the wing. These are just two options for the purpose of this exercise, indeed there are several others who could also be good fits on the Habs. These two were selected for their skill as shooters to help the top-six and on the PP. Also, with both players listed being Russian, this could help rookie defenceman Alexander Romanov in his integration to the NHL next season.
There is no shortage of commentary asking for Kovalchuk to return to the Canadiens. It was no doubt he was a popular player among fans and players alike, however, at 37 years old, he is in decline. While the 6-foot-3 winger did provide 13 points in his 22 games played with the Canadiens, he provided only one assist with the Washington Capitals in their eight playoff games.
He may be the more attractive free agent as he would be willing to sign a short-term offer with a salary based mostly on performance bonuses, leaving room to spend in other areas of the roster. But he may not be the best fit for the Canadiens’ needs.
Another option is versatile Russian winger Evgenii Dadonov. He quietly put together three straight 25-goal seasons with a career-high 70 points in the 2018-19 season. He lacks the size the Canadiens require on the wings, but is comfortable playing on either wing. What he does add is an excellent one-timer from the wings, a weapon the Habs are missing on their PP to provide a second shooting option instead of the current over-reliance on Weber’s point shot.
The Florida Panthers may decide to move on from him now after his quiet playoffs of one assist in four playoff games. That may lower his value on the open market, or it may prompt him to take less term. Add that to the Canadiens’ surprising play this past postseason, and perhaps Montreal has become a more attractive destination for free agents.
Bergevin is in a difficult situation. Some fans have hope again and want him to make moves to improve now. Other fans see another season of failure after losing in the first round and want him to make moves now to fix the roster. The rebuild has gone from a team that finished 28th overall, to a season where they just missed the playoffs when they should have made it, then to a season of making the playoffs when they had no business being in the mix. Yet once there, they showed they could compete if they had more depth.
Bergevin will need to make some improvements to turn the Canadiens from a playoff bubble team to one that can advance in the postseason. He has the benefit of a young core, the cap space, 14 draft picks in 2020, and a coveted prospect pool with prospects at multiple positions. He will need to address multiple areas, but will this offseason be the one he makes bold moves to take that leap forward in his plan?