The Montreal Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin approach the 2020 NHL All-Star break facing a difficult decision. Do they look to add pieces in the hopes they can make the playoffs or do they sell off pieces to add picks and prospects to continue the retool ahead of the NHL draft being held in Montreal?
As of Jan. 17, the Canadiens had played 49 games and earned 49 points. As of that date, the final wild card position belongs to the Philadelphia Flyers who have 56 points in 48 games played. Seven points doesn’t seem like an insurmountable deficit; however, the Habs have to leapfrog four teams. That’s a task that requires five teams to have significant losing streaks to allow the Canadiens to climb back into the race, a scenario not expected due to the parity in today’s NHL.
Will They Be Buyers?
Despite the addition of Marco Scandella early in the new year, a proven top-four, left-handed defender is still desperately needed. That type of player would cost significant picks and prospects, especially if there is term remaining on his contract. That price would mean mortgaging the future, something Bergevin has stated he will not do.
“I will not mortgage the future of this team just hoping to make the playoffs,”from ‘Canadiens’ pantry is full, but fans grow hungry for playoff run,’ Montreal Gazette, 01/02/2020.
In this scenario, it is more likely that Bergevin will simply allow the season to unfold without any significant additions. By the All-Star Break, the expectation in Montreal is to see the return of four top-nine players off the Injured Reserve (IR) list in Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia (returned Jan 17 versus the Philadelphia Flyers), Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher. That alone means significant additions, yet they are likely not enough.
Who’s for Sale?
The likely scenario facing the Canadiens is being several positions outside of the final wild card playoff position. If that were the case, that would likely make the Habs sellers by the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, Feb 24. That position would benefit the Canadiens, not only as they gain futures, but also as it opens up roles and ice time for the team’s youth.
The obvious players to on the market would be those who are upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFAs) or even restricted free agents (RFAs).
Ilya Kovalchuk is the first name that comes to mind. In his first seven games, he has provided a point-per-game pace of three goals and four assists while playing almost 20 minutes per game in a top-six role.
While fans love to see star names on the ice, his level of play could fetch a draft pick, possibly even as high as a second-round pick from a contender. If traded, his ice time and role would be replaced by Gallagher upon his return.
Scandella is the next rental that may bring in interest. His addition has been beneficial to a blue line that is having difficulties defending. He has helped steady the left side as the Habs’ penalty kill (PK) has risen from a woeful 74% without him to an impressive 91.7% rate in the games since he has been a Canadien. Also, the Montreal native can be seen as an insurance policy for the blue line just in case Alexander Romanov decides not to sign an NHL contract for next season. Scandella is likely to remain as a rental player, and possibly re-sign for next season.
Other Pending UFAs
The remaining upcoming UFA rentals aren’t household names. Keith Kinkaid was able to net a fifth-round pick for the New Jersey Devils last trade deadline. However, as he is languishing in the American Hockey League with an .894 save percentage, it’s unlikely he would attract any trade calls. Nate Thompson, on the other hand, has been a solid fourth line addition to the Canadiens.
His nine points in 49 games won’t excite many, yet his defensive acumen and his 54.1% faceoff win rate will attract attention from contenders looking for quality depth and role players. Losing either one won’t affect the Canadiens’ roster as one is in the minors and the other can be replaced on the ice by Jordan Weal, or a call up of Lukas Vejdemo.
Restricted Free Agent Options
Nick Cousins is an upcoming RFA who may attract attention, as well. He has provided what was advertised: a gritty undersized forward with speed who will give an honest effort. His usage in the lineup and on the power play has caused some complaints in Habs nation, but this has more to do with the injuries than coach Claude Julien wanting to showcase the player. When the team is healthy, he is a bottom-six winger. His fourth line ice time could be redistributed to players such as Dale Weise or Matthew Peca whose contracts are also ending but will likely not attract any trade attention.
While Bergevin is well known for playing small ball with minor trades during the season, it may be the time he steps to the plate and goes for extra bases in trying to land significant assets to add to the team’s “retool.”
Fans will immediately think of Carey Price and Shea Weber as trade chips in a seller’s market. That idea has been publicly shot down by Bergevin in a discussion with TSN’s Pierre Lebrun, saying he has no interest in trading either Price or Weber. Lebrun said that Bergevin was not even willing to listen to other general managers who want to make an offer for them.
This leaves two aging yet productive players who could fetch excellent returns in a deadline-day deal in Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry. Both players are nearing the ends of their contracts, are going to need raises and, unfortunately for Habs fans, are on the wrong side of 30 to be kept long term as they don’t fit the age of the current core group that is developing in Montreal.
Tatar is a two-way, 29-year-old winger who is under contract until the end of 2020-21 season for a team-friendly $4.8 million. He’s coming off a career high season of 58 points and is following it up this season with a year that may eclipse that career high, as he is on pace for 74 points. As scoring is always at a premium down the stretch, that level of production in a defensively responsible player with term remaining could have rival GMs offering Bergevin significant assets, such as a first-round pick and/or high-end prospects. Having the term remaining allows a team two playoff runs with him in the lineup, improving the return.
Losing him would cause significant pain in the short term as he has been an important player in Julien’s system, playing in all situations. However, it would open up room for Drouin’s return and more ice time for Ryan Poehling as well.
Petry is on pace this season to match his career high of 46 points while playing almost 24 minutes per game in all situations. But, Petry will be a more difficult decision to make if he is to be moved. The 32-year-old, right-handed defender has no one in the Habs system who can step into his role, even temporarily. Moving him would leave a massive hole in the lineup for the remainder of the season. However, if he were moved, being under contract until the end of 2020-21 while making only $5.5 million, along with his impact on a team, makes him a valuable trade chip.
Petry is another player that could fetch a first-round draft pick from a rival GM, maybe a high-end prospect as well if a bidding war could be created. The trade returns of both Petry and Tatar could help the retool take a massive leap forward if Bergevin does sell. It is one thing he has been known to do well as seen when he was able to sell Max Pacioretty, Weise and Tomas Fleischmann for excellent returns.
Is it June Yet?
The current lineup is filled with character players who will all compete as hard as they can to climb back into the playoff picture. It’s unlikely management will roll over on the season in mid-January. While it seems most likely he will sell some pieces at the deadline, fans will need to remain patient to see what direction Bergevin will choose.