Over the course of the previous two weeks, the Montreal Canadiens have twice played the St. Louis Blues, the defending Stanley Cup champions. It may be easy to forget that the Blues went through several years of struggles before reaching their turning point as a franchise. After the full-season lockout in 2004-05, they missed the playoffs five out of six times before finally returning as a consistent playoff team since the 2011-12 season.
The Canadiens are currently in a comparable stretch of difficult seasons, only making the playoffs once in the past four years. That’s why they are in a position to build their team in a similar way the Blues did and to take some inspiration from the most recent champions.
What the Blues Did Well
Firstly, the Blues should be proud of their ability to draft and develop their players. Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron and Robert Thomas are all players the Blues drafted in the first round since 2007 that won the Cup in 2019. That’s not to mention Joel Edmundson, Jordan Binnington, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn in later rounds.
Secondly, the Blues made a few great trades that aided them greatly in their run to the Cup. The best example is that of Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Other acquisitions through trade include Brayden Schenn, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Steen and Carl Gunnarsson. Most importantly, the Blues did not have to sacrifice key assets in these trades. The main reason for that was the depth in their lineup; they had enough quality players whom they drafted and developed that they were able to trade lesser prospects.
Lastly, the Blues recognized the organization’s level of talent and made the moves accordingly. The trades that sent Kevin Shattenkirk and Paul Stastny away are two examples of management understanding that their lineup was not destined for a long playoff run and that certain players had to go to build something stronger. Trading away those players led to the eventual acquisitions of Thomas and Schenn.
What the Canadiens Can Do Similarly
Compare that lineup to the Canadiens’ and only Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lehkonen, Victor Mete, Kasperi Kotkaniemi and Carey Price are draftees currently playing regularly with the NHL club. That is considerably fewer players compared to the Blues’ 14. However, the current selection of draft prospects is perhaps looking the most promising it has in years.
The last three Canadiens drafts, in particular, may reverse the trend of bad drafting and developing habits from previous years. In addition to Kotkaniemi (2018), Montreal has drafted Ryan Poehling in 2017 and Cole Caufield in 2019. Add that to the fact that the team still has some of their best selections from later rounds in the system support the argument that the Canadiens currently have one of the best prospect pools in the league.
Trading is another area where the Canadiens are improving. Earlier on in his general manager career, Marc Bergevin rarely made trades for higher-end players, often making deals for depth. This was one point of criticism towards him, part of a series of mixed reviews with his trades. When he did make the splashier trade, many criticized those as poor decisions. When the Canadiens made a trade to cover up one weakness in the lineup, it would open up a hole in another.
That’s why the Canadiens should look to their better trades for inspiration. Acquiring Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar in exchange for former captain Max Pacioretty has shown immediate dividends. A trade for Phillip Danault in 2016 still remains arguably Bergevin’s best trade, as is the one for Jeff Petry. It comes down to strong pro and amateur scouting.
Like the Blues, the Canadiens are also beginning to better understand how to better judge their own talent. Last season, they may have felt the temptation to make a trade for short-term gain considering they were in the fight for a playoff spot until the very end. This mentality will be important in making the right moves and the right times from now on.
The Canadiens’ Next Moves
A couple of key trades can make a difference in the Canadiens’ quest to becoming contenders. More specifically, the left side of the defence corps needs a serious upgrade as it is the biggest area of need. The Canadiens believe the same as well, as they drafted in high quantity left-shot defencemen in the 2019 Draft.
If they can make a trade for a top left-shot defenceman, that would move things forward for the Canadiens more quickly. Philadelphia Flyers defender Shayne Gostisbehere is an attractive option, while San Jose Sharks’ Marc-Édouard Vlasic’s name currently floats in rumours linking him to the Canadiens. Even if Bergevin is one of the NHL’s most active general managers, he should not be too hasty.
The key for the Canadiens is to properly develop their draft picks to ensure that they make an impact in their lineup or to trade them for elite established players. Everything else will fall into place, possibly more quickly than most people anticipate.