Every NHL roster has their weak spots. While some are better positioned than others, no general manager will say that the work to improve their team is over. The only options to improve a team when it struggles during the season are with an American Hockey League call-up or a trade. Sometimes a trade can really shake things up.
For example, in 2014 the New York Rangers needed a boost ahead of the playoffs and targeted diminutive forward Martin St. Louis. New York acquired St. Louis for long-time Ranger Ryan Callahan, a first-round pick and conditional second and seventh-round picks. The trade sparked the Blueshirts who finished second in the Metropolitan Division and made it to the Stanley Cup Final before losing in five games to the Los Angeles Kings. St. Louis picked up 15 points in 25 games and was arguably their best player during that run.
It’s been well documented that the Montreal Canadiens need a top four left-shot defenceman, and/or a game-breaking forward. While Victor Mete has played considerably well alongside Shea Weber, general manger Marc Bergevin would like another left option. He tried valiantly to sign solutions during the offseason. He signed forward Sebastian Aho to the first offer sheet in six years, only to have it matched by the Carolina Hurricanes a week later. Then, when he tried to sign left-handed defenceman Jake Gardiner, he lost to the Hurricanes again, as Gardiner opted for less money to play in the smaller market of Raleigh.
With lots of draft picks and a fully stocked cupboard of prospects, Bergevin should consider making a trade soon to improve his team. A few teams are off to horrible starts and may already be looking to sell off assets for futures. Here are a few possibilities:
The biggest unrestricted free agent heading into this summer, Taylor Hall is a former MVP who would instantly impact any team. When he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2016, it sparked a series of impactful roster moves by Devils GM Ray Shero over the past two-three seasons. This includes signing Wayne Simmonds and Will Butcher, trading for PK Subban and Nikita Gusev and drafting Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes first overall in 2017 and 2019, respectively. On paper, their roster should be at least good enough to make the playoffs, but if their start to this season is any indication, that won’t be happening.
Hall is clearly a frustrated player, stating that only being to the playoffs once bothers him. He’s also shown his distaste with the New Jersey fans after they booed the Devils during a failed power play earlier this year. (from ‘Taylor Hall rips Devils fans after latest crushing loss,’ New York Post, 10/30/2019) With this is mind, and that he’s free to choose where to go on July 1, Shero may be inclined to trade his prized forward for more futures, as it looks like the Devils aren’t ready yet.
The most glaring need on the Devils this season is in goal, as neither Cory Schneider nor MacKenzie Blackwood have played well. When the Devils had chance a to win, neither goalie could come up with a save. The package for Hall would certainly have to include a first-round pick and a roster player. The Canadiens could offer their first-round pick this year along with Paul Byron and/or Arturri Lehkonen, and Cayden Primeau.
Primeau would be the main asset going back to New Jersey, and by all indications, he’s a number one goalie in the making. He won the Mike Richter Award in 2019 for outstanding NCAA goalie, along with a silver medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships and he’s started his AHL career with a goals-against average of 1.80 and a .941 save percentage. Not bad for a seventh-round, 199th-overall pick in 2017.
Some may think this wouldn’t be enough to acquire a talent like Hall, but their need for a goalie is so blatant that it could be. Primeau is considered by many to be an A-level prospect, and while Byron and Lehkonen have struggled this season, they are known to be reliable two-way forwards who can chip in offensively.
Never mind that Hall is a UFA at season’s end. This factor may be what deters Montreal, but a sign and trade would be an interesting option.
Jason Zucker’s comments about his teammates and coach after a 4-0 loss to the Habs a few weeks back may be an indication that he needs a change of scenery. They were mostly warranted, as the Minnesota Wild have been on a steady decline for four seasons now, and it’s all coming to a head this season. They are tied for last place in the Western Conference with just 9 points in 14 games and the only forward on their roster worth looking at is Zucker, who’s a proven goal scorer and just 27 years old.
The fact that the Wild are so far from contending and that they have so many bad contracts could be advantageous for Montreal. The Canadiens have eight picks in the first four rounds in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and could pry Zucker out of his bad situation with a second, third and fourth-round pick to the Wild.
This may seem like a lot of picks for one player, but the Canadiens have so many stockpiled that they probably wouldn’t miss them all that much. Zucker is also an immediate upgrade from wingers like Byron and Lehkonen who can help on the power play which has suddenly gone cold (one for their last 15). A deal like this could also have a domino effect, as Montreal would probably have to trade a forward away to make room for Zucker.
An interesting option for the Habs on left defense, Gustafsson put up career numbers a season ago with the Chicago Blackhawks. With 17 goals and 43 assists in 79 games, he was the go-to option on the left side. But like the Blackhawks this season, Gustafsson’s success has stalled, with just 4 assists through 13 games and he has been a healthy scratch. (from ‘Erik Gustafsson latest victim of Blackhawks’ healthy-scratch rotation,’ Chicago Sun-Times, 11/2/2019) Per Elliotte Freidman, Gustafsson’s name has been thrown around in trade talks over the past couple of weeks. What makes him such an interesting option for the Canadiens is that his value has never been lower.
If the Canadiens can put together a package that includes a mid-round pick and a mid-tier prospect, they should have no problem acquiring the defenceman. It may be a risk given his play this season, but Bergevin has never shied away from low-risk high-reward deals. Gustafsson is still averaging just over 19 minutes of ice time this season, and if he can improve to even half as well as he played last year, Montreal may have finally found the ideal candidate to play on the left side of Weber.
Another player of note is Tyler Toffoli in Los Angeles. Rumor has it that the Kings have been shopping him around this season, and Montreal would be a great fit. He’s a right shot and a proven 20-30 goal scorer. At just 27 years old, he would also fit into Bergevin’s youth movement. Either way, the Canadiens should address one if not both needs if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for a third time in five years.