The Montreal Canadiens are closing in on a last-place finish in the standings for the 2021-22 season. Nothing is guaranteed though, in terms of the first-overall pick at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.
If the Canadiens do lock up first overall, the choice is clear: Top-projected prospect Shane Wright. In fact, if the Canadiens do lock up one of the first few picks, there are a few options at center beside Wright that should help them rein in their issues at center, with their depth down the middle having taken a serious hit last summer following the departures of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault.
What happens if a worst-case scenario is realized though, and the best player available is no longer a center? Well, for starters, the Canadiens likely select a right-handed defenseman, with Shea Weber “retired,” and Jeff Petry realistically on his way out via trade.
Related: Canadiens Still Have Lot to Look Forward to as 2021-22 Ends
Then they hopefully pursue a center via free agency. According to reports, general manager Kent Hughes is prepared to be aggressive on the market, and there’s obviously no position that needs more attention than at center. Here are the top free-agent options in 2022, in decreasing order of how good of a fit they are with the Habs:
If the Canadiens do really want Wright (and they should), they can theoretically go straight to the source in Patrice Bergeron, after whom the prospect models his game. Add in the fact the top two-way center is a former client of Hughes and it becomes clear Bergeron is set to become the next great Canadiens captain.
Of course, he is going to be 37. He’s also a career-long Boston Bruin, which is where his allegiances probably in the rivalry between the two teams. Even if he is from Quebec… but, like Quebec City, Quebec, where he grew up a Quebec Nordiques fan. So, did anyone run this master plan by him? Probably not.
On the plus side, Claude Giroux is “just” 34. However, there’s also a good chance he signs for more money than Bergeron, not necessarily because he’s the superior player (he’s not), but rather because Bergeron is likelier than not to accept a “hometown” discount to stay with the Bruins.
Giroux already got traded by the Philadelphia Flyers and is primed to move on, probably to a high bidder. There’s no potential Canadiens hometown discount at work here, even if only because Giroux is originally from Ontario.
Of course, Giroux was nevertheless a Canadiens fan growing up. He also does speak French fluently (in case there was a doubt), which would address concerns surrounding the lack of French-Canadian talent on the Canadiens. You’d think anyway.
Ultimately, Giroux would be an upgrade on native sons like Mathieu Perreault and Cedric Paquette, two centers ex-GM Marc Bergevin signed last offseason. Ironically, even though they’re each depth centers, neither was able to do very much to address the lack of depth at center. In principle, Giroux would.
However, he’s also never won a Stanley Cup (up until this upcoming offseason), despite having come close in 2010. Would he pass up the opportunity to sign with a contender just to live out a potential boyhood dream to play with the Canadiens? Maybe, but the sad reality is not many local players decide to play for the Habs if they have better options.
Giroux has every right to pursue potentially his last big paycheck, wherever it takes him. Considering the lack of cap space the Canadiens have right now, it’s unlikely to be Montreal.
There might have been a time when potential suitors for Nazem Kadri’s services felt the need to weigh the pros and cons of signing him to a long-term deal. That time came and when once once he hit 70 (and then 80) points for the first time in his career this season. Ultimately, if you’re not convinced Kadri is at least a good free-agent option at center, you’re living in denial or a Toronto Maple Leafs fan (or both).
Of course, with his career year will come a career paycheck. True, with Petry theoretically on his way out of town, that would free up some space ($6.25 million). And, while that space may go a long way to perhaps securing a signee like Giroux, it might only make a dent in any contract Kadri signs, seeing as he’s only going to turn 32 by the start of next season.
Will Kadri end up making good on whatever dollar amount for which he signs? Likelier than not no, but he will provide some value. Not as much as he has for the Colorado Avalanche at his current $4.5 million cap hit, but some.
Call Chris Tierney Plan B in this scenario (if not C, D or even E). At the opposite end of the spectrum relative to Kadri, you’ve got a center who hasn’t produced up to expectations in a contract year (or even the last two years).
At one point, Tierney was 0.5 point-per-game player, which may not sound impressive, and it isn’t really, but it’s kind of what the Canadiens have already in Christian Dvorak. As a result, the Habs would just likely be able to sign Tierney for much less than Dvorak’s less-than-ideal $4.45 million cap hit. Like much, much less.
The downside is Tierney’s production has fallen off a cliff in recent seasons. After having been acquired by the Ottawa Senators in the Erik Karlsson trade, he scored a career-high 48 points in 2018-19, but has notched just 18 points in 2021-22.
Tierney is 28, so it’s not like his game is going to reach another level, but there is a chance he regains some of his scoring touch in the right situation. Or you resign yourself to him producing at current levels and sign him as a third-line center, as he is known for his two-way game, to take some of the pressure off the likes of Dvorak and Nick Suzuki.
Tierney’s not the sexiest option here, but he wouldn’t be a bad one. Just not the best one either, not by a long shot.
That would be Vincent Trocheck, who’s consistently proven himself capable of providing secondary scoring on both the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers. And, while it’s natural to assume he’s simply been the beneficiary of favorable deployment on stacked teams, his career-best 75-point season came in 2017-18, when the Panthers missed the postseason (and he outscored Jonathan Huberdeau).
Obviously, these days you’d take Huberdeau over Trocheck, but you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you get what you need, and, in a 29-year-old center coming off a 20-goal (48-point) season, the Canadiens could conceivably find a relatively affordable, offensively inclined option (with defensive awareness) to potentially drop Dvorak down to the third line.
Trocheck is admittedly slightly undersized (5-foot-10, 183 pounds), so it’s not 100% the perfect situation. But it rarely is when you explore the free-agent market. Ideally, the Canadiens secure the first-overall pick and draft a center, taking advantage of the cost certainty that comes with an entry-level deal for the next few seasons. However, it’s at least reassuring to know other options exist, push come to shove.