Canadiens Earn Mixed Reactions to Gustafsson, Merrill Deadline Deals

If there’s one thing at which Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin excels, it’s polarizing people. Analysts even, with the Habs writers at The Hockey Writers failing to reach a consensus as to just how well his 2021 trade deadline went.

Marc Bergevin
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

By acquiring forward Eric Staal and defensemen Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson, Bergevin certainly didn’t stand pat, but did he move the needle all that much with regard to the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup hopes? Here’s how we individually picked up what Bergevin put down.

Ryan Szporer: Bergevin Acknowledges Need for More Mobility on Defense

Since defenseman Andrei Markov left the Montreal Canadiens back in 2017, captain Shea Weber has arguably lacked the right defense partner on his left side. After an impressive offseason in which Bergevin built up his forward group and further insulated goalie Carey Price with the acquisition of Jake Allen and stay-at-home defenseman Joel Edmundson, that spot has effectively remained empty.

Granted, prior to Ben Chiarot going down with a fractured hand, he had been a relative constant beside Weber for the last two seasons. However, “constant” doesn’t mean “ideal” and, while Chiarot is more fleet-of-foot than Weber, he isn’t in general, leaving the Habs with a 35-year-old Weber to whom they tend to give the most ice time on the team, whose effectiveness at getting the puck out of the zone is diminishing. Hence head coach Dominique Ducharme suddenly trying out traditionally depth-defenseman Brett Kulak in that spot.

Neither Gustafsson nor Merrill are that guy in principle, either. To be fair, Gustafsson is known for his offense, having scored 60 points with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018-19. He hasn’t produced at that pace since and has been healthy scratched by the Philadelphia Flyers at times this season, but, at just 29, he’s hardly on his last legs. Merrill is meanwhile known primarily as a defensive presence with some puck-moving ability. If Bergevin could somehow have spliced their DNA together, maybe it would have matched the Habs’ specific needs. As it happens, one has to wonder if Merrill will provide enough movement to adequately complement Weber or if Gustafsson will get a long-enough leash to do so considering the Canadiens’ spotty track record trusting offensive-minded defensemen.

Ultimately, Bergevin did an okay job, giving up as little as he did (a seventh-round pick for Gustafsson, a fifth-round pick and Hayden Verbeek for Jon Merrill, third and fifth-round picks for Staal). However, with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar hitting free agency this summer, Bergevin simply acknowledging Weber (and Price) can’t move like before may not be enough to capitalize, with the Habs’ window open now. The additions help, but do not give the Habs as much of a boost on the back end that they need to legitimately contend.

Blain Potvin: Bergevin Buys Time for Prospects

Welcome to trade deadline day for the Canadiens where fans say expect the unexpected, but they really expect the team to make a magical leap into becoming Stanley Cup Contenders. The additions of Staal, Merrill and Gustafsson are good for added depth, but they are woefully inadequate to turn a playoff team into a contender. What it will do is buy some time for management, and for the prospects.

Erik Gustafsson Philadelphia Flyers
Ex-Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With a solid prospect core of filled with 18 to 22-year-olds, now isn’t the time to be major buyers. The lineup as composed will need to compete as best as they possibly can for now, develop their youth and wait for the window to open. The lineup, as it is composed now, can play to win. But realistically, this isn’t the team that you spend all your futures on. This edition of the Habs doesn’t realistically have a chance at a Stanley Cup this year. So Bergevin’s job is to buy the youth time and experience until they’re ready for that one major deal that can put this roster over the top.

Melissa Boyd: Bergevin Takes Right Approach Going for Depth

Bergevin didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver at this year’s trade deadline, so it’s not surprising he went bargain shopping for depth pieces. It’s what he tends to do this time of year. Plus, there weren’t a lot of impact players available, and the Canadiens aren’t one or two players away from being Stanley Cup contenders, so this was the right approach.

Depth was needed at center and on defense. The acquisitions of Staal, Gustafsson and Merrill accomplish that. Merrill was playing 20 minutes a game with the Detroit Red Wings and managed to maintain a positive plus-minus rating on a bad team. He’ll stabilize the bottom pair while Gustafsson is a low-risk move that could yield good results and provide more offense from the back end.

Eric Staal Buffalo Sabres
Ex-Buffalo Sabres forward Eric Staal – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The loss of Chiarot has exposed the weaknesses in their defense corps. They’re spending too much time in their own zone and these two new defenders should help move the puck. It’s disappointing the Canadiens lost Victor Mete on waivers without getting an asset in return, but are they a better team than they were a few weeks ago? Yes. Once again they did so without sacrificing their future and still have 11 picks in this year’s draft.

Trege Wilson: Habs Now Have Good Depth on Defense for Playoffs

The Canadiens went into this year’s trade deadline with very low expectations. Bergevin stated due to the cap space he wouldn’t be doing much, then Gallagher got hurt and cap space opened up.

The Canadiens needed to strengthen their defense and that’s what they did, albeit marginally. Merrill and Gustafsson will fit needs the Habs have. Merrill is an excellent defensemen who can move the puck and has a great first pass, seventh in the league in 5v5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Gustafsson is an excellent puck-moving defensemen who can create offense and play on the power play, having scored 10 points in 24 games.

Jon Merrill #15, Vegas Golden Knights
Ex-Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Neither player is the top-four defensemen that is truly needed, but both will improve the Canadiens’ defense in areas that are weak. Gustafsson should be able to complement Weber on hopefully the second pairing and Merrill is an upgrade to the third pair. The Habs now have good depth on defense heading into the playoffs.

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