The Montreal Canadiens missed the 2019 Playoffs by a mere two points in the wild card race. Considering the improvements they made over their previous campaign, 2018-19 was a success and a step in the right direction for the club.
With ample cap space to spare, the Habs look to be in good standing to make some moves this summer, but don’t expect general manager Marc Bergevin to spend, or do, a whole lot–which might not sit well with the fans, but might be the best course of action for this young roster.
A Brief History of Bergevin’s Free Agent Signings
Since taking office at the Bell Center in 2012, Bergevin’s made several desperate attempts over the years to inject the Canadiens with offensive forwards. Names like Alexander Semin, Daniel Briere and, most recently, Alexander Radulov were signed as unrestricted free agents in an effort to add some much-needed goal scoring to the team. None of these names, however, panned out quite like the Habs and Bergevin were hoping, with the exception of Radulov.
Radulov moved onto the Dallas Stars, where he’s continued to flourish playing alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin after a messy breakup from the Habs two summers ago. Without him, the Canadiens offense struggled mightily as the Habs found themselves with the third overall pick in last year’s draft in which they selected Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Bergevin’s last free agent signing, defenseman Karl Alzner, was buried in the minors at the beginning of this season–his second year of a five-year, $23-million deal. Bergevin has thus learned he’s had far more success through trades and drafting players than he has when it comes to free agents. With the Canadiens needing a puck-moving, left-handed defenseman to play with captain Shea Weber, expect this addition to come in the form of trade rather than a free agent signing.
The Canadiens also have to keep in mind that their top defensive prospect Alexander Romanov, drafted in the second round of 2018, will be coming to North America for the 2020-21 season. Signing a big name free agent to a long-term contract, Erik Karlsson for example, might not make a whole lot of sense considering Weber and the unheralded Jeff Petry are locked in as right-shot blueliners within their top-four. Romanov and young speedster Victor Mete project to be the top two left-shooting defensemen for the Canadiens for seasons to come, so patience might be the Habs’ best option here.
A stop-gap defenseman is what the team is likely in the market for. Habs fans would welcome back Andrei Markov for a season with open arms and would potentially be inclined to see the Habs offer Alexander Edler a one to two-year contract. Signing Karlsson or any other marquee free agent defenseman would only force the Canadiens to deal Petry for a less-than-ideal return and wouldn’t solve their left-handed defenseman issue, but only inflate their payroll.
Habs’ Youth Movement In Full Swing
A season ago, the Habs didn’t have any centers. That all changed once Max Domi came to town along with Kotkaniemi, which allowed Phillip Danault to slot into a second-line role. And Habs fans even got to see a glimpse of promising forward Ryan Poehling at the end of the season, who played center in university at St. Cloud State.
Poehling, Kotkaniemi, Domi, Mete and Co. all are under 25 years old and are part of the youth movement that’s happening live in Montreal. Young prospects and smart draft choices, especially in 2018, have given the Canadiens and their fans a lot to be excited about for the future. Less we forget that Nick Suzuki, another young center acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade, could make the team next season as well.
Suffice to say, there’s no longer a center ice controversy in Montreal, nor is there a concern about goal scoring. Now, it’s a matter of finding a defense partner for Weber. Could Mete be that guy? Will we see more improvement from Brett Kulak in 2019-20? Having internal solutions means that the Habs can save their cap space for signing future restricted free agents like Domi and Mete and not find themselves in a salary cap crunch in the future.
Will A Quiet Summer Enrage Fans?
Most Canadiens fans are fully expecting Bergevin to use most, if not all, of his cap space to make the Habs instant contenders for next season. But will a quiet summer only add more fuel to fans’ reasoning to fire Bergevin?
A season ago, Bergevin was on the hot seat. Now, after drafting Kotkaniemi and seeing the brilliance of Poehling and Suzuki at the World Junior Championships, as well as assembling a team that can compete for a playoff spot, he has tremendous job security. An off-season in which he doesn’t make a big splash may only cause more fans to be upset that this club isn’t luring big name free agents to town, but a shrewd spender like Bergevin knows this isn’t the best course of action for his franchise at this time.
The Habs are a team on the upswing thanks to a youth movement taking shape and smart financial flexibility. Bergevin’s learned from his mistakes (Alzner) and knows his strengths (trades), and therefore expect a summer that a majority of Habs fans won’t want to hear: patiently building a team through the draft with no quick fixes, but a primary focus on developing their youth with an eye towards their future success.