Montreal Canadiens Missed Their Chance To Add Top Six Winger

The Montreal Canadiens had a strong regular season this year, and followed it up with a trip to the second round where they fell in a hard fought six game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning eventually made it to within two games of winning the Stanley Cup.

On the surface, a lot of the credit for the Canadiens great regular season would go to the heroics of Carey Price. The further you dig, the more it becomes obvious that Price was not just one reason for the Habs success, he was the reason they had any success at all.

Price grabbed a record amount of hardware at the NHL Awards, getting his name etched on the Hart, Vezina, Jennings and Ted Lindsay Awards. The Canadiens get a lot of credit for being a strong defensive team, due to the fact they allowed the least number of goals this season. However, their 30.1 shots against per game ranked 21st in the league, showing Price cleaned up a lot of messes on his own.

Montreal also ranked 15th in the league in shots on goal and 20th in the league in goals in the regular season. They had an extremely difficult time scoring goals in the postseason as well, aside from the first two games when they faced Andrew Hammond of the Ottawa Senators.

This suggests that even though the Habs had a great regular season, and played well against the Lightning in a second round series loss, they still had holes to fill in the lineup. They patched up the blue line by retaining Jeff Petry on a six year contract with a $5.5 million annual cap hit. They still need to find a way to upgrade their scoring up front.

With Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec, the Habs have four players locked into their top six. Assuming Galchenyuk finally makes the move to center, Montreal would be in the market for a second line left winger and a top six right winger this offseason. It will be difficult to add both in one summer, especially when the Habs only have about $7.5 million in cap space, and still need to re-sign Galchenyuk who is a restricted free agent.

However, with the flurry of trades that accompany the draft, and the opening days of free agency in the rearview mirror, the Canadiens only acquisition has been Zach Kassian. The rugged right winger showed promise of being a top six winger in his Junior days with the Windsor Spitfires, but hasn’t put it all together at the NHL level. At least not yet. At 24 years of age, and having scored 10 goals in 42 games last season, it’s possible Kassian becomes a second line player for the Habs, but he appears to be a bottom six winger at this point.

Even the trade for Kassian, which sent Brandon Prust to the Vancouver Canucks and also landed the Habs a 5th round pick, appeared it could have been setting Montreal up for something bigger. The deal saves $750,000 off the cap for the Canadiens next season, and coupling that with the P.A. Parenteau buyout, Marc Bergevin has opened up just under $3.5 million. However, he had sent an offensive winger away for nothing, and it appeared he may use the open space to fill that role.

Habs Strike Out In Free Agency

There were definitely options to use the saved cash and upgrade the Canadiens top six. However, the choices seem to be growing slimmer that the Habs land one of the available offensive forwards.

The Washington Capitals got a steal through free agency when they signed Justin Williams to a two-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3.25 million. Bergevin often talks about players that get you to the playoffs, and players that get you through the playoffs. Montreal has had no problem getting there, but keep hitting a brick wall when it comes to trying to score goals in the postseason.

Justin Williams
Justin Williams (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Williams has earned the moniker “Mr. Game 7” for his clutch heroics in postseasons with the Los Angeles Kings and Carolina Hurricanes throughout his career, including winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2014. It appears he would have been a perfect fit for the Canadiens, and had they offered him just two years with a cap hit of $3.5 million, which is exactly what they saved by buying out Parenteau and trading Prust, they would have topped the offer that landed him in Washington.

The Capitals weren’t done there as they landed another player who could have been a great fit for the Habs next season by trading for T.J. Oshie. Washington sent rugged winger Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley and a third round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for the talented right winger.

Copley is an underrated 23 year old prospect, coming off a very strong season in the American Hockey League. However, the Habs could have easily matched the Caps offer by dangling Zach Fucale, a third round pick and a rugged third line winger. If there’s anything the Habs have far too many of, it would be grinding third line wingers and they could easily have spared Dale Weise, Devante Smith-Pelly or even Kassian if it meant they were landing a first line winger like Oshie.

Michael Frolik also would have been a great fit on the Habs. He is an exceptional two-way right winger, and signed a five-year, $21.5 million deal with the Calgary Flames on the opening day of free agency. It’s a bit of an overpayment, but Frolik is a possession driving winger who chips in about 40-45 points per year and is an excellent penalty killer. As an unrestricted free agent, you have to overpay a little bit, but you don’t have to give up any assets other than cap space, and the Canadiens could have fit Frolik in with a $4.5 million cap hit.

Trading for Ryan O’Reilly, Phil Kessel or Brandon Saad who were all dealt between the draft and July 1 would have been a little too pricey for the Canadiens, both in the number of assets it would take to land them, and in the amount of cap space that they would take up next season.

Bergevin shouldn’t be faulted for passing up on Kessel, Saad and O’Reilly, but Williams, Oshie or Frolik would have made the Canadiens a much better team next season. If the Habs go into next season with the same roster, other than swapping out gritty fourth liner Prust for gritty third liner Kassian, where are the goals going to come from?

Sharp Available, But What’s Left In Tank?

With the number of players to choose from dwindling, the Canadiens must have turned their attention to Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks. Another strong two-way winger, Sharp could fit nicely on the left side of Tomas Plekanec, but then again, at 33 years old and coming off a 16 goal season, does Sharp have enough left in the tank to live up to his $5.9 million contract with two years left on it?

Whatever your opinion is on Sharp, it’s obvious that it will be much more difficult to land a top six winger now than it would have been at the draft or through free agency. The best free agents still on the market come with huge question marks like Alex Semin, or are aging veterans with questionable offence like Joel Ward or Eric Fehr. These are fine depth NHL players, but the Canadiens have all kinds of depth players, they need to add a top tier talent and these types of players are difficult to acquire.

There was a window in the past two weeks where a few of these players were available, but it appears the Habs have come up empty handed. They could count on players from within the organization and though Charles Hudon had a solid rookie AHL season last year, it’s a bit much to expect him to be a fine second line winger next season.

There are other skilled young players in the organization like Nikita Scherbak or Michael McCarron, but they haven’t even played a pro game yet. Much like Hudon or even Sven Andrighetto, it may be too early to expect McCarron and Scherbak to play in the top six.

It is starting to look like the Montreal Canadiens opening night lineup will be very similar to the one they used in the recent postseason.

Price was the first player to bring home the Hart, Vezina, Jennings and Lindsay Awards in the same season. He might have to be the second one to do it next year if the Canadiens are going to have the same success they did this year.