Ranking Canadiens’ Missing Pieces to Stanley Cup Puzzle

The Montreal Canadiens are so close and yet so far away to contending. An inconsistent first half to the 2020-21 season revealed initially the Canadiens’ massive potential and then exposed their shortcomings.

The Canadiens have proven they have the propensity to hang with any team in the North Division on any given night. However, breaking down the season into the 13 multi-game series the Habs have played, they’re 6-3-4, having come out with more points in the standings than their opponents six times, three times having come out with fewer and four times the same amount.

It’s admittedly far from an indictment of the Canadiens’ chances come playoff time (if they make it, which they should by all logic). However, break it down and they haven’t won more often than they have, bringing into doubt how they might fare over the course of a full-length best-of-seven series.

General manager Marc Bergevin has gone on record as saying the Habs are unlikely to make a move come the April 12 trade deadline. Citing the team’s precarious cap situation, Bergevin said in a mid-March media-availability session that defenseman Ben Chiarot’s injury “really doesn’t change anything for us” and “we don’t have any dead money on our roster that we’d like to move” to make room for anybody else.

Marc Bergevin Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sure, the players the Canadiens have in general are useful. However, if Bergevin could hypothetically move out some salary and (be willing to) part with some futures, it’s hard to believe he couldn’t find use for players currently on other teams who would simply be more effective at filling roles on the Canadiens. Here are three:

3. No. 1 Center

Call this the ultimate luxury item that the Canadiens could make good use of, but at what expense?

After some time away, Phillip Danault has seemingly regained his spot between Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar on what would have been the No. 1 line in past years. However, this season, with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi getting more ice time, even more than Danault in the case of Suzuki, it’s more of an offense by committee than any one or two lines. There is no top unit, and, as a result, no No. 1 center, which had arguably been the Canadiens’ top need for literally decades.

That’s still technically true, but Suzuki, despite a recent four-game pointless stretch, has shown flashes of greatness. On pace for over 50 points (in 82 games), Suzuki, who’s just 21, is a realistic heir apparent to Danault, who is a pending unrestricted free agent (alongside Tatar).

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Potentially losing either if not both next offseason is legitimate cause for concern. There’s a sense of urgency in the air, a feeling that, if the Canadiens can’t take advantage now with Carey Price (33) and Shea Weber (35) being as old as they are, the window might slam shut.

However, look at it this way: Even if Danault is not a first-line center, he’d be just the type of player the Habs or another playoff-bound team with hopes of winning it all would want to acquire at the trade deadline. Granted, he’d fit in more as a third-line center wherever he plays, but who’s to say that isn’t where he’s playing right now?

2. Finisher up Front

It’s the current narrative befalling the Habs, that they don’t have that necessary game-breaking talent up front to put games away and push them over the edge. It’s also somewhat of a false narrative.

During the Canadiens telecast vs. the Vancouver Canucks over the weekend, CBC’s Garry Galley relayed how Brock Boeser co-leads the league in third-period goals with seven. How nice would it be for the Habs to have someone with that same level of clutch ability, many might have thought. Well, you don’t have to actually fantasize, considering Tyler Toffoli, who hadn’t been playing Saturday night, has the same amount. For the record, Boeser has just one game-winning goal to Toffoli’s three.

Tyler Toffoli Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli – (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

To drive the point home, the top five game-winning-goal scorers aren’t exactly available via trade: Auston Matthews (7), Mark Stone, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl (6) and Alex Ovechkin (5). In the case of the Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers at least, having their respective superstars in the lineup has far from led to Stanley Cup success. It meanwhile took the Washington Capitals wasting the most productive seasons of Ovechkin’s career to finally reach the promised land.

Furthermore, the Habs own 10 game-winners care of Toffoli and Josh Anderson (three each) and Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher (two). Each are established enough in terms of their reputation and capacity to contribute that it makes one wonder why this is an issue, with the Canadiens having scored a seventh-ranked 99 goals.

Yes, the Oilers have a league-leading 116 markers. However, look at their top two game-winning-goal getters past McDavid and Draisaitl. Like Gallagher and Petry, Tyler Ennis and Jujhar Khaira have two apiece. Who would you rather have? Plus, the Habs are technically within striking distance of the Oilers, five points back with three games in hand.

Ultimately, the Canadiens have the talent to put pucks in the net. It’s just spread out across the lineup to a great extent. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. Granted, it would definitely be nice for the Habs to have an elite talent up front, but they cost money and the Canadiens already have difference-makers elsewhere in the lineup. They’ve devoted over $18 million in net (Carey Price) and on defense (Shea Weber). That’s where the cap space has gone.

At this point, whether investing so much at those positions was justified is moot. It’s about insulating the superstars they do have, who aren’t going anywhere, rather than acquiring another one. To his credit, Bergevin, having acquired Anderson and Toffoli last offseason, seems to have made the most of the situation up front.

1. No. 2 Defenseman Beside Shea Weber

On defense, it’s not necessarily the same case.

In fact, it’s a question almost as old as 35-year-old Weber himself. Who will play beside the Man Mountain… and actually complement him to the point that putting the pairing on the ice won’t feel like a trip on a treadmill on an incline?

Right now, the Canadiens have paired Weber with Joel Edmundson, which feels like a bad Twin Peaks remake more than an effective attempt at counterbalancing shutdown ability with movement up the ice. There’d have to be movement to start.

Joking aside, Edmundson has impressed this season beside Petry. The biggest reason for that? Petry. The second-biggest reason for that? Their contrasting styles. Meanwhile Edmundson and Weber go together like peanut butter and peanut butter and, if that’s what they’re indeed skating in, it shows in terms of their overall performance relative to other Canadiens pairings.

There’s no question, the Habs have made do defensively this season. After all, they’ve allowed a ninth-ranked 28.8 shots per game. Where their deficiencies really come home to roost in on the penalty kill, which continues to struggle under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme (76.4%).

In effect, there’s a case to be made that, if they simply solved their shorthanded woes, they’d be a legit contenders. So, barring a systemic turnaround on that front, who can they acquire that might help solve both issues?

Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm is attractive due to his $3.75 million cap hit and additional year under contract. His all-around ability seems like it would mesh well beside Weber. However, his penalty-killing resume is far from padded, considering the Predators have been horrible on that front in each of the last two seasons, when he has been the most utilized player shorthanded.

Mattias Ekholm, Brett Ritchie
Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm an ex-Dallas Stars forward Brett Ritchie – (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Alternatively, Arizona Coyotes Niklas Hjalmarsson also leads his team in shorthanded ice time year-in, year-out, on what has consistently been a top penalty-killing unit. He boasts a higher hit and would be more of a rental as a pending unrestricted free agent, relative to Ekholm. Even if his offensive numbers aren’t great, his ability to move the puck is arguably much more significant than what the Habs are currently getting from either Edmundson or Weber.

He’s also won the Stanley Cup three times with Bergevin’s ex-team, the Chicago Blackhawks, which shouldn’t hurt. At the end of the day, with Bergevin having won it all as that team’s director of player personnel in 2010 before eventually moving on to the Canadiens, he has some idea of what it takes to win.

They say when you’re putting together a puzzle to start with the corners. Bergevin must recognize this isn’t the time to start cutting them. Sure, he let ex-coaches Claude Julien, Kirk Muller and Stephane Waite go, but that’s proof he acknowledges how critical this season’s outcome is. Failing to follow through would be like running a marathon and falling just short of the finish line.

The saying is to exercise all your options and leave it all on the ice. It’s what Bergevin justifiably expects from his players. Leaving nothing on the (boardroom) table means the exact same thing. If we’re talking the puzzle in question, hopefully it will have been completed by the time the table is cleared. Win or lose, at least the Habs will know if they had what it takes, roster-wise.