The Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs for the third time in four years this season. There were many factors that led to last season’s non-playoff berth (the league’s worst power play, not having a reliable backup goalie and the lack an elite goal scorer), but today, let’s focus on one area in particular where the Canadiens desperately need improvement if they hope to make the playoffs in 2019-20: the defense, more specifically the left side.
Current Left Side Defensemen
When it comes to the right side, the Canadiens are quite comfortable with defensemen Shea Weber and Jeff Petry carrying the majority of the workload. The left side however is where the Canadiens are hurting. During the 2018-19 season, the Canadiens primarily used Victor Mete, Jordie Benn, Brett Kulak and the inconsistent Mike Reilly. Mete is an excellent, smart, speedy defenseman, but at this point in his career, probably not the guy you want on your top line, and none of the other left defensemen are legitimate top-pairing players.
How do the Canadiens improve their left defense in time for the start of next season? The obvious answer is through free agency or a trade. Here are some potential moves Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin could make to help improve his team’s left side.
Free Agent Options
The clear-cut free agent who would instantly improve the Canadiens’ defense is Erik Karlsson. The elite blueliner, who is rumored to be wanting to return to his wife’s hometown (Ottawa), looks to be hitting the open market come July 1.
To lure Karlsson to Montreal, the Canadiens would probably need to offer a contract of six-seven years and up to $10 million per season; a big price tag but the Canadiens have the cap space and if you are going to spend it, it should be on elite talent, rather than depth players (Karl Alzner).
Besides Karlsson, the other intriguing option for the left side is Jake Gardiner. Gardiner has size, shoots left, and has offensive upside, something the Habs could certainly use. The question is, does Gardiner want to go from one hockey crazed city (Toronto) to another? If the Canadiens do convince the 28-year-old blueliner to sign with them, it would cost them around $7 million per season for five-plus seasons.
Targeting Teams With Cap Problems
Last season, Bergevin acquired Joel Armia by taking on the contract of Steve Mason (who they immediately bought out). A cheap (in terms of assets loss) way to help the left side on defense would be for another one of these trades, taking on a bad contract plus an asset to help a team in salary cap trouble. Some teams that are looking to free up cap spaceor are tight against the cap include the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers.
Maybe taking on the contract of Montreal native Roberto Luongo would entice the Panthers to give up on of their blueliners in order to make room for Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Another Montreal native on the Panthers, Mike Matheson, struggled last season but the 6-foot-2 left-shot defender has proven in the past that he can play big minutes and would be an upgrade on the Canadiens’ blue line.
Maybe the Oilers would trade one of their defenseman to free up cap space to help their depth on offence. Andrej Sekera was injured for most of last season and is getting up in age (32), but he does play an offensive game and is a left-handed defenseman. The veteran blueliner would be a nice addition to the Habs’ struggling power play.
Bergevin has earned the nickname “Bargain Bergevin”. It is no secret he loves adding depth players or taking a chance on low risk, high reward players. We’ve seen this move flop in the past (Mark Streit, Alexander Semin, Dale Weiss’s return, etc.) and we have seen many of these moves have great success (Paul Byron, Kulak, Alexander Radulov, etc.).
Recently, the Vancouver Canucks decided not to extend a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Derrick Pouliot. Pouliot, a former first-round pick (8th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2012 Draft) has size, shoots left and showed a high level of skill in junior. Thus far in Pouliot’s career, he has failed to show he can convert the elite skill he showed in junior to the NHL, but he’s still fairly young (25) and has the potential to fill a hole on the Canadiens roster.
The other gamble Bergevin might make this offseason in order to fix his left side is by taking a chance on a player Habs fans are quite familiar with, Andrei Markov. It is reported that the power-play specialist has had some interest from a handful of NHL teams, but it is not clear if the Canadiens are one of them.
Markov is 40 years old and did not have great success in terms of offensive numbers this past season in the KHL. However, it was only two seasons ago that Markov and Weber were a dominant pairing for the Canadiens and the season prior to last season in the KHL, Markov had strong offensive numbers. Either one of these gambles would not cost the Canadiens much. $1 million for one year would probably get the deal done!
There are many ways the Canadiens can improve the left side of their defense. As mentioned earlier, Bergevin is no stranger to making a splash, so Habs fans should expect some sort of big move heading into the draft and free agency. In the past three summers, Bergevin has completed the Weber-Subban deal, the Sergachev-Drouin deal, and the Domi-Galchenyuk deal.
Whether it is by signing a big-name free agent, making a trade with a cap constricted team, or taking a gamble on a low-risk, high-reward type player, the Canadiens will need to improve their left side on defense if they hope to make the playoffs next season.