A Simple Plan – That May Become Complicated
February 6, 2018
By Grant McCagg
In the joyless world of the pessimistic Canadiens fan, the club is years away from contending and has no young talent or hope.
The fact remains that, with one solid six-month period of trading, drafting and signing, the Habs can be an east contender for the next decade, and that wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t already some solid pieces in place that simply need to be surrounded by the right additions.
There are lots of reasons to be down on GM Marc Bergevin for many of his decisions of the past year, but his main mistake in the trades he made at last year’s deadline was in thinking the club was closer to contending than they were if they only got a bit bigger and tougher. He was under the impression that “character” and a tight defensive system under an old-school coach who was successful with that approach in 2011 would put the team in position to win the east, but the game has changed since 2011, and you aren’t going to win without adequate skill in the lineup, especially at center.
As has been revealed this season, the Canadiens have some holes at top-nine forward and top-four defence. It has become crystal clear even to Bergevin that the club needs more top-line talent if there is any hope of contending for a Cup.
All that said, there is hope, and it will have to start with some shrewd selling at the trade deadline.
It has been suggested by Nick Kypreos that Bergevin is seeking a “top prospect”, first-round pick, second-round pick, and roster player for Max Pacioretty. That may be the case, and it seems like a lot. I wouldn’t be expecting such a return for a 29-year-old player with one year remaining on his contract, and I also don’t think Bergevin truly expects to get it. You start high when negotiating, and settle somewhere in the middle. The key to any such deal is what precisely constitutes a “top prospect”…that can be a fairly wide breadth.
If that prospect were to be Jack Roslovic as opposed to Robert Thomas, perhaps it’s realistic to also be asking for two high picks, as it’s widely believed that Thomas is the better prospect.
Having a higher asking price does give Bergevin some leverage, though. Let’s say the Blues are quite understandably reluctant to trade Thomas, a first, second and roster player for Pacioretty, yet they have a strong interest in adding him as he could be what propels them into serious contenders in the west as a key missing piece.
Bergevin may inform the Blues that they have such an offer in place from another team…such as Winnipeg, and leverage that against asking the Blues for Thomas, a second-round pick in 2018 and a first-round pick in 2019.
Bear in mind that the Blues are going to be reluctant to go into the next two drafts with just one top-62 pick, and that one being in 2019…in addition to losing the organization’s top prospect. That is a major hit on the future even for a club that has drafted well in recent years. They may also be quite hesitant to part with Thomas, but if as the deadline approaches and Bergevin seemingly “acquiesces” and says… “Okay…I’ll settle for Thomas and a first-round pick next draft”, perhaps Blues GM Doug Armstrong makes the difficult decision to surrender a center as talented as Thomas.
Why should the Habs be all in on obtaining Thomas? There don’t appear to be any future first-line centers in the draft, and Thomas well may have more upside than any of those centers, so when the opportunity to get one comes along, one must strike.
Yes…the Canadiens would be settling for less than their supposed “asking price”, but first and foremost Bergevin is looking for the ever-elusive top-two center prospect, and I’m pretty sure the Blues won’t be willing to offer any more than Thomas and a first…if they even offer that.
Another possibility may be Roslovic from Winnipeg, who has been filling in on the top line while Mark Scheifele was injured, and not looking out of place. That likely means that his value has increased, and the Habs may have some difficulty prying a first, second and Roslovic from the Jets. Reality is though, that the Jets are looking for a Pacioretty-type, they are in contention to win the west and perhaps a Cup, they have lots of prospects, and Roslovic won’t be beating out Bryan Little or Scheifele for a top-two center spot anytime soon.
It should also be noted that those picks would be in the late 20’s and 50’s at a minimum. It could well be that Bergevin would also ask for an additional prospect, perhaps Brendan Lemieux, son of former Montreal winger Claude Lemieux. If the Habs would have to throw in another roster player like Benn to seal the deal and add depth to Winnipeg’s blueline for the playoffs when injuries to defencemen always occur, so be it.
As has been mentioned by my cohort Brian Wilde on many occasions, a Pacioretty for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade made a lot of sense, but moreso before RNH’s injury and Edmonton’s freefall in the standings. At this point the Oilers aren’t going to want to add Pacioretty, win a bunch of meaningless games and miss out on a top-seven draft choice. At this point such a deal only happens at the draft or during the summer, and I see Pacioretty being dealt now.
Next up would be attempting to fill the one other major hole in the organization…a top-pairing left defenceman to play with Weber over the next half-decade, and there is one team with a surplus of young defenders who may have interest in adding a veteran winger with jam who could play in their top six in Brendan Gallagher.
Yes…that will hurt a lot of Habs’ fans to see that name being mentioned, but right now his value is at a premium as he is leading the Habs in goal scoring, and I honestly don’t see that ever happening again in future years. The Habs have a bunch of other undersized wingers with grit in Byron, Shaw. Lehkonen and Byron, so it’s not like they would be dealing a player that is irreplaceable. The reality is that the club needs to get bigger up front, and one of those wingers at the very least needs to move, so it may as well be the one that would bring the most value even if he it would be sad to see him go.
To get quality, you have to offer quality, and if the Habs hope to land a high-end left defence prospect they will need to offer a player that most fans would not like to see offered. If fans want him…chances are other GM’s want him, and he would make the most sense as a possible trading chip to pick up a prospect as coveted as Carolina defenceman Jake Bean.
Is he a surefire future first-pairing defenceman? Probably not…but if he was he: a/ wouldn’t be available or b/ would cost significantly more than Gallagher. I do like the prospect of Bean being tutored playing with Weber…we’ve seen how successful he is at taking young defencemen under his wing and making them feel comfortable; I could see Bean being paired with Weber sometime during the 2019-20 season after some developing under a new coaching staff in Laval.
Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, Brett Lernout and Cale Fleury are all right-handed defencemen, so the best bets on the left side to vie for a top-pairing spot are Victor Mete, Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka. There is an obvious discrepancy, with Mete being the only one with top-pairing upside at this point, and even that is a stretch given his lack of finish due to a mediocre point shot. Mete can keep the spot warm for Bean next season if they don’t get a veteran who can fill the position but that will be an offseason priority for Bergevin.
If the Canadiens aren’t able to pick up a young left defenceman at the trade deadline, the other obvious option is to draft Rasmus Dahlin or Quinn Hughes if the opportunity arises. A lot will depend on where the team ends up drafting and whether they land a young center prospect before the draft.
Calgary is another team in search of a goal-scoring winger with size to vault them into a playoff position in the extremely-tight western conference. Calgary sits in tenth place today, but are just four points out of fifth place. Even though the Jaromir Jagr experiment failed it was a clear signal that the club was looking for a veteran winger to fortify its young top-six core, and that hasn’t changed.
The timing may never be better for the Habs to try to obtain Bennett as Pacioretty has eight goals and 13 points in his last 13 games while Bennett has cooled off substantially and picked up just two points in his last 18 games.
Despite Bennett’s disappointing production since being selected fourth overall in 2014 Calgary is still going to be reticent to trade a 22-year-old who was picked so highly less than four years ago, in part because any potential trading partner is not going to be willing to offer a huge return as there remains some question about whether Bennett will ever reach his offensive potential.
The development of Mark Jankowski helps ease concerns with dealing Bennett though, and if the Habs do express interest in Bennett, it may make sense for him to be part of a larger trade that benefits both teams more, and to help protect Montreal against the risk of Bennett not panning out.
Flames defence prospect Rasmus Andersson is on pace for 50+ points in the AHL this season, and considering that Calgary has a pretty solid defence corps with the big club and they also have Adam Fox who promises to be a power play quarterback at the NHL level, Juuso Valimaki is a left defenceman they may be willing to sacrifice in a deal to obtain Pacioretty.
The Habs would listen if Calgary offered Bennett and Valimaki for Pacioretty, and certainly you could not expect the Flames to also include draft picks in such a trade proposal, especially since they don’t have a first-round pick in 2018 after sending it to the Islanders last year for Travis Hamonic. In fact; Calgary might ask for one of Montreal’s second-round picks back, and given that Bergevin is expecting a king’s ransom for Max and looking to add picks instead of subtracting them, this is a deal that may never gain traction if the Flames would want Montreal to add a pick.
Pacioretty to Carolina for Bean, Nicolas Roy and a first-round pick has been a deal that has been bandied about at one point or another, and certainly, if the Habs were to get that kind of return for their captain it would have to be appealing. I’m not certain that the Habs are as high on Roy as a lot of Quebec-based hockey fans are, but at the very least he’d be a popular and effective player in Laval who would bring size to the Habs’ lineup if he ever cracked the roster.
The other main chip likely to be dealt at the deadline is Tomas Plekanec, and the goal will be to try to procure a first-round pick for him, even if it means retaining some of his salary and/or adding another piece, perhaps Jordie Benn if the team that gets Plekanec is also looking for some defensive depth, and that is usually the case for any club heading to the postseason – you can rarely have too much defensive depth.
Who would like a proven third-line shutdown center for the playoff run? It may be a pretty short list if a first round pick is the asking price. Most of the teams at the top of the NHL standings are solid down the middle already, and they are the teams most likely to take on a veteran with one year remaining on a large deal in exchange for a first-round draft pick as opposed to one fighting for a playoff spot that may end up missing and having to send the Habs a lottery pick for a rental player.
Nashville just added Mike Fisher so they won’t want Plekanec; the Blues have some checking centers and no first-round pick; Vegas can’t be expected to surrender a first-round pick in their first year of existence; Washington already got a checking center from the Habs in Eller; Boston has the best defensive center in the NHL in Patrice Bergeron and isn’t in the habit of dealing first-round picks to Montreal; nor is Toronto, and New Jersey is still in rebuilding mode and could easily miss the playoffs…not to mention they are already strong down the middle.
Pittsburgh lost Nick Bonino to free agency…so if there’s a team that may be interested in adding Plekanec it may be the Penguins, but they would likely also want to add a defenceman to help ensure that they make the playoffs. The Habs might look at offering Pittsburgh Plekanec and any defenceman on the roster other than Weber, Mete and Petry for a first-round pick. Seeing that they are the two-time defending champions until they are knocked off they will be a Cup favourite, and Rutherford might find it palatable to give up a pick that could end up being 31st overall again for two pieces that will help them significantly on the way. Defence and a shutdown center are the Pens’ two biggest needs.
This is, of course, all speculation, and no such deal may ever come close to being completed as Pittsburgh might always find another deal. Fact is though, the Habs aren’t likely to get too many bidders for Plekanec willing to sacrifice a first-round pick when so many of them are on the cusp of missing the playoffs altogether with so much parity.
So will Bergevin settle for a second-round pick for Plekanec? Perhaps, but the feeling is that he is worth more. Two second-round picks for a second and a third may interest Bergevin, or perhaps a prospect and a second-round pick. Would a club give up a high-end center prospect for Plekanec? Ideally; that would be what Bergevin would want. I’m not sure that Bergevin will trade Plekanec for just a second-round pick even if he is a rental given that Martin Hanzal just last season fetched a first- and second-round pick at the deadline.
The Habs could likely deal his rights to a club at the end of June that wants to sign him before free agency for at least a third-round pick if they keep him until the end of the season and discover that he doesn’t want to re-sign. Plekanec’s next contract will be for a lot less, so there is always the possibility of re-signing him cheaply to a two-year deal if they hold onto him, and if the Habs are once again out of the playoff picture next season, look at dealing him at that point. He’s not likely to be any less valuable next February; in fact, there may be more teams in a position to offer a first-round pick for him, especially if he isn’t just a rental and is on a decent contract.
Some say the Habs should deal him for a song, and then just try to re-sign him if they might want him back. Fact is…players rarely re-sign with the team that dealt him; it certainly hasn’t happened in Montreal very often. The odds of re-signing Plekanec are much higher if the Habs remain loyal to him and don’t deal him, and then have from the end of the season until the end of June to convince him to re-sign. Certainly…if the interest is low because of parity circumstances and a lack of demand because the teams at the top of the standings don’t really need him…Bergevin won’t dealt him for a mid-round pick just to get rid of him. It’s funny that some of the same fans who denigrate Bergevin for letting a long-time veteran like Markov get away last summer are shouting for Bergevin to deal the team’s longest-serving veteran for peanuts.
It’s not like the Habs have a plethora of centermen ready to replace him. Any that the Habs may pick up in deals are likely to be prospects at least a year way, and all of the ones in the system are still at least a year away from being ready to assume as important a role as the one Plekanec employs.
Ideally, Plekanec is dealt before the deadline, but if he is kept, the above reasons are why, and it’s not the end of the world if he’s still with the Habs in Feb. 27, especially if several other roster players are dealt. I suspect he will go though, and that the return will be something like two second-round picks – the same as Washington gave up for Eller and the Habs did for Andrew Shaw – or a second and a third.
Andrew Shaw, Danault, Benn, Alzner, Schlemko, Jerabek and Morrow will all be available for the right price. For some such as Alzner that price shouldn’t be much. I don’t expect more than one or two of those defencemen getting dealt, but for the right offer pretty much every player on the Habs with the exception of Weber, Price, Drouin and Mete should be on the market.
The Habs may be able to get a third-round pick for Schlemko, Benn or Jerabek. If not…hold onto them. Fourth-round picks rarely make the NHL.
Let’s say the Habs after Feb. 26 having dealt Plekanec, Pacioretty, Schlemko and Gallagher have Robert Thomas and Jake Bean, and head into the draft with two first-round picks, four second-round picks in 2018) and two in 2019), and two third-round picks.
It would be expected that the Habs wouldn’t win a pile of games down the stretch missing three of its key forwards, so the odds of staying in the bottom five for the draft would be high.
The Habs enter the draft with the following top 60 picks:
The Habs select Brady Tkachuk at fifth overall to fill another major need – a top-six forward with size and jam that can provide space for his linemates and be a presence along the wall and in front of the net. It’s been a long time since the Habs had a big, nasty power forward – Shayne Corson may have been the last, and it’s one of the main missing ingredients on this team. Some claim there is a lack of talent on this team, it’s not so much that as a lack of the size/jam combo in any of the talented players. Tkachuk is, in a lot of ways, a 6-3 version of Gallagher
After that, the key move may be to try to move up if Joe Veleno, Isac Lundestrom, Rasmus Kupari or Barett Hayton is still on the board in the 15 range. An offer of the 25th, 36th and 43rd picks in exchange for the 15th overall selection would have to appeal to any club selecting at 15, especially if they are in need of some prospect depth.
This would be the year for the Habs to make such a move as they will have the ammunition. It’s been a long time since the club had two top 15 picks…in fact, you have to go back to 1984 when the club chose Corson and Petr Svoboda in the top ten, and they would still have two second-round picks if they make the deals they are expected to make by the deadline.
The move that would most excite the fan base would be a move up to draft Veleno, given that he is the only Quebec-born player ever granted exceptional status, he’s a native Montrealer and he is quite popular in the province. If the opportunity presents itself, I expect the Habs to try to make such a move.
If a move up is not possible…well…Trevor Timmins still gets five picks between 25-60 to restock the cupboard. The last time Montreal had six picks in the top 60 was 1981, and while there were a few misses among those six one of the second-round picks yielded Chris Chelios. This is one of the deepest defence groups in recent memory, so the odds of the Habs being able to add at least one defender with those five high picks between 25-60 who can develop into a top-four defenceman would be good.
If the Habs can land a Bean at the deadline and draft another future top-four blueliner….it will be tough to argue that there will be few teams with a deeper young group of defencemen – Bean, Juulsen, Mete, Brook, Fleury, Walford, and at least one 2018 top 50 draft pick.
The next step would be to go all-in for Tavares and a left-handed defenceman in free agency, Offer Tavares the maximum, and try to get across to him the potential of the club. Show him the potential lineup in a year or two:
Tkachuk Tavares Drouin
Scherbak Thomas Galchenyuk
Hudon Poehling Lehkonen
Byron Veleno Shaw
15 other guys knocking at the door
6 other guys in the mix
Imagine starting training camp next season with the following centers:
I don’t think folks could at that point criticize the Habs for not having any potential top-two centers, or any depth up the middle. Even if you take Tavares out of the mix…that would be a group of centers 25-and-under that would be deeper than most in the league.
Some might suggest that it would be going overboard on centers, but it’s always wise to load up on them, as they are always valuable to other clubs. Habs fans know all too well how tough it is to find good centers, so if three years from now the Habs have eight or so centers that could be playing in the NHL, some can be dealt to fill holes elsewhere or restock on draft picks. Center is also the easiest position to switch from up front. If you can play center, you can play on the wing, so center prospects that lose out on a top-four position can also be moved over.
Obviously signing Tavares would be the least realistic move of all the above suggestions. He will be highly sought after, and given the tax situation and uncertainty with how good the club will be along with media pressure, Bergevin shouldn’t be banking on that happening.
If the Habs don’t sign Tavares there are plenty of options for next season as long as the Habs manage to land Thomas or Roslovic and he makes the club. Drouin could certainly stay at center, and Scherbak and Tkachuk would be strong candidates for top-six positions to fortify the talent along with Thomas.
It would be tougher to contend next season if a top-four UFA left defenceman isn’t signed as a free agent or obtained in a trade. That being the case, true contending may be another year away at that point, and that’s not the end of the world as this team, if it is retooled properly, is going to be extremely strong in a couple of years. There are pieces in place, and there are pieces that can be added if Bergevin plays his cards right.
Bottom line – a pure rebuild is not necessary with this club…it’s not nearly as dire as some are suggesting. Contrary to popular opinion, Montreal under 25 core is pretty solid..and by the end of the draft I expect it to be among the deepest in the league.
It promises to be fun – perhaps even for the joyless.
Excellent article that sets up some nice dream scenarios. Let’s hope some actually come true.