Just last week, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin made a pair of moves to try to help keep an injury-riddled team in the playoff race after they’d come out of the holiday break with four straight losses. He acquired defenceman Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres and signed winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
Four games and four more losses later, Montreal’s season looks like it may no longer be salvageable. They Canadiens have fallen nine points back of the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference with five teams to pass. There may still be nearly half a season to play, but the Habs would have to go something like 26-10-1 the rest of the way just to get to last year’s total of 96 points — which wasn’t enough to make the playoffs.
That would be a drastic and stunning turnaround for a team that is 7-15-4 since November 16.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that Bergevin now has plenty of time to come up with a seller’s plan for the February 24 trade deadline. The bad news is he doesn’t have a lot of obvious assets to sell.
The Habs have six pending unrestricted free agents: Scandella, Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Dale Weise, Matthew Peca, and Keith Kinkaid. Scandella, who Montreal only had to trade a fourth-round pick for, is probably the biggest asset.
Thompson might also fetch a late-round pick, and maybe someone would even take a chance on Kovalchuk for low price too, depending on how he looks over the next six weeks. There probably won’t be any interest in Weise, Peca or Kinkaid.
The Canadiens already have 11 picks for the upcoming draft in Montreal, more than any other team. So perhaps Bergevin doesn’t feel the need to stockpile a bunch more by selling off assets. If he does want to get anything of real value in return, though, he may have to dig a little deeper into his roster than just selling off pending free agents.
Jeff Petry, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Phillip Danault will all be unrestricted free agents after next season. None of those players have particularly onerous cap hits for the calibre of players they are ($5.5 million for Petry, $4.8 million for Tatar, $3.75 million for Gallagher, $3.083 million for Danault).
Were the Habs to make any of them players available, they could probably fetch something more exciting than a mid-to-late-round draft pick, though it would send a message to the fans that management may not see the team contending next year, either.
If that’s the case, fans may wonder if they should consider the nuclear option and just blow it all up.
The nuclear option
In this scenario, they look at trading Shea Weber. Weber’s age (34) and contract (six more years at a $7.857 million cap hit) would make a trade challenging, but given his performance this season, a win-now team may look at him as a difference-maker and decide it’s worth assuming the risk that comes with the final few years of his deal.
If Bergevin thinks the Habs are a couple years away from contending, this is something he should seriously contender. Weber can help a team win now, but who knows how much longer that will be the case, and the Habs aren’t winning right now. His performance this season may be presenting Bergevin with an opportunity to escape from a contract that could become a serious anchor in a few years, when he presumably plans on the Canadiens being a contender.
If Bergevin goes down this route, he should also consider trading Jonathan Drouin. Drouin was playing his best hockey since coming to Montreal before tearing a tendon in his wrist on November 15. He’s signed for three more seasons at a $5.5 million cap hit. His youth, talent, and contract would make him one of the most valuable trade assets on Montreal’s roster. Remember, there were trade rumours surrounding Drouin as recently as training camp.
It’s not all bad though
My guess, though, is that it’s likely going to be a pretty quiet trade deadline for the Canadiens. The biggest move will probably be Scandella getting flipped elsewhere. This may not satisfy a fan base getting restless as the team heads towards a third straight postseason miss, but it’s probably the right thing to do.
It’s worth noting that the Habs’ eight-game losing streak has consisted of six losses by one goal and two losses by two. As frustrating as this stretch has been, it’s not as though they’re getting dominated every night, despite missing several key players. They just keep coming up a bit short.
Bergevin’s spent the last couple of years saying he’s building for the future anyway, and he’s done a pretty good job of that. Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranked Montreal’s farm system the sixth best in the NHL coming into this season.
With those 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including what looks like could now be a high first rounder, it’s primed to get even better. Don’t expect Bergevin to make a reactionary move and blow up what he’s been building.