A year after finishing atop the Atlantic Division, the Montreal Canadiens will miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. They’re one of the league’s lowest-scoring teams and among the worst defensive clubs.
Injuries to key players, such as goaltender Carey Price and defenseman Shea Weber, contributed to the Canadiens’ decline in 2017-18. However, general manager Marc Bergevin bears the brunt of the blame. His inability to address the Canadiens’ weaknesses was the main reason behind their poor performance.
A number of unhappy Canadiens followers want Bergevin fired. But on March 17, Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette reported team owner Geoff Molson confirmed his embattled GM will remain in his job after this season.
Addressing the Canadiens’ problem areas won’t be easy. They desperately need a proven first-line center, along with an additional scoring forward and another top-four defenseman.
Rather than rebuilding, Bergevin intends to retool the roster in hopes his club will bounce back next season. That should rule out any possibility of Price and/or Weber being shopped this summer for young players and draft picks. It could also mean winger Alex Galchenyuk – a fixture in the NHL rumor mill since last season – stays put.
The same cannot be said for left wing Max Pacioretty. The 29-year-old Canadiens’ captain was frequently mentioned as a trade candidate leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline. With Pacioretty a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, Bergevin could peddle use him this summer in hopes of adding a younger scoring forward, preferably a center.
Bergevin also has depth in draft picks to draw upon as trade bait. The Canadiens have four second-round selections in this year’s draft, as well as two fourth-round picks and two fifth-rounders. Bergevin could perhaps target a team that’s low on draft picks in an attempt to pry away a decent player.
A rising salary cap for 2018-19 could also work in Bergevin’s favor. Cap Friendly indicates the Canadiens have over $62.3 million invested in 21 players. With the cap ceiling projected to rise to between $78 million to $82 million, the Habs GM could have between $16 million to $20 million to work with for next season.
That additional cap room could enable Bergevin to make a big splash in this summer’s unrestricted free agent market. Forward options could include New York Islanders center John Tavares, San Jose Sharks left wing Evander Kane, Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk or Vegas Golden Knights forwards James Neal and David Perron. Notable free-agent defensemen include the Washington Capitals’ John Carlson, Detroit Red Wings rearguard Mike Green and the Islanders’ Calvin de Haan.
Bergevin could also consider making deals with cap-strapped clubs looking to free up salary-cap room for next season. The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings could become trade targets.
The Canadiens GM could also target clubs that barely miss the playoffs or suffer early postseason exits. If the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild or St. Louis Blues fail to clinch or get bounced from the opening round, they could be open to significant roster changes.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Canadiens reportedly expressed interest in Kings forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson and Wild center Charlie Coyle. Perhaps Bergevin will revisit those discussions this summer.
Bergevin could also look at perennial non-contenders, such as the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers, as possible trade partners. He could ask the Sabres if they might consider getting out from under center Ryan O’Reilly‘s big contract. Perhaps young Coyotes winger Max Domi might benefit from a change of scenery. Maybe the Panthers might part with forward Nick Bjugstad or promising center Henrik Borgstrom.
Much of this, of course, is easier said than done. Despite having salary-cap space, depth in draft picks and a valuable trade chip in Pacioretty, Bergevin still has big holes to fill in the Canadiens’ roster.
The easiest task for Bergevin could be determining Price’s backup for 2018-19. He could re-sign veteran Antti Niemi, who did a fine job filling in for Price during the second half of this season. Call-up Charlie Lindgren also showed promise in the backup role.
Bergevin could also look within his system to bolster his roster. Defenseman Victor Mete looked good until his rookie campaign was ended by a fractured finger. Blueliner Noah Juulsen has shown potential in his late-season call-up. Winger Nikita Scherbak could also get more playing time.
Bergevin probably doesn’t have a long leash here. If the Canadiens fail to significantly improve in 2018-19, he could be unemployed by midseason. His fate and that of his club rest upon his decisions this summer.