A 9-0-0 start, a franchise record; it seems so long ago now. After two months of absolutely brutal results, the Montreal Canadiens find themselves five points out of a playoff spot and sinking fast. With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, it may be time for general manager Marc Bergevin to consider throwing in the towel on the 2015-16 season and looking ahead to 2016-17.
Just to be clear, when I advocate for a Tank Job, I’m not going for a scorched earth philosophy. I believe that with the right moves, Bergevin could have this team contending for not just a playoff spot, but for the Stanley Cup as early as next year. The team has core pieces in all-world goaltender Carey Price, captain Max Pacioretty, and winger Brendan Gallagher all signed at below market value. P.K. Subban is a perennial Norris Trophy contender. And youngsters Nathan Beaulieu and Alex Galchenyuk continue to develop into key pieces.
With that in mind what does a one year Habs Tank and re-tool look like? What are the best moves for Bergevin to make heading into the trade deadline and beyond?
One-Year Habs Tank Job looking Like a Reality
This team is much better than their record shows. Prior to Tuesday night’s games, the Habs were one of the top teams in the NHL in shots for per game (4th) and fewest shots against per game (4th). Criticisms that they are a perimeter team are just not true, as they are one of the top 10 teams when looking at scoring chance percentage (7th using hextally). Since December 1st, the Habs have been one of the top teams in the NHL in score-adjusted corsi. Despite that, the losses keep piling up. (all stats via war-on-ice.com)
So what is the issue? Well, since December 1st the Habs are dead last in save percentage and dead last in shooting percentage. With a PDO in the 950s its easy to see that this is a blip on the radar, and that the core of the team is not quite as rotten as some would have you believe.
That said, the record isn’t great and it can’t all be explained away as poor goaltending combined with a long run of bad luck in terms of shooting percentage. Some changes are necessary.
Step One: Shut down Carey Price and Consider Surgery
This season was lost when Price suffered a “lower body injury” on November 25th in a Canadiens win over the New York Rangers. That was a battle between what were then the top two teams in the NHL. The Habs would come out on top, in dominating fashion, but would lose their superstar goaltender in the process. As nice a story as Mike Condon was, he’s no Carey Price, and there has been no replacing the reigning Hart Trophy winner.
The combination of Condon, Dustin Tokarski (now in San Diego, with the Anaheim Ducks AHL affiliate), and Ben Scrivens have provided the Habs with a combined save percentage in the .890s since December 1st. While not the sole problem, the fact is that Montreal is getting the worst goaltending in the NHL right now. That type of production hurts a team trying to win, but it’s just fine for a team looking to tank the season; just ask Tim Murray.
When it comes to Price, he is Montreal’s most valuable asset. He’s been gone for over two months and only recently began skating. When videos of him on the ice are shown, its clear he is still skating quite gingerly. He has not even put on his goalie gear yet. With the way the Habs are playing it seems clear that by the time he comes back they will be too far from a playoff spot for even Price to save them.
Now I’m not a doctor, and I have no idea what Price’s current injury is. However, one can look at his injury history:
- 2013 playoffs – Suffers lower body injury, is forced to miss the remainder of a series against Ottawa
- 2014 Olympics – Plays through a lower body injury, misses time when he returns from Sochi.
- 2014 playoffs – Injured in Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, forced to miss series.
- 2015 season, early November – Injured in Edmonton, misses three weeks.
- 2015 season, November 25 – In his third game back from injury, is re-injured.
The Habs are notoriously quiet about injuries. As such, we only know that these are lower body injuries, and it is impossible to know if there is a recurrence of the same injury or new injuries. Given that, it may be best for Price to do whatever is necessary to ensure that he is ready to go for the 2016-17 season. If the injury is a recurring one, surgical intervention should be considered now, giving Price the maximum time to recover. A healthy Price for all of next year is clearly more important at this point, than seeing him return for a futile playoff push.
Step Two: Trade UFAs
Any tanking team should trade UFAs for future assets. For the Habs that includes Dale Weise, Thomas Fleischmann, and Tom Gilbert. Now they may not be the most sought after players at the deadline, but they do have some value. Adding future assets, prospects, and mid-round picks is important to the team’s future. In addition, freeing up roster space will allow Bergevin and company to evaluate players like Charles Hudon, Sven Andrighetto, Lucas Lessio, Greg Pateryn, Marc Barberio, Max Friberg, Michael McCarron, Jacob de la Rose, and Nikita Scherbak. It is important for the team to know which of these players is ready for the NHL next year, and who needs more AHL time. Knowing what youth can be counted on, and for what roles, will help the team moving forward.
Step Three: Decide who is here long-term, and who isn’t. Trade the dead weight to free up summer cap space.
The Canadiens are a cap team. They also need to make some serious improvements next year. In order to do that, Bergevin must first evaluate what his team has and what they need. The 2014 and 2015 off-seasons have shown that teams can get bottom-six players and bottom-pairing defencemen who are serviceable relatively cheaply. On top of that, the Canadiens issues are not really in those areas, as they have plenty of depth at the bottom of the roster, but the top of the roster needs talent. The top two lines are where you really need to spend a lot of cap space to fill empty spots. Here is a look at what they have going forward:
Top-six Forwards for 2016-17:
Max Pacioretty is a top line left wing. You really can’t argue with a perennial 35+ goal scorer. He’s the captain, he’s on a cheap contract, and he will likely be in Montreal going forward for the foreseeable future.
Brendan Gallagher has improved every year he’s been in the league. He has been injured this year, but is top-10 in the NHL for point-per-game by right wingers. He’s on a good contract and another key part of the core.
Now in his fourth NHL season, it is easy to forget that Alex Galchenyuk is still just 21 years old (though soon to be 22). He’s been brought along slowly, but has been Montreal’s most dangerous forward for long stretches this season. He continues to improve each year. Galchenyuk has been saddled with a various assortment of linemates this season, few of them worthy of playing in the top-six, and it’s time to take the shackles off. The Habs should let Galchenyuk centre the top line with Pacioretty and Gallagher for the rest of the year and see where things go. He has proven himself as a top-six forward, however he must be given the opportunity to prove whether or not he is a number-one centre.
Now to move onto a somewhat controversial choice. Many Habs fans want to see the team move on from Tomas Plekanec. Here is where I disagree. I think that if you want to do a quick re-tool he is a necessary part of the roster next year. Just 33, he still has good years in him. He is the team’s top two-way forward, leading the penalty kill, playing against other team’s top lines, and still providing offensive production as he is on pace for 55 points this year. Even at a $6 million cap hit, Plekanec is good value as a two-way second liner. The Habs will need strength in the middle next year, and so he should stay.
That’s only four players to fill six spots. Quite frankly, that’s all the Habs have right now and that’s the biggest reason they have really struggled to score goals in the last two months. Two more top-six forwards should be acquired (more on this later).
Forwards who need to go
Lars Eller and David Desharnais have both proven that they are not top-six forwards despite the fact that they both have had opportunities in those roles. While either player can be a third line centre for the team, there is two of them and only one spot. At $3.5 million cap hit each, it’s a little expensive to keep them both. Bergevin should put both on the market and see what offers he can get. At least one should be moved to free up space for the necessary additions to the top-six. If there are decent offers on the table, Bergevin could even move both. They can either go at the trade deadline, or in the lead-up to the NHL Draft.
Top-four Defencemen for 2016-17
P.K. Subban is Montreal’s franchise defender and a perennial Norris contender. There should be zero complaints about Subban’s play and zero doubt he is part of this team’s core.
Jeff Petry was Bergevin’s big trade deadline addition last year, and was rewarded for his strong play with a new contract last off-season. He has struggled as of late, but that may be a sign that he isn’t yet 100% after suffering an injury in late December. When he’s on, Petry fits perfectly behind Subban, and anchors the second pairing.
Nathan Beaulieu is another 22-year-old who continues to improve and show signs of being a top-four defenceman. He should be given the opportunity to run with the role. The Habs need help on the left side, and with other holes to fill, they need an internal candidate to step forward and prove capable of handling 20+ minutes per night. Beaulieu has not been perfect, but he has shown signs of being that top-four defender.
In review, the Canadiens have three defencemen capable of being part of their top-four going forward. In assessing what they have, Petry and Subban play the right side, and so a quality left-handed defenceman needs to be added.
Defencemen Who Need to Go
It pains me to say this but Andrei Markov is not the player he used to be. At 37 years of age, his legs are showing their age and he can no longer be a 20+ minute per game defender. He’s still blessed with elite hockey IQ and the ability to put up points from the back end, but the time has come to allow Markov to move on. Allowing the longest serving Canadien to leave Montreal at the trade deadline, in the hopes of playing a powerplay role for a Cup contender (while clearing $5.75 million in cap space for 2016-17), would be best for the Canadiens, and for the player known as “The General.”
Alexei Emelin is clearly a bottom pairing defender, and at $4.1 million he is overpaid for the role. He doesn’t have the skating skill, nor the puck handling and passing ability to play big minutes on a regular basis. It may be hard to do, and in addition to his bad contract, Emelin’s no-trade-clause makes finding a trade partner difficult, but Bergevin must explore any opportunity to clear Emelin from the cap.
Step Four: Areas to address in the off-season, and where to do it.
As seen above, the Canadiens need to add two forwards and one defenceman to the team this off-season. Where do they find them?
July 1st Shopping List:
The departures of Gilbert and Weise will free up some much needed cap space in Montreal. Moving Markov and at least a couple of Emelin, Eller, and Desharnais will free up even more space for some free agent shopping.
The Habs should look to fill one of the forward holes via free agency. Currently scheduled to be available this off-season are: Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Jiri Hudler, Andrew Ladd, Kyle Okposo, David Backes, Loui Eriksson and a number of other quality forward options. This is easily the deepest class of free agent forwards in quite some time, and if Bergevin can clear cap space now, he should be able to lure one of these options to Montreal.
Left-handed defence is a position that will be harder to fill, as options are limited to potential free agents like Keith Yandle, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Goligoski, and Kyle Quincey. Position scarcity could drive up prices here, and trying to fill the spot via free agency is a bit of a risk.
As for filling a third hole, there just isn’t enough cap space to be able to do so in one off-season.
This means that a forward must step up, Daniel Carr has shown signs of being capable but will be unlikely to get additional ice time this season. His knee injury is unfortunate as it prevents Bergevin from being confident that he is the answer as a full time top -ix winger. Figuring out if one of the Habs other prospects can take the role is critical and why finding some NHL ice time for the youngsters should be a priority. Scouring the KHL and other European leagues for the next Artemi Panarin is also an option, while NCAA free agents should also be considered. Finally, trading for a top-six capable player on a cheaper contract (see Jonathan Drouin) has been something that Bergevin has been rumored to be interested in, and for good reason. However, all of these feel like long shots, the same type of longshots that saw the Habs hope one of Alex Semin, Zach Kassian, or Tomas Fleischmann could fill the role this year, and we all saw how that worked out.
And this brings us back to the tank. This draft has at least four NHL-ready forward prospects in Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrick Laine, and Jessi Puljujarvi. With the new NHL draft lottery meaning all teams that miss the playoffs have a chance at the top three, Montreal must continue their descent down the standings to give the team the best possible chance of landing one of these players. Tuesday’s results have the Habs sitting ninth from the bottom of the league standings.
If they can’t get one of those four, they likely won’t be getting immediate help in the draft. That said, defenders like Jacob Chychryn and Olli Juolevi may also be ready for NHL duty next year, but would likely need to be eased into the lineup on a third pairing. Beyond that, players like Alex Nylander, Mike McLeod, Julien Gauthier, and PierreLuc Dubois are excellent forward prospects for down the road.
Still, finishing the tank job and getting one of the four highly-ranked forwards is critical to this team being able to re-tool on the fly.
Step Five: Coaching
Habs fans reacted with disgust when Bergevin announced that Michel Therrien and his coaching staff were safe for the rest of the season. However, when you really think about it, it makes sense. To be clear, Therrien is a dead man walking. I fully expect that he will be relieved of his duties when this nightmare season finally ends. One must consider the timing of his firing though, and how it relates to finding his successor.
One cannot discuss the coaching position in Montreal without addressing the elephant in the room. Like it or not, following the Randy Cunneyworth experience, the next coach of the Montreal Canadiens will be bilingual. You can agree or disagree with the team’s philosophy on this issue, but the fact is that Geoff Molson supports it and it likely isn’t changing this year. For that reason, only bilingual candidates are considered in this article.
Now if Therrien were fired today, that likely leaves Bergevin with two qualified candidates to choose from: Guy Boucher and Sylvan Lefebvre. If the Canadiens wait until the offseason, a large number of additional candidates becomes available. Those could include Alain Vigneault, as his job security is in question with the New York Rangers struggling greatly. Other candidates currently working in other capacities include Benoit Groulx, Andre Tourigny, Marc Crawford, Kevin Dineen, and nearly every coach in the QMJHL. As such, allowing the number of available coaching candidates to be at their peak when the search for the next Habs coach begins is key to finding the right choice.
What does all this mean? Marc Bergevin has a busy time ahead of himself, and there is plenty of work to do. With the right moves and a little draft lottery luck however, the Canadiens can do a quick re-tool and return to a spot amongst the NHL’s best teams in time for the start of next season. Its a huge task, as Bergevin must find a solution to the Habs scoring woes. If he is unable to do so, he could soon find himself joining Michel Therrien on the unemployment line.
And so I ask Habs fans to relax over the next several months, a big ask I know. Remember that every loss today can bring hope for the future and that this team is not nearly as far away from contention as some would have you believe.
Main Photo by Martin Chevalier, Journal de Montreal, Getty Images.