With an April with no hockey, fans of the Montreal Canadiens have inevitably turned their attention to the off-season. It goes without saying this is an important off-season for the Habs. The team is at a crossroads. Whether you are a fan of general manager Marc Bergevin or not, he needs a strong off-season to get the team back on track – and save his job. Most people can outline the best case scenario for the Habs in the off-season. Get lucky in the draft lottery and a few key free agent signings and the Canadiens are right back in the mix. Unfortunately, all of these things are out of Marc Bergevin‘s hands. Sometimes things don’t go your way. It is in this light that the people should also prepare for a worst case scenario Montreal Canadiens off-season.
Canadiens Off-Season Worst Case Scenario
Marc Bergevin has a big job ahead of him this off-season. With his team missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, his job is not exactly on solid ground. While the path to a successful Montreal Canadiens off-season is fairly easy to follow (more on that later), the Habs do not have a ton of success at “winning” the off-season.
For this exercise, there are obvious ways in which the Habs have a worst case scenario off-season but I wanted to keep it realistic. Obviously, the worst case would be if Bergevin traded the Habs lottery pick for a sixth-round pick while signing Kevin Bieksa and Kyle Brodziak to big money contracts.
The first important date Canadiens fans have marked on their calendars is April 28th. On the 28th the NHL will hold their draft lottery that will determine the NHL draft order.
The NHL draft lottery odds have the Canadiens with a 9.5% chance of jumping up to the number one pick. The consensus overall number one pick is Swedish defenceman, Rasmus Dahlin. He is the prize according to the experts. Dahlin would definitely fill a huge need on the Canadiens. That is the dream scenario that all Habs fans want. But, this can go another way.
The odds say the Habs are probably going to pick fourth overall. The team should get an elite prospect either way. Unfortunately, the Canadiens can slip further down as well. What if the Canadiens fall to their lowest possible draft position, seventh? Ok, let’s be clear a top ten pick is always a good thing, so picking seventh isn’t a terrible thing, but it is the worst case for the Canadiens in the draft.
Worst Case: Falling To Seventh
So dropping from four to seven would mean the Habs are (likely) to miss out on top prospects like Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina and Brady Tkachuk. Still, there are some good prospects left to take. The Canadiens should be in a position to draft one of the following prospects; C/W Oliver Wahlstrom, C Joseph Velano, LHD Adam Boqvist and LHD Quinton Hughes. Getting one of those prospects will be a good thing for the Habs to help replenish their shallow prospect pool. There is also RHD’s Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson. While both are strong prospects, the Canadiens do have (some) depth on the right side of their defence. With so many needs, the Habs should look to improve other areas before stocking up at one position.
While any top ten prospects will help the organization, chances are if the Canadiens fall to the number seven pick, that player will not be ready to help the team this season. If the Habs were in some kind of rebuild, it wouldn’t such an issue but the Habs are not rebuilding. That is what makes winning the lottery so invaluable. Dahlin is the most pro-ready player in the first round. On the Habs, if he comes as advertised, he would have no issue slotting into the Habs top defence pair with Shea Weber. Unfortunately, winning the draft lottery is completely up to chance. Again, while falling to seventh won’t ruin the team, it would be the worst case scenario for the Canadiens at the draft.
Free Agency: Centre
In free agency, there is one ultimate prize and that is John Tavares. As of right now, Tavares is scheduled to be a free agent. There is still a chance he re-signs with the New York Islanders before free agency starts on July 1st. But, let’s assume Tavares hits the open market, he is an elite centre in the prime of his career. Teams will be lining up to get his signature. Tavares absolutely fits THE glaring need on the Canadiens. The Habs have been without a true number one centre since Pierre Turgeon. So the Habs need Tavares, but Tavares doesn’t need the Canadiens.
Unfortunately, the depth at centre in free agency drops significantly after Tavares. Even more unfortunate is the Canadiens desperation to upgrade at the position. Without a solid plan, the Habs could end up making themselves worse. And if we are being honest, it’s not as if Montreal has had much success in luring top-end free agents to play with them.
One thing that needs to happen is Marc Bergevin needs a plan of attack in free agency. Last year, Bergevin did not have a plan B in his negotiations with Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov and it cost the team this year. So let’s assume (or hope to god) he has learned his lesson and has a backup plan in case Tavares signs elsewhere.
Who Is Available
There are a number of players that could fit the bill for the Canadiens because their depth at centre is by far the worst in the NHL. Paul Stastny, Joe Thornton, Tyler Bozak and Valtteri Filppula would all be significant upgrades to what the Habs currently have on the roster. The dangerous part of free agency is that you tend to overpay in both dollars and years for a player because of their market. This is where the Canadiens can get into some serious trouble.
Unquestionably, the consolation prize for those teams that miss out on Tavares, is Stastny. He has the best-combined pedigree and age of the lot. He is 32 (will turn 33 in late December) and has several impressive seasons under his belt. The thing is, with multiple teams interested, Stastny will come with a high price tag. Sometimes, people can become obsessed with a name they recognize and ignore their overall value. And, with a closer look at Stastny’s numbers, signing him might be the worst thing the Canadiens can do.
If the Habs miss out on Tavares, they might be wiser to sign a tandem like Bozak and Filppula to short digestible contracts. Both would still be an upgrade but they would not eat up too much of the salary cap and can’t command long term. They could act as stop gaps until prospects like Ryan Poehling are ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Joe Thornton would be the best of both worlds, still able to play at a high level (netted 36 points in 47 games this year) but would not command a long-term contract (he is 38). The tricky part is luring him away from San Jose – a contender – to the mess in Montreal. Thornton will probably only look to improve his opportunity at a cup, so Montreal is probably a long shot.
Worst Case: Sign Paul Stastny
Stastny would command a five or six-year contract in the $7M per year range. Adding this contract would put the Canadiens even more in a win now mode. If not, in two years this contract will look like an anchor.
Stastny’s time in Colorado was very productive as he topped 50 points in all but two seasons (which were cut short by injury). Apon his move to the Blues, Stastny has only topped 50 points once, this year – split between St. Louis and Winnipeg. He also has not scored more than 20 goals since the 2013-14 season. While stats aren’t everything, it is something to consider. Stastny would, without question, become the Habs best centre but it would come at a hefty price. The Canadiens already have several players over 30 signed to big money contracts. Adding another would put the team in cap hell. Especially for the production, or lack thereof, Stastny would bring.
Free Agency: Defense
A new glaring issue on the Canadiens roster is the need for a mobile puck moving defensemen. They also need someone to play on the left side next to Shea Weber. Ideally, the Canadiens would love to win the draft lottery and select Rasmus Dahlin. The reality of that happening, however, is slight. So the next avenue to explore is free agency. Again, as of right now, there is one top end defender available in free agency, John Carlson. While Carlson does play on the right side so he might not be a perfect fit next to Weber, the talent is too great to ignore. Carlsson probably has maximized his value on the open market with a strong season. He scored 15 goals and 67 points while logging 24:49 TOI.
Like Tavares, however, there will be a lineup of teams looking to ink the American blueliner. And like the Tavares situation, the Canadiens can’t be left picking from the bottom of the barrel again if they miss out.
Unlike the centres, there are some other strong options for the Canadiens to consider. The biggest name would be Jack Johnson. Johnson is definitely on his way out of Columbus after he asked for a trade this season. Johnson is a good skater and strong puck mover. Like Carlson, he plays on the right side, which is not where the Habs need their help. However, unlike Carlson, Johnson is entering free agency on a down note. He only netted 11 points and had 19:29 TOI. Johnson was a healthy scratch for the Blue Jackets entire playoff series loss against the Washington Capitals.
Other names available are Toby Enstrom, Mike Green and Calvin de Haan. All would help the Habs with their puck-moving ability and speed. All also come with some warts on their game. Tobias Enstrom was a premier puck-moving defencemen in his time, but at 33 his skill is slipping. While still playing on the Jets second pair when healthy, Enstrom had a TOI of 17:01. In 43 games this season and only amassed six points.
Green will be several teams fall back once they miss out on Johnson and Carlson. Like Enstrom, Green was a premier offensive defenceman in the NHL, but at 32 his skill is waining. Still effective for sure but not at the level he once was. He is also a right-handed shot, which the Habs don’t have a need for.
Calvin de Haan is a very intriguing player available in free agency. Still only 26 and left-handed, De Haan is a good puck moving defensemen that fits all the Habs needs. His age and potential will also mean that there will be several teams will be lining up to sign him. If the Habs are not on Carlson’s short list, they would be wise to quickly turn their attention to the Islanders defender.
As the KHL season wrapped up, KHL players and free agents can look to make a return or jump to the NHL. One such player is Slava Voynov. Voynov had his contract with the Los Angelis Kings voided and was sent back to Russia after a despicable domestic violence incident in 2014.
Now, it seems Voynov is seeking an NHL return. In a report by Russian news outlet Sports-Express, there are several NHL teams interested in Voynov, including the Montreal Canadiens. While the reports of the have been disputed – it could just be that Voynov is interested in playing for Montreal and the team has not expressed interest – being associated with Voynov is not a good look. While the Canadiens can’t control a player form expressing interest in playing for the team, it would be smart to get out ahead of this and outright deny interest.
Worst Case: Sign Jack Johnson
Weather Jack Johnson’s drop in play is due to his skill diminishing or issue with Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella the Habs cannot take the risk in signing him. While he is a big name, that name will likely come with many years and dollars attached to it. The Canadiens can’t add another ageing defender to a blue line that already includes Weber, Karl Alzner, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn and David Schlemko. All will be over 30 once the season starts.
Johnson would be interesting if the Habs could sign him to a one or two year deal, but that is unlikely. Johnson will be seeking a long-term deal for big money. He is also a right-handed defenseman, which means he (probably) wouldn’t pair with Weber on the Habs top defensive pairing. Johnson would be a big name singing for sure, but one that would not solve many of the Habs issues.
Worst Case Part Two: Sign Slava Voynov
This seems extremely unlikely as there are several hurdles to jump. While his contract was terminated by the Kings, they still hold his rights. The Kings have already said they are not interested in bringing Voynov back. On top of that, the NHL would first have to rule him eligible to return. If the League does reinstate him, the path gets a bit easier. Kings general manager Rob Blake has stated several teams have inquired about Voynov status.
If Marc Bergevin is desperate enough after missing out on the NHL free agent defensemen, it’s not that hard to see him make this move. He had success bringing back another former NHL problem child, Alex Radulov. Radulov definitely came with some baggage. Although to be clear, Radulov’s baggage is nowhere near the same level of Voynov’s.
Putting aside his obvious talents as a defenseman, bringing a player with this kind of baggage could really turn the fanbase and media against the Canadiens and who knows what it might do to an already fragile team. It’s a PR nightmare the Habs would be wise to avoid.
The Max Pacioretty Situation
When it became obvious that the Montreal Canadiens were not going to make the playoffs, it was reported by insiders that captain Max Pacioretty available. Pacioretty is a proven goal-scorer on an extremely digestible contract ($4.5M cap hit) through 2018-19. The thought was the Canadiens could trade Pacioretty and address some areas of need on the team. Unfortunately, no trade could be completed by the trade deadline.
Now in the off-season, most don’t expect Pacioretty to be back with the Canadiens come training camp. Pacioretty, for his part, has said his desire is to stay in Montreal but he know’s that it is out of his hands. This might be the most important decision of Marc Bergevin’s off-season. He needs to decide whether or not to extend Pacioretty or trade him. It’s a difficult position for the Habs general manager. On the one hand, extending Pacioretty will likely see the winger command around $7.5M per season. On the other, trading Pacioretty now would not garner a big return as his value is probably at its lowest.
Worst Case: The Whole Situation
This situation seems like a no-win for the Habs. Pacioretty’s value lies in his production versus his salary. Right now, apart from this year, Pacioretty was a perennial 30 goal scorer earning $4.5M, which is one of the best bargains in hockey. Extending him would diminish that value. Pacioretty has earned a raise to be sure, but is it in the Canadiens best interest to give it to him? Coming off his worst season as a full-time NHLer, the prospect of hading over a long-term contract worth (around) $7.5M per season seems dangerous. Pacioretty is better than his 17 goals and 38 point season last year to be sure, but can the Canadiens afford to sign him long term? Pacioretty’s play will no longer be seen as a value and will crossover into being overpaid.
The Canadiens are deep on the wings, and extending Pacioretty does not address any of the team’s issues. So it would seem that trading Pacioretty would be the best thing to do. Unfortunately, his value is probably at an all-time low. He is coming off his worst season and due for a raise. Teams looking to acquire Pacioretty will not be willing to part with too much. They will either see him as a season-long rental or will need to extend him. So the Habs are stuck trying to move Pacioretty at a diminished value. Either way, the Habs are probably going to lose on this one.
In Marc Bergevin’s season-ending press conference there was a lot of talk about attitude. While most of it was directed at the players, it will be interesting to see if the general manager has a new attitude as well.
His past actions in the off-season show a manager that likes to make low-risk signings. Almost every year he attempts to address one of the Canadiens issues by signing an ageing NHL veteran for one season, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.
Daniel Briere, Alexander Semin, Mark Streit and Ales Hemsky were all brought in at one time or another as a cheap quick fix that didn’t pan out. It will be interesting to see if Bergevin has learned from any of this. If the Canadiens can’t land Tavares or Carlson, he can’t then just work the fringes of his roster and hope an ageing veteran has one last season left in the tank.
It’s The Worst
It’s easy to see the path to making the Canadiens competitive this off-season. Winning the draft lottery and signing a few key free agents and the Habs should be right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference. The problem is, in the free agent era, the Canadiens have struggled to sign key free agents. While not impossible, the Canadiens only have a 9.5% chance of moving up, so they will need a lot of luck.
The worst case scenario’s outlined here probably won’t happen – at least not all together (I hope). But, it’s not hard to see a situation in which embattled Habs general manager Marc Bergevin might make a desperate singing in hopes of saving his job. Moves made out of desperation rarely end up working out well. That’s the fear. Signing players based on their past performance to a long-term large cap hit contract. It’s nice to sign a recognizable name but if their best play is behind them, singing them long term is not how to fix things. In a salary cap world, that can ruin a team for a long time.