Division winners, seventh in the league in points, third in shot attempt differential, fourth in goals against. You’d think a team with all those accolades would be thought of a lot more highly than they are. But behind all the nice numbers is a team that’s traded skill for size (with a bad contract to boot) too many times to call it a one-off. Couple that with an imbalanced roster and a complicated cap situation, and you have real reason for concern. Let’s take a closer look at the Montreal Canadiens to see what makes this team so polarizing, and what they can do to fix it moving forward.
Here’s a rough depth chart of the Canadiens roster though the lens of the catch-all statistic Game Score:
The Canadiens are obviously strong on defense and in net. Say what you want about trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, but the team is still getting it done, thanks not only to Weber but the continued excellence of players like Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry. And the group is deep, thanks largely to the trade deadline acquisitions of Brandon Davidson and Jordie Benn. In net of course, the team is led by Carey Price, who’s probably still the league’s pound-for-pound best goalie. Al Montoya is also a serviceable back-up.
Forward is more polarizing though. While the team has some excellent players like Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, and Alex Radulov, it’s concerning how many minutes players like Phillip Danault, Andrew Shaw, and Paul Byron get. Oddly, Game Score actually considers all three of those players top-six forwards. But the team still came 15th in the league in goals for this season, and players like that getting the minutes that they do is still a big reason why. And it isn’t that players like Danault, Shaw, and Byron aren’t good — it’s that they’re core pieces of their forwards unit.
Center is a particularly concerning aspect of the team. Tomas Plekanec took a giant step backwards this season, and looks like he’s in the twilight of his career. David Desharnais was useful for a few good years in Montreal, but he bottomed out this year, and was traded to Edmonton. That leaves players like Danault and Shaw, who realistically should be your middle-six centers at best, to play with players such as Pacioretty and Radulov on the top line. So while the team has good players, and decent depth to boot, it’s the lack of star talent at the center-ice position that’s the major glaring hole on this roster.
Here’s another rough depth chart of the Canadiens roster, this time with their salary information included. The team has roughly $24-28M in cap space heading into the offseason.
Behind a lot of cap space is a situation that’s going to require some careful crafting from GM Marc Bergevin over the next couple of summers.
In terms of this year, the team has to take care of contracts for Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu. They also need to see what they can do around Radulov, who’s an important player on the team, but also a soon-to-be 31-year-old unrestricted free agent, which muddies the situation. Lastly, a contract extension for Carey Price needs to be prioritized as well. A new deal for him figures to carry a cap hit of at least $8M, which will further complicate their cap situation going forward.
Then there are other issues. In the immediate future, players like Tomas Plekanec and Alexei Emelin have cap hits that may be too high for Bergevin’s comfort. In the medium term, Bergevin will need to prepare for next summer, when he should look at extending Max Pacioretty, another big deal for the team. And in the long-term, in spite of their usefulness, the years remaining on deals to Shaw and Weber figure to eventually give the team some headaches. Luckily, Bergevin doesn’t have to worry about that right now. But it’s something to keep in the back of his mind.
All in all then, the team has a fairly good cap situation in terms of space, however, a myriad of complicating factors will likely give the team some (manageable) headaches.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
If you could take the Habs roster exactly as is and insert a center with 60+ point potential, you’d have a strong contender in the Eastern Conference. And the team may even have the pieces to do something like that, with seven first/second-round picks over the next two years, and a decent collection of prospects that includes Mikhail Sergachev, Nikita Scherbak, Noah Juulsen, Michael McCarron, and Charles Hudon. If those assets aren’t enough, though, they’ll need to subtract from the main roster, which would be an unfortunate but worthwhile blow.
In fact, it’s the Habs’ overwhelming need for a top tier center that makes trading a player like Alex Galchenyuk a potentially smart move. People would make fun of the team if they ever did it, saying they gave up on him. But swapping him out and bringing in someone like Matt Duchene, while bumping Artturi Lehkonen into the top-six, almost assuredly makes the team better. And because of the age of several of the Habs’ key pieces, like Weber, Markov, Price, and Radulov, the team needs to see what they can do to win today, not tomorrow.
But aside from the team’s necessary search for a center, they have some more general housekeeping to do this offseason too.
First of all, the team is in a decent spot in the expansion draft. With only seven forwards even really worth protecting (and one of them a UFA), the team doesn’t have to worry about losing valuable scoring. In net, protecting Carey Price is a no-brainer. But the team will probably lose a useful defenseman. They could protect Weber, Petry, and Beaulieau, with 38-year-old UFA Markov unlikely to be taken as well. That means the team probably loses Emelin, or possibly Davidson or Benn. And if they protect eight skaters total in order to protect more defensemen, they likely lose a good forward such as Gallagher, Danault, or Shaw. So either way, the team loses someone good. Luckily it would only be a minor loss in the grand scheme of their roster.
At the draft, Montreal has a first round pick and two seconds. That gives them good flexibility to either bolster their prospect pool, or look at making a meaningful improvement to the main roster via trade. Again, Bergevin should keep a close eye on potential centers available, as free agency is a slimmer group.
But they still could look at signing a center. It’s a weak group though, so there are only two main options at the center position for a team looking at a meaningful upgrade: Joe Thornton and Nick Bonino. Neither are ideal, as Thornton’s turning 38 and took a big step back this year, while Bonino is really only a similar-level player to Danault or Shaw.
The Habs are one of those so close, yet so far away teams. They have almost all the pieces of a true contending team. But they’re missing one major piece, and it’s possibly the most valuable and hardest to acquire. So in simple terms, when it comes to this summer, Marc Bergevin has his work cut out for him. If he can get the job done, the Habs could put together a serious drive for 25 Stanley Cups. If not though, the team will still be good — just not good enough.
Previously in this series…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins, 12. Ottawa Senators, 11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues, 9. New York Rangers, 8. Edmonton Oilers