By Bob Trask – Speculation is rampant about the directions the Montreal Canadiens will take under new executive VP Jeff Gorton and his soon to be named general manager. Terms like rebuild, reset and tank fill social media posts but those are simply buzz words that attempt to simplify the complex situation ahead.
There is a desire among many for the team to quickly become a Stanley Cup contender as they look longingly at arch rivals like the Maple Leafs and the Bruins. But trying to take shortcuts often comes with a price. The first step is making the team respectable again while keeping an eye on the future.
One school of thought is that the Canadiens are close. The opinion of this group is that the core should be kept intact. Only one or two holes need to be filled with proven veterans and voila, they are back in the hunt.
There are a couple of problems with that approach.
The Canadiens are already tight to the salary cap and productive veterans don’t come cheap. The accounting gymnastics required to make it work would be beyond challenging.
The second problem with that approach is that it quickly makes the Habs an old team. You aren’t going to acquire a solid player in his prime without giving up a lot in return so the alternative is picking up a player or two who may be still productive but approaching the downside of their careers.
This approach may make the Habs respectable for a year or two but it hardly makes them a contender and shortly thereafter the chickens come home to roost.
The second approach that is advocated by many is to purge the team of veterans, give up on the season and attempt to pick up a high quality draft choice like Shane Wright who will quickly put the team on his shoulders can carry them to glorious new heights.
We only need to look at Buffalo and Edmonton to see what dangers that approach brings. Young players, even very good ones, need time to develop and become solid contributors. The exception can be made for generational players like Connor McDavid but even with his super-human talents the Oilers have struggled.
The Likely Path
The approach that Gorton and company may follow, and some would say hopefully follows, is a measured approach. Attempt to achieve a level of resepectability (playoff contender) in the short term but not by resorting to a team laden with veterans.
The longer term goal would be to have the team develop an identity, build on that and continue to improve.
With this approach some of the veterans would be kept for their on ice contribution, their ability to mentor younger players (leadership), their potential for the near future. They would provide and envrionment that helps to insulate the younger players from some of the pressures of playing in the NHL.
Others would be traded to fill holes with younger player and/or to continue to build the prospect pipeline.
Also under heavy consideration would be the extent to which a veteran’s contract limits the team from attracting or retaining key pieces that may be critical to long term success.
A further look reveals that there are players who aren’t ideally suited to a team struggling to return to respectability but who may be a piece that a legitimate Cup contender covets. A contender may be willing to pay more than market value in an attempt to add that missing piece.
The overarching theme in this transformation is the identity envisioned by the management group. Under Marc Bergevin the team seemed to built on the premise the big, physically intimidating defensemen were at the core of the team’s success. From all reports, Gorton prefers a team that plays an up-tempo game.
The Trade Situation
We’ve all come up with our own scenarios – trade players A, B & C for players X, Y & Z along with 1st round picks, 2nd round picks. These ideas include proposals to retain salary or not along with other considerations.
There is always a thirst for draft choices but in reality draft picks are long shots unless they are high picks and even then the results can be mixed. And trading known assets for draft picks sends a message that you are willing to wait a long time for those picks to bear fruit. An already impatient fan base could become even more restless in that situation.
The truth is that if an NHL player is traded by the team they must already have a potential replacement in the organization or acquire someone with that potential from that trade or another. Sorry folks, simply stockpiling draft picks is not going to do it.
Predicting the Moves
Other than the much discussed potential of a Ben Chiarot trade the picture is fuzzy to most observers at this point. There is a lot of speculation but beyond that specific names are almost impossible to identify. However, some general logic can be applied and we can each draw our own conclusions from that.
The Habs may consider moving players for a variety of reasons. A opposing team may be looking to acquire a missing piece and be willing to pay a hefty price. The player may be on an expiring contract which makes him more attractive to an acquiring team and less attractive to the Canadiens. The team may have too many similar type players at one position. The Canadiens may want to clear cap space. A player may not fit into the style of game that managment is striving for. And some players on the downside of their career may let it be known that they would like an opportunity with a Cup contender.
It seems apparent that the Habs would love to add more offense at center and a first pairing defenseman, preferably one that can play the right side. What complicates the trade predictions is that any assets acquired in the first trade may change what the team is targeting in subsequent trades. If the first trade yields the sought after defenseman, for example, the management team may want to focus on potential centers if additional trades are to be made.
The road to success runs through the step of becoming respectable first. It’s not straightforward and a lot of choices will have to be made along the way. When the new GM for the Habs is named and the trade deadline approaches we will get a better idea of exactly what path the teams chooses to take.
Let the dominoes begin to fall!
Decisions To Come On Defense by Bob Trask