By Bob Trask – Every team has holes to fill in their line-up but when your team sits at the bottom of the NHL standings, it’s easier to find huge gaps needing to be filled. Take a look at the roster of the Montreal Canadiens and two glaring needs become obvious. One is a center who can take some of the offensive burden off the shoulders of Nick Suzuki; the other is an upgrade on RD. In order to give a clearer picture, let’s break it down by position.
In an ideal situation Suzuki would be the team’s 2nd line center at this stage of his career. He would attract less attention from opponents as they focused on the team’s 1st line center. In this role, he could continue to mature and develop his skills with the goal of eventually becoming the team’s #1 center.
The departures of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phil Danault created a void that Marc Bergevin attempted to fill with Christian Dvorak. Unfortunately he is more to a 3rd line role than a 1st for 2nd line role. Jake Evans was initially slotted for the 3rd line role but has bounced all over the lineup. Ryan Poehling was thrust into mix after an excellent start in Laval combined with a handful of injuries and Covid related absences in Montreal.
Throw in Cedric Paquette, Matthieu Perreault and Lukas Vejdemo into the mixing bowl for good measure.
The result has been a muddled picture with one center suited to a 2nd line role, some to 3rd or 4th line roles, and a couple serving as placeholders until a better solution can be found. Everyone seems to be playing a position that is one level above where they should be.
It may seem strange to begin the discussion of the weakness at RD by talking first about LD. But approaching the topic in this manner serves to bring the entire situation on defense into sharper focus.
Even if Ben Chiarot is traded the Canadiens look relatively deep on LD… maybe not spectacular but deep.
That depth hinges on a return to health for Joel Edmundson. Along with Romanov, the top 4 pairings on the left side would be set with a handful of players with varying experience and skill sets vying for the 3rd pairing job. The names range from Kaiden Guhle to Corey Schueneman with a few others in the mix.
Becaus it would be a 3rd pairing position it would not be the most difficult postion to fill.
The right side is a different story.
Jeff Petry is having a sub-par season. Whether it is because he is in over his head as a 1st pairing defenseman, because he is on the downside of his career or because of other factors is hard to say. Perhaps the best solution, if possible, is to slot him back in on the 2nd pairing
David Savard has also struggled and could maybe benefit from dropping down from a 2nd pairing to a 3rd pairing d-man.
The rest of those who have filled in on the right side have been a mixed cast of characters ranging from low end free agent signings, waiver wire pickups and others. Chris Wideman is the only right shot among the group which includes undersized defensemen whose offensive contributions have disappointed and whose defensive play is sporadic at best.
Filling the Holes
Number one centers and 1st pairing defenseman don’t grow on trees. You can draft and develop them and that takes time or you can trade for them but that costs a king’s ransom in assets. The third option is the UFA market but attracting a free agent to a bottom dwelling team in a high tax jurisdiction is unlikely.
Objectively speaking the Habs have a solid #2 center, a couple of #3 centers and a handful of role players at that position. The situation is similar, if not worse, on RD. In Petry they have a player who is probably best suited to 2nd pairing and in Savard, a player who is probably best suited to a 3rd pairing. The remainder are hopefuls and pretenders.
Adopting a plan to first become respectable again before becoming a legitimate contender, might mean that the team foregoes a search for a true #1 center and a true 1st pairing RD. The alternative may be a situation where the team looks for someone to share those 1st line and 1st pairing duties with Suzuki and Petry.
This approach would allow the responsibilities to be shared rather than relying so heavily on a player not quite ready or not quite suited to the role they have been tasked with.
The change is also subtle. In the case of defense, Montreal wouldn’t be replacing their current 2nd pairing defenseman with one who may be slightly better. They would be adding a 2nd pairing defenseman who would bump everyone down to less demanding roles. The improvement could be greater than than thought at first glance.
While all this is happening the team can continute to draft and develop talent that will eventually fill those hard to replace positions.
In the System
The list of centers in the system that could fill in as a 1B or 2A center is pretty short… in fact, it looks like no one is quite ready. Ryan Poehling seems to be the closest but looks like he best fits as a #3 center. The same could be said for Dvorak. Ideally they would serve as the #3 and #4 centres on the team.
A pleasant development would see Poehling perform over the next couple of months and put himself into contention.
Number 1 or 2 defensemen whose strong side is the right side might be even rarer. Josh Brook may or may not recover fully from his knee injury and if he does, he needs to be worked in on the 3rd pairing before graduating to anything higher.
The short term solution does not seem to be waiting in the system.
The Trade Market
You aren’t going to fill either one of these positions by trading a bunch of spare parts. Any package would have to include current players and/or prospects that you really don’t want to part with.
That means names like Carey Price, Jake Allen, Ben Chiarot, Brendan Gallagher, Tyler Toffoli, Jonathan Drouin, Arturri Lehkonen and Mike Hoffman would have to be in the discussion. Because the position of RD is already weak, it may mean that Jeff Petry’s name would be off the list… unless the Habs were overwhelmed with an offer.
Those kinds of players are more likely to be the targets of Cup contenders or bubble teams. They are unlikely to give up a key piece of their current roster and diminish their playoff chances in doing so. If one or more veterans are traded to fill those two holes, the return would have to be a high end prospect currently playing overseas, in the minors or in the amateur ranks.
The Canadiens may also have to prioritize which prospects they want to keep and which they are willing to include in a trade. For example, there isn’t room for all of Guhle, Romanov, Struble and Xhekaj on LD. Can one be included in a trade if a player of equal talent but at a different position is available.
Any draft picks accumulated would be with an eye on the future… 3 to 4 years down the road.
Perusing the depth charts on Cap Friendly can give you a good idea of the talent that exists at each of the positions.
The UFA Market
Succeeding in this market would required all the powers of persuasion that the Canadiens management team can muster. Selling their vision to a prospective player is a Herculean task given the team’s current struggles and the tax disadvantage of playing in Montreal.
And even success in the UFA market would come at a price. Because Montreal is already tight to the cap, at least one or two big contracts would have to be jettisoned in order to make room for the new addtions.
The same names that were mentioned in the Trade Market segment would apply here. However, if one or two free agents were signed, the focus in any off-season trades could shift more heavily but not completely to draft picks.
This approach is a gamble because opportunities at the trade deadline may not exist in the off season. In addition players that management may have on their list of possibilities could re-sign with their existing club or any other team of their choosing.
For all of these reasons, the Canadiens may favour the trade market as the best way to solidify the team for the short term while allowing the pipeline to develop.
That could begin before the trade deadline and culminate at the draft table. If the management team demonstrates a clear vision of how they wan the team to develop and couple that with astute moves, the Canadiens could become a palatable destination for a free agent or two.
As we wait for the new management team to be name, the possibilities about how the roster will be filled out are endless. Only time will tell how it unfolds.
In the meantime Habs fans are left to speculate about trades, check depth charts of opposing teams, watch the list of pending UFAs and dream about high draft picks.
The Road to Respectability and Success by Bob Trask